Friday, November 30, 2007

Modern Library Top 100: #97 - The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. --F. Nietzsche

Unless you happened to eschew pogs and calvinball for complex philosophy in your formative years, I suspect most of us encountered that Nietzsche diddy at about the same time I did, as the cryptic epigraph to 1989's The Abyss, a rather underrated James Cameron disaster joint that, among other things, invites us to consider the (empty?) expanse of the unknown.

In his quest to do likewise 50 years earlier, Paul Bowles effectively created two abysses in The Sheltering Sky, a tale about Port and Kit Moresby, a daft young American couple who forge deep into the Sahara for all the usual reasons and encounter all the usual dangers. The obvious abyss is the ineffable Sahara, so fathomlessly large it can only be described by its dusty parts. But the other, more pressing vortex is the novel itself, so void of good storytelling that I sometimes wonder how The Sheltering Sky hasn't collapsed into itself like a mini-black hole to suck in all the other, better books on my shelf.

Still, while the The Sheltering Sky can only be called a spectacular failure, it at least falls on its face nobly. An expatriate American living in Tangier, Bowles can at the very least (and at the very most, come to think of it) be commended for his novel take on the foreigner-gets-consumed-by-alien-environment trope that, even in the most skilled hands, is rarely pitch-perfect. Wishing to articulate the desolation to his South yet recognizing that the publishing industry had already carpet-bombed America with fish-out-of-water tales, Bowles decided to abandon the traditional character-driven/plot-heavy Western narrative in favor of indistinguishable one-dimensional characters and scene descriptions.

The result is a 200 page socratic monologue (dialogue would suggest at least a smattering of meaningful interaction), wherein the characters speak to the reader and each other not in their own voices but as Bowles. That's a shame, because it so often distracts from what Bowles has to say. First and foremost a composer (he created all the incidental music to Tennessee Williams' Broadway shows) that music is abundantly evident in Bowles' prose. Witness perhaps the best meditation on mortality you're ever likely to read:

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Beautiful, no? But it's a sentiment undercut by the fact that it's impossible to remember who said it, and that even if you could, it wouldn't really matter anyway.

That leads us back to what seems to be a recurring theme here at Neon Hustle; namely, when can innovation and challenge go too far? Bowles wanted to focus on ideas (death) and setting (the Sahara) rather than characters and plot, and as much as I can admire the driving logic to differentiate himself from the past and the future, it nevertheless makes for an agonizing read. I've never thought of myself as a conservative, but I guess in the literary realm I may be.

If The Sheltering Sky were distilled into a 30-page non-fiction essay or travelogue it would probably be required reading in English classes worldwide. That's a testament to Bowles' spot-on observation, and his ability to transport us to a world that all but the luckiest few of us will never know. But in expanding those thoughts into a shiftless, unstructured novel, whatever substance is left is stretched paper-thin, like too little butter on too much toast, leaving us with a world we'd prefer not to know.


Hava said...

What a shame. I had this book on my to-read list pile too.

I consider myself a literary moderate. Sometimes I like plotless experimental fiction, sometimes I want a well-structured plot. Maybe I'm a literary flip-flopper.

I look forward to future book updates. Keep 'em comin'!

Brendan K. said...

Seriously, how underrated is "The Abyss?" Why do we not give James Cameron any credit for his pre-"Titanic" work anymore?

Steven Simunic said...

I don't know about you, but I have a hard time forgiving him for appearing on Entourage.

Darryl said...

Lest we forget Terminator and Aliens. I think Brendan's right, Cameron deserves a place in the pantheon of Great American Sci-Fi visionaries, but since then his drive to become the planet's biggest ass has made it tough to forgive him for his missteps, rants, and terrible appearance in the show. Whether you do or don't like Entourage, the guest spot was an attempt by the show's producers to flash that they have connections, and for Cameron to pretend that he's culturally relevant. A bad move on all parts.

Anonymous said...

the usual vain blog blatherings of a nobody, who will always be a nobody, about a book that will live forever.