He was my people—he and I kneaded by the same hands,” Mina, the narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope, our August California Book Club pick, declares in the novel’s opening sentence.
The imagery of bread dough being shaped intimates that the narrator knows her people by their shared sensory experiences. They have similar facial features. The man is Palestinian. She is a trans, lesbian Lebanese woman. They are standing at the baggage carousel of Mytilene International in Lesbos with a motley group of volunteers coming to help Syrian refugees. They immediately and nonverbally connect with each other.
Tactility and sense experience are repeatedly reinforced as a point of understanding in this novel. Particular textures, smells, tastes, and colors are the means by which many cultures are transmitted—smell and taste in particular start to develop in the womb—and they prove to be the novel’s pathway for evoking our empathy as well. For if we don’t necessarily know the textures of Syria or its neighboring countries, we do know what it’s like to invest sensory pleasures with a sense of home.
Yet Alameddine’s brilliance is to keep us on our toes with unexpected sentences, sentences that to most of us will not feel consoling. Sometimes, surprise is generated subtly through his descriptive language: “The air was nippy and smooth, like velvet.” Not cold velvet, which would be semi-expected, but the more poetic “nippy,” ever so slightly staccato, set off by the gentle elongated vowel in “smooth.” But what might catch you most off guard, in a good way, is the book’s irreverent, unsentimental tone; its awareness of human self-interest; and its experimentation. The Scandinavian murder mystery book that circles the carousel is soggy with drizzle, yet it keeps on in an “eternal return”—hence the Nietzschean subtext of the chapter’s title, “Round and Round We Go.” This early image of a wet book on a carousel sets a frame for the unspoken game that follows.
The man whom Mina identifies as her people mischievously turns the book over as it comes around and trades gleeful, knowing glances with Mina when it returns on the carousel facing the other direction; someone on the other end of the carousel repeatedly turns it over again. It produces delight in the group. The beauty of The Wrong End of the Telescope grows out of its refusal to limit itself to the initial, sweet register of the airport game. It develops instead with a little acid.
As Alameddine’s novel progresses, we catch other glimpses of the wet atmosphere, the inescapability of it, and the image of the book on the carousel becomes stronger. In the first few chapters, there is a “rain-slick coastal road,” and as Mina rides in a car past Mytilene, she tells us, “Everything before me, everything around me, was blued and grayed, pale shapes shifting effortlessly, all ethereal and illusory, as if I were about to plummet into an old memory.” From a truck’s tailpipe, orange sparks “splash.”
But in spite of its use of landscape to evoke abiding grief, this is not a lugubrious book. It’s often skeptical and humorous. Human history, it suggests, is like that book on the carousel, endlessly circling around the same themes—violent power grabs and the grief of those who have no practical choice but to flee with their memories and start their lives elsewhere. Fleeing the brutal violence of the powerful, unchecked, is one of the oldest stories the world over—the pleasure of this sharp, dazzling novel, you’ll see, is that Alameddine’s telling makes us perceive it anew.•
Join us on August 18 at 5 p.m., when Alameddine will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Aleksandar Hemon to discuss The Wrong End of the Telescope. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the book. Register here.
WHY I WRITE
Alameddine writes against despair. —Alta
If you missed the conversation with author Luis J. Rodriguez, special guest Rubén Martínez, and this gathering’s host, Daniel A. Olivas, watch it now or read a recap. —Alta
“PLAYGROUND OF THE RICH AND INFAMOUS”
Liska Jacobs writes about what authors and fans owe one another. —Los Angeles Times
Author and editor David Treuer considers patriotism in the context of his parents’ heritages. His father was Austrian American, and his mother was Native. —New York Times
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