(The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles)
“Before her eyes was the violent blue sky—nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great over-powering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed." --from the novel.
(...I just came back from Movin' Out, a rather...um...non-birdlashes event. But, it was a fine night out. Sorry for the sub-par post coming up...I blame Billy Joel!)
Reading Bowles, I couldn’t help reading Lovecraft between the lines—Bowles takes himself too seriously, (or is at least too seriously concerned with atheism and God in the Christian/Western sense), to care about the “Colour Out of Space” or Alien Gods, but the sentiment is similar, isn’t it? Sartre posits the horrific condition of existence as nothingness, complete freedom—but with Bowles and Lovecraft, “nothingness” doesn’t seem to exist as an option. Whatever exists beyond the “sheltering sky” is malignant, is a devouring force. The Sheltering Sky is not without its moments—there are brilliantly written scenes of phantasmagoric horror, and the cultural dissolution of three Americans traveling through the vast Sahara is masterfully expressed. Don’t get me wrong: I quite hated reading this novel while I was reading it—the main character is ravaged by a fever and dies long before the end of the novel, and the psychological breakdown of another main character is utterly preposterous. But a strange thing happens the longer I let The Sheltering Sky roll around my mind: it affects me more in retrospect than it did during the reading. It’s not an easy novel to escape.
(...Is this what Bowles had in mind?)
The novel begins conventionally enough: Port and his wife Kit have traveled to French North Africa for an open-ended stay, wandering from village to village, in the years just after World War II—their marriage and their trip is marked by infidelities born from a stark coldness and antipathy towards one another. Port seeks out Arab prostitutes and Kit sleeps with their traveling companion, a family friend named Tunner. We’ve seen characters like these before in countless modern novels and movies, but we’ve never seen them crumble apart quite like Port and Kit. It’s almost as if Bowles, himself an ex-pat, an urbane intellectual living in Tangier, wanted to punish his characters ruthlessly and thoroughly. The second half of the novel is bleak, with the succession of African villages growing more destitute, until Port is ravaged by a fever that has been slowly growing throughout the preceding pages. The final quarter of the book focuses on Kit’s psychosexual destruction, as she embarks on a sadomasochistic odyssey that would be tragic had Bowles been able to create sympathetic, flesh-and-blood characters.
(...a scene from the movie. My coworker wants to lend me the DVD because he thinks the movie is great; which means birdlashes will probably have to sit through it eventually...)
A particularly memorable scene finds Kit wandering through a train, suddenly removed from the comforts of her first class compartment, pressed in together with the shocking crowd of the poor. The scene demonstrates Bowles’ prowess as an author, as Kit is jostled between the bodies of men, is overwhelmed, sickened. She sees the mutilated face of a diseased man, a farmer holding the severed head of a lamb. The problem with the novel is that Bowles eventually overplays his hand, and that the terror of an American woman confronting the Other, and the following loss of Identity that her culture has provided for her, devolves into a caricature of racial or cultural deficiency. I know the novel has its admirers—but just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, while some readers might find Kit’s existential crisis too dreadful to bear, I found the whole thing howlingly awful.
(What's so funny?)
Up next: I have to catch up on some library book reading, but when I get back to the list...Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451!