Empathy at a Distance

Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope, the California Book Club selection for August, aims for an experience beyond ordinary fellow feeling.

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Empathy is overrated,” declares a disillusioned writer in The Wrong End of the Telescope, Rabih Alameddine’s latest novel of self-reflection and humanity amid crisis. Even if the unnamed writer were not a lightly fictionalized stand-in for Alameddine himself, it’s the kind of assertion that puts a contemporary reader on notice: feel all you want, it seems to say, but don’t pretend we’re better for it.

Since empathy became a buzzword in the early aughts, torqued from its original emphasis on imaginative connection toward something closer to psychological intimacy, it has been a favorite way to champion novels and novel-reading. Though some literary critics chafe at how accounts of empathy instrumentalize fiction, reducing complex narratives to didactic exercises, popular culture has readily embraced the argument that novels make us better people. Cognitive studies have only bolstered this belief, correlating reading novels to enhanced interpersonal intelligence. Today, empathy’s meaning slides between the banal and the transcendent: it is the stuff of Be Kind bumper stickers, but also of radical self-decentering.

Alameddine knows all this, of course. In one of the novel’s early chapters, his narrator, the winning, wise Mina Simpson, declares her intention to tell what the writer calls “the refugee story,” prodded by him to do what he can’t. “You were too involved,” she tells him, embarking on the project. “You said that you couldn’t calibrate the correct distance.” It’s an intriguing assertion, since Mina seems just as involved as he is. A trans physician, born in Lebanon, educated at Harvard, now comfortably married and living in Chicago, Mina leaves her settled life when a nurse friend working for a Swedish NGO invites her to the Greek island of Lesbos, where throngs of Syrian refugees have washed up, desperate for help. For Mina, it’s a chance to be of service, but also to find proximity to the country and the family she’s forsaken. The “refugee story” she tells is of the Syrians she meets, yes, but also her own account of flight, heartbreak, and transformation.

Is empathy the aim here? A Trump-era tale of destitute refugees told by a trans lesbian Lebanese woman sounds almost like a novel conceived by an empathy-fostering algorithm, perfectly calibrated to efficiently counteract a maximum number of prejudices. (As if anticipating just such a reaction, the writer jokes that Mina is forbidden to call her story “A Lebanese Lesbian in Lesbos.”) On the page, however, empathy feels like too basic an aim for what Alameddine is after. The novel is filled with scenes of do-gooding and fellow feeling, but, narrated in Mina’s humanely perceptive voice, they never valorize empathy for its own sake. The beaches of Lesbos are filled not just with Mina and her like, but also with young Western volunteers eager to document themselves helping, oblivious to how their dogged, self-congratulatory optimism reads to the people they are there to assist.

Perhaps Alameddine’s most effective counterbalance to empathy-lite literature exists in the voice of Mina herself. We learn that the writer (and, of course, Alameddine too, in wink-nudge fashion) has handed over his storytelling duties because he’s overwhelmed by his attempt to document the refugees’ lives. After a final, wrenching interview, he retreats to a posh hotel room, listening to opera on noise-canceling headphones. Mina reports this detail in the same way she reports those of the torture and loss experienced by the Syrians—with dispassionate benevolence that refuses to censure or sensationalize what is merely, tragically human. When, in the novel’s climax, she observes a woman’s death, as intimate an act as can be imagined, she recounts only what she does and sees, carefully eliding her own thoughts as she leaves us with an unadorned image of farewell: “With his forefinger, he tucked his wife’s head scarf out of the way so his lips could have unobstructed access to her ear.”

Alameddine is hardly the first novelist to grapple with empathy’s complications. Long before him, the Victorian writer George Eliot—queen of literary empathy before empathy was even a thing—wrote that “keen vision…of all ordinary human life” would be “like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” In her novels, it is her all-knowing narrators who guide us gently through that cacophony, teaching us not simply to recognize the complexity of other people, but also the inevitable persistence of our self-interest—empathy isn’t a lesson you learn once.

In his own narrator, Alameddine crafts another kind of exemplar, one for a present enamored of self-display. Though Mina seems too shrewd to promise lessons, one could do far worse than to emulate her model of generous, distanced engagement—empathetic, certainly, but also so much more.•

Join us on August 18 at 5 p.m., when Alameddine will talk to CBC host John Freeman and a special guest about 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 novel. Register here.

Anna E Clark is a writer and teacher in San Diego.
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