Carl Shuker’s Anti Lebanon Reviewed

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I’m tempted to say that Carl Shuker’s novel Anti Lebanon is full of twists, but twists isn’t the right word—it’s more like the novel’s trajectory repeatedly escapes the reader’s expectations, driving into increasingly alien terrain.

Anti Lebanon begins as a somewhat traditional novel focused on Leon Elias, “thirty years old, East Beiruti Greek Orthodox.” Leon has dropped out of university, leaving his degree in hydrogeology unfinished. Leon has since taken a job as the security guard of an abandoned amusement park, a symbolic stand-in for Lebanon’s tourist economy. The Arab Spring has destabilized Lebanon, leaving its Christian population in a precarious position as Hezbollah dominates the government—and the streets. After dropping out of school, Leon creates an experimental short film, In the anti Lebanon,  a film “about his family and his sister and their history” — a history of mixed cultures (Leon’s mother is Japanese) and pain (his sister, a soldier, was assassinated).

The early parts of Anti Lebanon seem to set the stage for a fairly conventional novel with strong political overtones, one that explores Leon’s guilt over his sister’s violent death and his conflicted place as a sensitive and artistic soul who’s the son an infamous warrior, all set against the backdrop of Christian Lebanon in the tumult of the Arab Spring. But then Shuker takes us other places. Lots of other places.

The crucible for this change comes after a night of drinking ends in violence and theft. I don’t want to spoil too much—this is a novel that constantly had me rereading entire passages, asking, Wait, what?—but let’s just say Leon, complicit in a crime, ends up moving a body by motorcycle. Let me share some of Shuker’s prose in a passage that reveals the novel’s major metaphysical gambit:

This time there was no crash and it probably was the alcohol but the pain of the thing’s biting was gristly and sharp and also distant and allied with the shock of the fall so he rode though it for it seemed several dozen feet— the most important thing was not to fall again. He came to a controlled halt, stopped the bike, and then over his shoulder punched the thing’s face several times, his knuckle hitting soft then hitting helmet, and it bit again and this time harder and it stung and went deeper, a popping sound or feeling in his neck that suddenly got desperately deep and he punched again and then he rolled violently and writhed in the grasp of the thing they had created and he fell over deliberately, twisting so as to topple over sideways upon and hurt and stop the thing, and he hit the ground landing on its arm and this dislodged the biting helmeted head and he pulled up its hands and wriggled away over the concrete like his sister palming herself away from her disappeared foot and he scrambled up, and the thing just lay there inert and still, wired to the scooter in a position absurd, all tied up and crooked and ruined and wrong. He stood and held his hot neck looking at the fallen boy and then knew that someone else was there.

Is Leon now a vampire? The novel answers this question clearly even as it refuses to explain or define what, exactly, being a vampire means.  Anti Lebanon at times threatens to become an allegory of Mideast politics and history, using vampirism as its major trope, but then Shuker shifts us into new, weird territory. An appropriately Borgesian chapter titled “Labyrinth” moves Leon and the reader into a propulsive engine of dream logic; we’re never quite sure exactly what is happening as Leon gives over to dark, primal violence.

Such violence inheres from history and geography and mythology. It’s worth sharing another passage at length to see how Shuker traces these contours, plunging character and reader into history’s strange tangles. Here, vampire Leon drinks a guard’s lifeblood—the beginning of an oblique spree—and tunnels into mythos, plumbing the history of his land to arrive at his sister’s murder:

Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of. Aries, Andromeda, and Perseus slowly wheeled across the dead guard’s sunglasses. Christian snipers took positions around Mar Mikhael overlooking Electricité du Liban. A secret. Leon, labyrinthine, tunneled from shadow to shadow. The criminal and the victim alike return to the scene of the crime. Would the Israelis come? The taste of blood was hot: There was juniper, vetyver, and chypres too, copper drying down to a powder, wealth and breadth of deathless rivers in endless cycle, over centuries, aeons, untouched and untouchable: Nahr al Kalb, the dog river, collecting on its rock walls the signatures of dead empires: the steles of Ramses II, Nebuchadnezzar, Napoleon III and Caracalla, General Gouraud and The XXI British Army Corps with Le Détachement Français de Palestine et Syrie occupied Beirut and Tripoli: October 1918 AD; and Nahr Ibrahim, the blood river, which flows red: iron-rich soil rusting, seeding red anemones of the rebirth along its banks. The land still bearing the imprint of its creator, still running with the blood of Adonis in cascades; cataracts of rust. The march crossed the exact point on the Green Line where the Black Saturday ID checkpoints were erected once upon a time and to cross was to have your ID checked for religion and your throat cut in the passenger seat, watched over by Phalange HQ, past Makhlouf’s sandwich store— his weakness, his frailty. He told her about the last shot, what he alone saw: that the assassin didn’t even look as he ruined her; as he ruined him.

From here—well, let’s just say that Leon goes, and that the book moves into a picaresque rhythm, erupting with Bolañoesque moments of horror and strange shifts into the unreal (there’s a moment at the end of an episode in Israel that confounded everything I’d read so far in the book, the effect approaching alterity). It would spoil too much of Anti Lebanon to delineate all its movements; suffice to say its unsettling shifts are grounded in motifs of dogs, water, film, art, crashes, the peri, the vampire.

Shuker’s book isn’t for everyone. Those looking for a classic Gothic horror or a sexy vampire romp will likely be disappointed (and probably confused). Shuker also throws his reader into the metaphorical deep end of Mideast politics and history, offering little exposition that might help explain some of the complexity. There’s a trust in the reader there that I admire (even as I often headed to Wikipedia to learn about Lebanon’s civil wars, the Druze, its relationship to Syria, Palestine, Israel…). That trust is best returned to the author—a trust to follow him where he goes, because frankly you won’t be able to see ahead. Anti Lebanon is unpredictable, strange, and very rewarding.

Anti Lebanon is new from Counterpoint Press.

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