Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope is one of those books. You know the kind I mean: a book that creates its own terms, its own universe, that astonishes us by being unlike any other we have read. Narrated by a trans woman named Mina, it is an expanding universe of a novel, in which little is as it appears. Mina is Lebanese, a doctor; she has come to the Greek island of Lesbos—itself a sort of symbol—as a volunteer to assist Syrian refugees. Alameddine has done such work; he visited Lesbos and wrote about it in 2017. “I had been looking for a story for a long time,” he told Alta Journal in an interview last September, “and when I went to Lesbos, it became clear to me that I needed to write about it, but I was unable to write about it, so something had to be done for me to be able to write.”
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
In that sense—and despite everything that makes it different—Alameddine’s sixth novel is also of a piece with the rest of his work. The Hakawati (2008) is a novel built of stories shared and repeated as a Beiruti named Osama returns home to sit at his father’s deathbed; hakawati means “storyteller,” after all. The Angel of History (2016) unfolds across a single evening in a San Francisco psych ward and infuses the scattered memories of its protagonist with visitations by, among others, the characters Satan and Death. For Alameddine, then, the novel as a form represents the broadest and most wide-ranging of canvases. This is a notion that drives The Wrong End of the Telescope as well. Among the people Mina addresses in the book is an unnamed novelist, who appears to be the author himself. “It was both interesting and very strange,” Alameddine recalled to Alta. “The biggest worry was that people would think I’m a narcissist. Which we all are.”
I love novels like this because of their embrace of the conditional; the outcome of the story, if we can even think of it that way, depends on how the story is told. For Alameddine, this is an article of faith, the essential factor—or leitmotif, as he likes to call it—at the center of his work. He is, he has said, “fascinated by displacement or—I like the word—dislocation.” He means this in both a physical and a spiritual sense. In a world where we are all displaced, not least from one another, how do we find a way to come together? How do we find a way to get along?
If The Wrong End of the Telescope is any indication, these are questions without answers. Or maybe without solutions is the more accurate phrase. Either way, the novel is a masterpiece of indirection, a swirling tapestry of narratives and lives. If Alameddine writes, as he insists, from a place of incompletion, even failure, the paradox is that this is what makes The Wrong End of the Telescope so powerful. The point, in other words, is not that we can save one another but that in spite of all our limitations, we still make the attempt.•