Collage Tells Of Lebanon's Heartbreak
Special To The Seattle Times
------------------------------- "Koolaids: The Art of War" By Rabih Alameddine Picador USA, $23 -------------------------------
"Koolaids," a first novel by Lebanese painter Rabih Alameddine, is a post-modernist's playground - a daring, dazzling unity of disjointed humor and horror.
Eschewing conventional narrative for the sake of formal invention, Alameddine has structured "Koolaids" so that its form issues from the emotion of the characters, rather than from any author-imposed linear narrative. Told in a series of loosely connected voices and incidents, the novel centers, in part, on a group of friends and families in Beirut whose lives are profoundly altered - and sometimes lost - in a region decimated by civil war and torn apart by religion.
Here we meet characters such as Samia, who falls in love with a man from East Beirut who must murder her husband, and Sylvie and Amal, an "impeccably accessorized" Beirut couple whose Paris cafe gossip Alameddine uses to illustrate the deep psychological effects of Lebanese religions and social classes.
"Koolaids" situates itself in the San Francisco art world as well, where we encounter characters like Kurt, an American who outlives all his friends as they die of AIDS, and Samir, a Lebanese immigrant whose homosexuality has caused him to flee Beirut.
Here we also meet the focal personality of the novel, a socially inscrutable and difficult Lebanese expatriate painter named
Mohammed, whose paintings captivate Americans. Only people from Lebanon, however, see them for what they are: abstract representations of Beirut's living nightmare. Mohammed's voice provides the moral gravity that holds this constellation of Americans and Lebanese together.
To tell their stories, Alameddine has constructed a collage that integrates every genre under the sun: fictional diary entries by a Lebanese mother, real AP news stories, Internet news-group postings, soliloquies, hallucinations and short plays (the latter performed by the likes of Julio Cortazar, Eleanor Roosevelt and Tom Cruise, "who looks a little lost"). More often than not, these fragments are violent or sexually explicit, yet they're always beautiful in their hard, lyrical insistence on the material reality of the terror of our century.
"Koolaids" is free of ideology and "spiritual" mumbo-jumbo, and goes beyond pessimism, post-modern posings on "textuality," or the cult of the victim. It is, instead, a tough, funny, heartbreaking book.
But it can be heavy-handed sometimes in implying too obviously what a given scene is trying to do. Also, the relationship between AIDS and the Beirut situation isn't clear and can feel arbitrary - although it may be Alameddine's point that simultaneous disasters don't always possess underlying connections.
These problems aside, "Koolaids" deserves a wide readership, especially in the U.S., where most people are ignorant of Lebanese conflicts and indifferent to the effects of AIDS. This devastating debut novel accomplishes the tough job of keeping a nonlinear narrative cohesive, at the same time that it reminds us of the crucial relevance of two types of history: international events, and the ones that happen under our noses.
The book insists on the connections between both, and it does so with a dark, comic sensibility that razes provincial self-importance.
"Koolaids" is a Jeremiad for the 1990s. I hope Alameddine moonlights from his canvases again.
Greg Burkman is a Seattle book critic.
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