The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 16 December 2016

The Angel of History

by Rabih Alameddine

How long do you expect grief to last? We read of enduring love and undying grief over the loss of that love. It almost seems a literary cliché that grief and love are undying. And yet, in real life, those of us who have lost find a way to move on, to live our lives, and to find new loves. But what if grief is multiplied six times over and buried by a culture that doesn't want to see your love, your sadness, your life? In San Francisco's gay culture of the 1980s and 1990s, a young population of gay men living in relative freedom to express their love, a joyous period of party and experiment, were suddenly thrown into tragic and heartbreaking fields of death and grief as the epidemic of AIDS gripped the community. Suddenly, men who danced and loved now had to tend to the sick and dying. All within what was nationally seen as a fringe culture of deviance and decadence. The political winds of the 1980s did not favor AIDS sufferers. It was a tragedy and a crime. So, how long do you expect that kind of grief to endure? Undying, indeed.

And so, on a rainy afternoon in San Francisco, we meet Jacob, a middle aged man, survivor of the AIDS epidemic, a poet originally from Yemen, and depressed. He is haunted by the memories of the men he loved, men who he watched die of AIDS. He hears the voice of Satan, but a sympathetic Satan, guiding Jacob through this vale of tears. Jacob takes this moment to check himself into a psychiatric clinic, as he has done before. The novel opens with him sitting in its chilled waiting room. But the book is non-linear. It jumps in and out of real time. We sit with Satan as he discusses Jacob's case with Death, and with the fourteen de-canonized saints who have guided Jacob's life from his childhood in a Yemeni village, a Cairo brothel, a Lebanese orphanage and the happening gay scene of San Francisco. The story is written in a complex manner, though it nominally spans just the afternoon Jacob spends in the clinic. We read of his sometimes brutal childhood, his deep love of his mother and the chill of his abstracted father. We see his devotion to poetry and the deep self-criticism in which he steeps his literary ambition. There are passages of Jacob's writing in which he expresses the frustrations and anger at the position of Arabs in America. There is even a story told from the point of view of a drone striking in Yemen. And there are Jacob's heart-rending conversations with his dead lover Doc, about Doc's own death, and the deaths of their friends in rapid succession as AIDS drained the life out of an entire San Francisco subculture.

This isn't even all that long of a book. It is, however, densely packed with emotional energy. Yes, there is a lot of grief and anger. But Alameddine is also a writer of great and sharp wit. Satan is sympathetic. Jacob's cat Behemoth (from Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita) is cranky and funny. The saints are peculiar and concerned with their charge. There are currents of empathy, compassion and community (despite Jacob's utter loneliness). Like all great books, it concerns itself with the great questions of devotion, the brevity of life, existential meaning, and where to find great sex. Alameddine wraps this all up like an interweaving set of parables that can move a sympathetic reader to tears. Highly recommended.

[Mail John][To List]

Also by Rabih Alameddine: [I, the Divine]

[Other books that take place in California]