The title story of the collection The Perv (1999) by the (Druze) Lebanese-American engineer turned MBA turned abstract painter turned edgy writer Rabih Alameddine (1959-) has something or another to shock pretty much every reader, if not from the get-go by its later twists and turns. As in his first novel, Koolaids (1998), Alameddine moves from the childhood civil war in Lebanon that he experienced to the slaughter of gay men by HIV/AIDS. (The relationship to either of these historical calamities is indirect in the title story, however.)
I really want to leave the very provocative title story, which is also the opening one and the longest one alone, and not to push my interpretation of it, but feel I have to provide some information about it. So, I’ll say that it centers on a relationship forged in impersonation over the Internet… without specifying who impersonates what, OK? According to the author, the “story is about self-creation, self-delusion, and the absurdity of human interactions. The idea that we know whom we are interacting with is in many ways a protective illusion.”
I hope that “The Perv” is entirely a work of imagination! Other stories have more autobiographical feel, starting with “The Changing Room,” one of my favorites. In it, the narrator recalls being shipped off to an English boarding school (“public school”) from devolving Beirut, ca. 1976. The Arab boy in a very inhospitable (social) climate has a champion in the form of Miss Collins, a teacher of English, and he excels in English even while being persecuted for not being English. Eventually, he triumphs offstage, sort of like the go along to get along master in Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief” (which is not to say the narrator went along with the lethal injustice sanctioned by the school).
The formidable title character of “My Grandmother, The Grandmaster” does not suffer fools gladly. The “grand master” part refers to her skill at chess, a game Lebanese women are not suppose to play, let alone excel at. Though disapproving of her daughter having eloped with an unsuitable mate (when the daughter was 14 and her husband 29), the multilingual matriarch is pleased by her grandson’s interest in books in English and encourages him. Eventually, her apartment is desecrated (there is not other word for it) during the civil wars. Later, the narrator’s father disinherits him (“he did not approve of the subject of my books”) and his mother left him. The grandmother, now 80, “has the gumption to critique my writings,” which is not much of a surprise, since gumption was something she never seems to have lacked.
“A Flight to Paris” involves another matriarch, the recently widowed woman sitting next to the narrator on an Air France flight from Beirut to Paris. The narrator has lost a lover in a relationship of 22 years duration, Tom, to AIDS and reluctantly tells her that, because she is dismissive of her own son’s love for another man. That puts very bluntly what is a very subtle, artful construction.
I think that “Grace” is probably a fictionalized memoir of a graduation gift of a week’s stay at a sanatorium, in Karlovy Vary. We could call it a “spa” instead of a “sanatorium” -and he denies he needed to lose weight-, but that’s still not what many 18-year-olds want, and the narrator would have preferred a car. Someone else there has not only a car but also a driver and recruits the narrator to go on a chandelier-buying binge. The story is very funny.
The story with a female painter narrator, “Whore” has its mordant humor, too, but she shares the concern of the male narrators of other stories with trying to figure out her place in the world, or, more pressingly still, her place in her own family. “Whore” reaches from Beirut to Prague in some absurdist though not especially Kafkaesque ways.
The book ends with elegiac memories of a cousin who was the narrator’s childhood intimate, but who remained in Lebanon and married, “Remembering Nasser.”
I’ve skipped over the short bursts of “Duck.” I guess it’s too “experimental” a collage for me, though obviously attempting to confront AIDS death as one among other absurdities. Daffy Duck is another, and a remembered childhood duck hunt still another. Other stories have the equivalent of jump cuts, but this one is too fragmentary and scatter-shot for me to appreciate. I’m quite willing to blame myself rather than the author for this failure.
After reading the book, which is, unfortunately and undeservedly out of print, I happened on an interview in which Alameddine responded to a question about how the fighting in Beirut affected his life: “I think the any question about war should be: How did it not affect you? It permeates every corner of my life. I can’t seem to write about anything else. The war taught me how to deal with impermanence, how to sharpen my sense of the absurd, and how to function in a chaotic world. Wars and disease bring one closer to mortality. But whereas with disease, especially terminal illness, you can always delude yourself into believing the situation, your life, is controllable, it is impossible with war.”
In the same interview, he said “I credit readers with a level of intelligence and empathy that is higher than the general population. I may be mistaken, but assuming that readers of literary fiction can empathize with characters not of their everyday experience works for me.” The question was about Arab characters (in a post-9/11 America), though surely applies as much to gay ones.
Alameddine has published two more novels since The Perv:
I, The Divine (2001) and The Hakawati (2008, “hakawati” means “story-teller”).
And this is one in a series of reviews of disaporic Arab writing in English or French, including Leaving Tangier and Salvation Army.