In each of Rabih Alameddine’s novels, he takes the form and folds it inside out to achieve something new,” said John Freeman at the outset of our August California Book Club meeting to discuss The Wrong End of the Telescope, a novel, set on the Greek island of Lesbos, about the Syrian migrant crisis and the volunteers who come to help them. The event featured two special guests, novelist Rebecca Makkai and actor Susan Sarandon.
Sarandon and Alameddine, who are friends, started the discussion by talking about their separate volunteer work with the refugee crisis in Lesbos. Sarandon commented that she’d never seen anything as devastating as the constant flow of desperate people who wound up there. “That’s when the hell actually started,” she said. “So many people need to be rescued, need to be fed, need to bury the dead.… This was without any indication that it would ever stop and no really good plan that you could even promise them.”
“Disasters come in many shapes and sizes,” Alameddine said. “What was really strange in Lesbos was the never-ending aspect of it.”
Sarandon commented that she had not gone to Lesbos under the auspices of the United Nations or another organization. In her eyes, the people who could accomplish the most were volunteer doctors, kids, and firefighters who had come from Spain. She described them as “everyone who had found a way to improvise outside the system.” She came to understand why people who have been through a war don’t talk about it—neither could she after witnessing the crisis in Lesbos. She wondered how long it took Alameddine to write about the experience after he’d gotten back.
He agreed about the emotional trauma of the experience and shared that he’d had trouble writing about it. He was able to write the book after he’d realized that “there might be no hope for migrants in general but—on a person-to-person level, the volunteers, the local people from Lesbos—they were amazing. They couldn’t not help…. They opened their doors.”
Freeman returned and noted that this wasn’t the first time Alameddine had volunteered and later written a book about helping people—he had also done this with Koolaids, about the AIDS crisis in the ’80s. Alameddine explained that when he volunteers or goes someplace, it’s never with the idea of writing a novel. When AIDS hit, he was in San Francisco and his friends were dying. He tested positive and was also dying. When the troubles in Syria started and refugees began coming over the border, he was in Beirut. He said he tries to put himself in situations because volunteering forces him to get out of his own way and uplifts him.
When she joined the conversation, Makkai said that one of the reasons she never gets tired of talking to Alameddine or about his book is because she is a fan of “narrative fuckery.” She explained her concept: “You might think that you’re reading one thing, and now you’re reading another.” While unexpected narrative things happen in his book, form follows function. Makkai asked Alameddine how he finds that form. Alameddine explained, “Invention follows problems.” He said he initially couldn’t find the right distance, and there was no other way but for Mina, who is a fictional surgeon able to emotionally handle the events, to come in and tell the story.
Makkai marveled that his is a novel that relies on a plurality of experience. She said sympathetically, “When it’s a bunch of people who are this misunderstood, you tell one version of that, it seems like you’re saying this is what everyone’s like.” By structuring his novel around conversations with people, Alameddine was able to access an “incredible plurality.” Alameddine said he worked intuitively. He said, “A lot of it gets thrown out in editing.… The plurality of it is important.… If I write about a gay Arab man who does such and such, many readers will look at it and think he’s doing this because he’s a gay Arab man.”
Answering a question from an audience member, Alameddine paraphrased the D.H. Lawrence quote from which he’d selected the title: “It’s easy to love America unconditionally if you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope.” Alameddine then amended this, saying, “It’s easy to either love something or hate something if you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope.”•
Join us on Friday, September 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Julie Otsuka will talk to Freeman and special guest Michael Cunningham about The Swimmers. 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.