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Of Lions and Storytelling
By Wail S. Hassan
I, THE DIVINE: A NOVEL IN FIRST CHAPTERS
New York : W.W. Norton, 2002, 308 pp.
Like his first novel "Koolaids: The Art of War" (1998), Rabih Alameddine's second novel uses formal experimentation to reflect on the Lebanese Civil War and immigration to the United States . The plots of both novels are non-linear and fragmentary, structurally reflecting the ravages of war and the shattered lives of the characters. In both novels, as in Alameddine's short story collection "The Perv" (1999), the theme of violence dovetails with AIDS, death, sexual identity, racism, and homophobia along the trajectory of migration.
"I, the Divine" is more conceptually and structurally ambitious than the first two books. It consists of the protagonist Sarah Nour el-Din's interminable attempts to write her life story. She discards draft after draft of the first chapter and starts anew at a different point in her life or the lives of family members and friends. Her restless abandonment of each draft is matched only by her determination to start again, alternating between first- and third - person narration, novel and memoir, English and French. The "novel" as such consists of a string of repudiated versions of the first chapter, although the aggregate effect of the whole is no less successful than any linear novel at painting a lively picture of the protagonist from childhood to middle age and of those around her.
Born to a Lebanese father and an American mother, Sarah was named by her grandfather after the "Divine" Sarah Bernhardt, whom he idolized. This choice of name helps explain the protagonist's crippling perfectionism as she strives to live up to the example of her legendary namesake. Sarah's persistent re-starts eventually make her a successful painter, albeit a failed writer. Her success and failure at creative self-expression are far from gratuitous: she is much more at ease with abstract painting than she is with words.
"Like his first novel'Koolaids...,' Rabih Alameddine's second novel uses formal experimentation to reflect on the Lebanese Civil War and immigration to the United States ."
It eventually becomes clear that her difficulty with narration is the result of a horrifically violent episode in her life that she struggles to confront in at least three chapters, one of which is written in French: her abduction and gang rape during the total breakdown of law and order in war-torn Beirut . It is not until two-thirds of the way through the novel, and only in a fictionalized third-person rather than the autobiographical first-person voice, that she manages to narrate this event. At that point, things begin to fall into place: her chronic depression, her broken relationships, her inability to help the dying AIDS patients whom she volunteers to counsel, her restless wanderings from San Francisco to New York to Beirut and back again, and her obsession with storytelling coupled with total rejection of canonical narrative genres, from fairy tales to realistic fiction ("Count Leo Nikolayevitch Tolstoy lied"), to popular romance (a whole shelf of first edition Danielle Steele novels is ripped apart by a ricocheting sniper's bullet in Beirut). For Sarah, these narrative genres, with their ideological assumptions about order and final resolution, cannot possibly contain her experience.
Nor can the memoir or the Bildungsroman. (Title pages interspersed throughout advertise her projected work alternately as "a memoir" and "a novel"). Based on the ideology of individualism, these genres cannot accommodate the kind of knowledge that Sarah acquires, namely, that she is the sum of her relationships. Toward the end, she describes the glorification of rugged individualism as hypocritical ("the rigorous practice of rugged individualism usually leads to poverty, ostracism and disgrace"). In the final chapter, provocatively yet appropriately titled "Introduction," she has an epiphany while watching a PBS program about lions. When a young male ousts the aging head of a pride of lions, takes possession of his females, then proceeds to kill his predecessor's cubs, Sarah is horrified; but then she decides that the pride as a collective outlasts each member, and that this is perhaps the way to think about individual identity. In thus allegorizing the behavior of lions, the novel neutralizes the problem of violence, with the perhaps unintended effect of normalizing patriarchal coercion. This solution is philosophically and ethically problematic, albeit psychologically understandable as a trauma victim's repression of painful experience. Recovery in a psychoanalytic sense would have led her to see war and rape as effects of patriarchal violence. The lion story provides a convenient "closure" to the narrative (insofar as any can be envisioned) by allowing Sarah to rationalize her crisis of authorship, which encodes her crisis of identity. However, the implicit acceptance of patriarchal violence deepens instead of resolves the trauma.
Neither in "Koolaids" nor in "I, the Divine" does Alameddine shy away from major philosophical questions, although some of the answers suggested are less than satisfactory. Yet like the best of Anglophone Arab and Arab-American writing, "I, the Divine" subverts dominant discourses, ideologies, and sanctioned narratives in Alameddine's case, teleological narratives of progress and development; of self-confident knowledge of, and discursive mastery over, other, particularly Arab, cultures; and of individualistic becoming and self-realization. In this brilliant, sophisticated, and highly original work, Alameddine succeeds in enacting that subversion on the level of form and narration, drawing attention all the more effectively to readers' expectations cultivated while reading established genres, which sometimes reveal themselves to be woefully inadequate for expressing what Edward Said once called "discrepant experiences."