Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.
Take a moment to consider the last novel you read. Most likely, your conclusion on whether or not the story “worked” was largely informed by the writer’s ability to sustain a credible world and earn your trust in his or her authoritativeness. Typically, the successful fiction must conceal the machinery that supports it. What is the sheltered reader to make, then, of Dimitri Nasrallah’s debut novel, which overturns the conceit of the author as silent manipulator? Nothing is absolute in Blackbodying, its narrators cannot be trusted and its conclusion is far from a satisfying inevitablity—yet still it “works,” and remarkably well.
Two distinct storylines form the novel’s veneer: the first part, “Fugues of Fatherhood,” relates in a series of distinct sketches crucial moments in a young, unnamed Lebanese refugee’s life—from an early term of exile in Greece, to his emigration to Canada, through doomed romantic entanglements to his ultimate physical collapse; and the second section, a more flowing narrative entitled “A Canadian Fiction,” focuses on an older, though similarly displaced, Lebanese man named Sameer, an architect-turned-cabbie in Toronto whose long separation from his wife and children lead him to commit a desperate act. Both plots address the dilemma of the immigrant, who is at home neither in the present nor the past: the younger man, estranged from his father for over 20 years, is haunted by memories of their time in Greece, of sun-baked beaches and shared watermelons, and Sameer, though in Canada to lay the foundation for his family’s new life, nonetheless yearns for the familiarities of his war-ravaged homeland. Such conflicts yield ample fodder for a novel, and indeed are presented skilfully enough here, but Blackbodying‘s core concern is, thankfully, deeper still. What drives this book is Nasrallah’s unique exploration of the act of writing itself—its implications for the writer, and its demands of the reader.
The narrator of part one is himself a writer (indeed, “A Canadian Fiction” is ostensibly his novella), and scenes from his youth pay careful attention to the personal qualities that nurture his aptness for the craft. Primary among these is his capacity for obsession: playful in its initial incantations—as when, at five years old, his interests centre not upon war, passports or religion like his parents, but upon personal grooming (“A sock had to be long, and needed stripes. A sock needed good elasticity, as it would have to hold at the knee throughout the day.”)—it manifests itself later as feverish and brief amorous attachments, eventually evolving into the most dangerous of infatuations: “All this seeing, all this placing,” he says of his writing, “all this trying to catch and keep what naturally just moves through was hurting my eyes and making my hair go grey.” In these passages, Nasrallah’s narrative style—clinical and precise—perfectly reflects his protagonist’s detachment from the flesh-and-blood stories about him. For the narrator, and presumably for Nasrallah too, writing is a striving for an end that is never met, an all-encompassing preoccupation.
And for this, Nasrallah also demonstrates, writing is an undertaking that fosters isolation. The narrator distances himself not only from his father, but also from his only remaining link to his Lebanese heritage, his mother, as well as the women who temporarily enter his life—the irony being, of course, that his writings seek to capture the very world from which he removes himself. “A Canadian Fiction” uses metaphor to examine that same paradox. Sameer, who has lost all contact with his family back in Beirut, tries to distract his thoughts by surfing the channels of a radio scanner while working evening shifts in his cab; from amongst the random broadcasts he locks onto a pattern, a man’s regular abusive calls to an unspeaking woman who gradually takes over Sameer’s imagination. It’s another obsession fated to end in disappointment, the search for a truth that can never be known:
This mystery man was my only source on this Heidi character, with whom I slowly began to sympathize as the nights passed, yet his antics only seemed to underline his unreliability, and so I was forced to confront the fact that theHeidi he described was perhaps not the real Heidi at all.
Sameer’s longing for companionship and meaningful communication in a foreign land feeds his authorship of Heidi, simultaneously making him withdraw from real human contact.
Where Nasrallah takes one next is the most intriguing of Blackbodying‘s ideas. Yes, he seems to say, the threats posed by life in a war-torn region are considerable—Sameer’s descriptions of daily occurrences in East Beirut, of 14-year-old boys pummeling a neighbour to death for his beliefs, for instance, confirm this—and so too is the promised land of Canada riddled with external menaces, with cab passengers who hold up their drivers, and girlfriends who fling themselves off balconies. But the greatest danger for Nasrallah is the self, and not only in the sense that the imagination can alienate one from reality. Both the unnamed narrator and Sameer suffer from physical breakdowns brought about by the mind: the younger by a sequence of apparently sourceless seizures, the elder, in the end, from a condition that renders him paralyzed, able to “speak” only through blinks of the eye. The mind, then, is both destroyer and creator. Memory is a danger more drawn out: the photographs of the young narrator’s childhood that dot section one, his father’s audio tapes, Sameer’s unsent letters and the implied writer’s notepad—all are attempts at capturing a reality that is bound to be misinterpreted.
Little can be trusted in Blackbodying. Is “Fugues of Fatherhood,” for example, the primary story and “A Canadian Fiction” its by-product, or vice versa; clues indicate either is possible. Is the act of writing to be condoned if it comes at the expense of the self? And where can respite be found, if life’s pattern is essentially one of struggle? Nasrallah offers no answers, giving the reader authority at the same time as leading one in circles. Only Sameer proposes a model for interpretation, when he recalls being smuggled in a crate out of Lebanon:
Inside… I imagined the world I knew as it once was, not as it now stood What I remembered was not at all real but from within my box, who was to tell me what was real and what was not? I could sit here for as long as they wanted and torture myself with the fictions I thought I was abandoning.
Draw your own conclusions in Blackbodying, and enjoy the ride.