Incidents from the life of a Lebanese-American artist—each of them vivid, passionate, and briskly told—that still never quite cohere into a unified whole.
The problem is Alameddine’s (The Perv, 1999, etc.) narrative strategy: she tells her protagonist Sarah’s story in a succession of first chapters, variously labeled “Chapter One,” “Title Page,” and so on. The early chapters tell of Sarah’s life as a girl in Lebanon and her parents’ traumatic divorce. Her father, a physician, married a bright, attractive woman who gave birth to Sarah and her sisters but failed to produce a boy. She is effectively discarded, and Sarah’s father remarries. The family endures the agonies of war in 1970s Beirut, a time and place depicted with compelling, fluid authority, while Sarah’s stepmother chills the house with her severe, restrictive personality. Sarah makes her way to the US, attends college, and marries. When she discovers that her sister Lamia, now working as a nurse, has been causing the deaths of patients, Sarah returns to Lebanon to help the family cope with this awful development. The scene is compelling, as are the letters Lamia has written to her birth-mother, and yet, like many of the incidents here, it remains at a distance from the development of the central character. Sarah divorces, remains in the States, achieves modest success as an artist, and, while living in New York, attempts to reconnect with her embittered mother, who suddenly commits suicide—in a moving section that carries its deep pathos well. Sarah realizes in conclusion that she can best be known through her network of family and friends: good advice, perhaps, but not, at least here, the most rigorously cohering means of telling a life story.
Lovely prose and vividly evocative scenes, though Sarah resists emerging whole from them.
OCTOBER 7, 2016
NOT LONG AGO, I was talking to my friend Ben, a 25-year-old gay, Latino man. He told me that he only knew one person who was HIV-positive. This was most interesting to me. Actually, it was astonishing. In 1993, when I was 25, I had known at least 20 men in my circle who were HIV-positive, and I had experienced several AIDS deaths already.
When AIDS was introduced to the world in 1981, no one knew that it would go on to claim the lives of over 30 million people all over the globe. Even though men, women, and children would succumb to the disease, it was (and is) riddled with the stigma that it was the disease that killed faggots. After all, before we knew it as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), it was known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). In the last few decades of the 20th century, AIDS left many gay Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers in a state of shock.
I know gay men who no longer talk about that period in our lives. We went onto other movements: save young queers from committing suicide; let gays fight in the military; marriage! And we do need marriage. Now the focus (finally) is on the transgender community and their fight for equality.
Many from that time may have new men — actually we may even be able to call them husbands now — and the memories of the ones we lost, the ones we loved, may creep upon us on World AIDS Day or in a long forgotten photo album or when we realize that there should be those who lived long enough to see this day when most Americans don’t hate us anymore.
Then there’s Ya’qub, or Jacob, the compelling protagonist of Rabih Alameddine’s new novel The Angel of History. Jacob, a San Francisco–based gay Arab poet, is a man haunted by the events of his life. He could never let go of the lovers and friends who died of AIDS. On the verge of madness he spends time talking to his dead lover, Doc, a man who died 20 years ago.
The Angel of History is a remarkable novel, a commentary of love and death, creativity and spirituality, memory and survival. It opens with a conversation between Satan and Death — already a tip-off that this book will be exploring challenging themes. Satan, Death, and a slew of saints force Jacob to remember his complex, colorful life.
He spent part of his childhood in a Cairo brothel with his mother, a hooker with a heart of hope:
We lived in a house with other women who came in all colors and cultures, and like the brothel’s furniture, came in all shapes and sizes, my lovely aunties, short and tall aunties, white and black, voluptuous and boyish, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Uzbek, Indian, Yemeni. Most of them, my mother included, sat around in a daze under the hanging lamps, spent half their time in hope and half in waiting, waiting for a miracle that never visited, waiting for something or someone to fly them out of their adopted life.
Eventually, Jacob’s father takes him away from the brothel, staying long enough to deposit him into a Catholic orphanage. His father hopes his Muslim son will be taught sophistication among Western nuns. Jacob gets an education, but also experiences abuse so bad that he has to leave for Europe to find the medical help he needs.
This material alone would make an interesting novel, but for a writer like Alameddine, this almost serves as mere backstory. Where the novel becomes brilliant, where it hits an emotional nerve is when Jacob recalls his lovers and friends lost to AIDS in San Francisco.
I was feeling deathly depressed and lethargic, spiraling downward, eddies of crappy water whirling down the drain, all of you dead, couldn’t force myself out of bed, under the covers I remained, you were no longer there to lift my spirit or the duvet with the pink oleander design, which I once found strikingly beautiful but no more. I found so little beautiful, as each of you became sick, as you died, one by one, I could see nothing but black. Your physical absence was soul-crushing.
The depths of despair Jacob enters is heartrending. If it weren’t for Alameddine’s gift with language, and his ability to present Jacob’s wounds in such a poetic manner, the novel could have been unbearable.
Jacob is a perfectly nice man, a respected poet by all accounts. He might be the writer invited to a cocktail party for his brilliance and affability, but he’s also known to be melancholy. His audience may wonder what happened to make this creative genius such a downer. Like many gay men of a certain age, he’s marked with grief, yet has found a workable life. Speaking to his dead lover Doc, believing his love’s spirit visits from time to time, Jacob says:
I had a life since you left, I still worked at the same tedious law firm, I made perfunctory friends, on Wednesdays I had lunch with the other four word processors at the firm, I did yoga on Monday and Thursday nights, meditation on Tuesdays, I went to art openings, I hovered in the back of bookshops at poetry readings, I watched bad television shows with soporific gay characters that were supposed to represent me. I was living, I thought I was content, I was told I was happy.
Still, there was the Plague, that shell-shocking, post-traumatic stress causing plague that upended lives, families, whole communities.
AIDS was a river with no bed that ran soundlessly and inexorably through my life, flooded everything, drowned all I knew, soaked my soul, but then a soaking, a drenching, was not dying, and I swam, floated when I could and I thought I had triumphed, only to discover years later that the river’s persistence, its restlessness trickled into tiny rivulets that reached every remote corner of my being.
This remembered life brings back the time of a society that did not side with gay people when it came to family matters. When Jacob’s lover Doc dies, Doc’s mother claims all of their belongings and sells them. When Jacob reports her, the police side with her. This may sound unbelievable to some millennials today, but this was fact in the last century. (Indeed, this became part of a rallying call for the purpose of gay marriage: we should not lose our property to our partner’s biological family because the family we created was illegal.)
For those of us who think that gay life is somehow in the clear because we have an over 50 percent approval rating, let’s not forget the target of hatred has only shifted elsewhere. For gay Arab Americans, there is no letting up. Jacob muses to Doc again:
Homos, homos, homos, kill, kill, kill, fags, dykes sting ’em, smite ’em, there, there, we feel much better, but now we’re gay-married in the armed forces, so al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda, al-Quaeda, kill, kill, kill, hamas, Ayatollaw, bomb ’em, bomb ’em, I’m so tired of all this, Doc.
Alameddine’s writing veers into stream of consciousness, though not in a rambling sense. The structure of the book is intriguing as we’re led in and out of conversations with Satan, journal entries, and some of Jacob’s own creative writing. But it can also feel disjointed, and I was halfway through the novel before I felt comfortable with it. Structural issues aside, I forgave all when I read the ending. It’s a beauty.
Earlier in the novel, Jacob is furious that younger queers have forgotten their history, screaming, “All AIDS books are out of print because of you…” And when I turned the last page, I thought, at least we have The Angel of History, an AIDS book that will hopefully re-enliven the genre.
Noel Alumit wrote the novels Letters to Montgomery Clift and Talking to the Moon. His website is www.noelalumit.com.