At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were | A riff on Paul Bowles

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I was too young the first time I took a crack at Paul Bowles’ 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky. I was maybe 15 or 16 I think, reading a lot of Hemingway, Vonnegut, and William Burroughs at the time. I couldn’t click with Bowles.

Two decades later—by which I mean this January—I read/audited The Stories of Paul Bowles and fell in a weird love with them: Spare but sharp, wild but obscure, his fables refuse to square with our expectations. They are menacing, awful, loaded with strangers and travelers and outcasts. The characters do not know what is happening to them—indeed, they do not even know that they do not know what is happening to them. Sometimes the story’s narrator does not seem to know what is happening, and if the narrator does know what is happening, he’s not going to throw anything but the barest bones to the reader to piece together.

The best of the stories are wonderfully confusing, like “Tapiama,” the surreal, abject tale of a photographer’s picaresque journey into a mad foreign night. Bowles’ style succeeds in lucidly conveying the murk of a crashing consciousness:

The photographer had begun to suspect that something had gone very wrong inside him. He felt sick, but since he was no longer a living creature he could not conceive it in those terms. He had shut his eyes and put his hand over his face. “It’s going around backward,” he said. The undrunk cumbiamba was in his other hand.

Saying the sentence had made it more true. It was definitely going around backward. The important thing was to remember that he was alone here and that this was a real place with real people in it. He could feel how dangerously easy it would be to go along with the messages given him by his senses, and dismiss the whole thing as a nightmare in the secret belief that when the breaking-point came he could somehow manage to escape by waking himself up.

“Tapiama” is probably my favorite thing by Bowles, or at least the tale that best exemplifies what I like best in Bowles—the alienation of a stranger in a strange land, the creepy ickiness of realizing the unreal. Bowles’ characters are frequently tourists who wish to be more than tourists, who make ironic-romantic claims towards becoming travelers. He awakens these travelers to reality’s nightmare. There’s a quality here that I love, that dread noir thing that other storytellers like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño evoke so well.

Bowles’ early stories succeed in evoking anxious, uncanny dread — “The Scorpion,” “By the Water,” “You Are Not I” are all easy go-to examples. I found the later tales in The Stories of Paul Bowles less intriguing, but emotionally richer. Sadder. Bowles’ later stuff grows more bitter, more resentful. The earlier tales are strange, sharp, and driven by weird nightmare alienation and sinister surrealism. But they also open into possibility, exploration, and radical newness. The later tales, composed in the 1980s, seem to me a closing off, not just in themes and tone, but also in style. They retreat into formalist modernism. There’s a palpable resistance to postmodernism in the later stories, an elegiac tone that romanticizes (even through multiple ironies) the post-War colonial past.

After I read The Stories of Paul Bowles, I read The Sheltering Sky, the fan favorite of this cult author. I’ll admit I was disappointed, although I probably failed the novel, not the other way around. I liked it best in its rawest moments, its looser strands creeping out like tendrils in another direction; often these tendrils were cut off in the service of a more formally organized novel—a novel that sags heavily in the middle, but explodes into a weird nightmare in the end as Kit, the book’s true hero, travels in a way her husband Port fails to.

The Sheltering Sky is larded with fantastic moments and meditations though, like the one below. Here, Bowles shows that to be human is to invest an aesthetic (and simultaneously anesthetic) viewpoint into one’s daily life—and that to invest in this viewpoint is to calculate psychic and emotional costs and payoffs:

He did not look up because he knew how senseless the landscape would appear. It takes energy to invest life with meaning, and at present this energy was lacking. He knew how things could stand bare, their essence having retreated on all sides to beyond the horizon, as if impelled by a sinister centrifugal force. He did not want to face the intense sky, too blue to be real, above his head, the ribbed pink canyon walls that lay on all sides in the distance, the pyramidal town itself on its rocks, or the dark spots of oasis below. They were there, and they should have pleased his eye, but he did not have the strength to relate them, either to each other or to himself, he could not bring them into any focus beyond the visual. So he would not look at them.

 

While I was admittedly disappointed in The Sheltering Sky, I found much in it to propel me on into more of Bowles’ writing. I next read Up Above the World—mostly because of its title. Phrases and iterations of “out in the world” repeat through Bowles’ writing, so it intrigued me. This 1966 novel has a reputation as being one of Bowles’ lesser novels, but I enjoyed it more than The Sheltering Sky—perhaps my expectations were lower.

Up Above the World’s reputation as a slighter work might have to do with the fact that it’s something of a genre fiction—a slow-burn thriller, a crime story really. There’s a cinematic structure to it, and a plainness to its tone that belies a murderous intensity. I won’t spoil the trick of the novel, but it twists in sinister, delightful ways, leaving loose threads for the reader to tie together.

I’ll close by sharing my favorite passage from Up Above the World. This moment comes in the crux of the novel, in its middle when Dr. Slade—a tourist who perhaps had the pretensions of being a traveler—shifts from one dimension to the next:

He reached out his hand and pressed the door handle, took two or three steps on the spongy grass, and raised his head. In front of him, not three feet away, there was a face—a muzzle, rather, for it surely belonged to an animal—looking at him with terrible intensity. It was unmoving, fashioned from a nameless, constantly dripping substance. Unmoving, yet it must have moved, for now the mouth was much farther open; long twisted tendons had appeared in each cheek. He watched, frozen and unbelieving, while the whole jaw swiftly melted and fell away, leaving the top part of the muzzle intact. The eyes glared more savagely than before; they were telling him that sooner or later he would have to pay for having witnessed that moment of its suffering. He took a step backward and looked again. There were only leaves and shadows of leaves, no muzzle, no eyes, nothing. But the leaves were pulsating with energy. At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were.

At any moment they could could swell and become something other than what they were: This is the monstrous power of Bowles’ best moments—his ability to evoke visceral reality, his ability to show how consciousness transforms the real into the surreal, even as it tries to navigate that reality. He shows that we are all tourists in our own heads.

It takes energy to invest life with meaning (From Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky)

As he walked along the hot road toward the walls of Bou Noura he kept his head down, seeing nothing but the dust and the thousands of small sharp stones. He did not look up because he knew how senseless the landscape would appear. It takes energy to invest life with meaning, and at present this energy was lacking. He knew how things could stand bare, their essence having retreated on all sides to beyond the horizon, as if impelled by a sinister centrifugal force. He did not want to face the intense sky, too blue to be real, above his head, the ribbed pink canyon walls that lay on all sides in the distance, the pyramidal town itself on its rocks, or the dark spots of oasis below. They were there, and they should have pleased his eye, but he did not have the strength to relate them, either to each other or to himself, he could not bring them into any focus beyond the visual. So he would not look at them.

From Paul, Bowles’s 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. I like the passage; Bowles shows here that to be human is to invest an aesthetic (and simultaneously anesthetic) viewpoint into one’s daily life—and that to invest in this viewpoint is to calculate psychic and emotional costs and payoffs.

 

Humanity is everyone but one’s self (From Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky)

“Europe has destroyed the whole world,” said Port.

“Should I be thankful to it and sorry for it? I hope the whole place gets wiped off the map.” He wanted to cut short the discussion, to get Kit aside and talk with her privately. Their long, rambling, supremely personal conversations always made him feel better. But she hoped particularly to avoid just such a tete-a-tete.

“Why don’t you extend your good wishes to all humanity, while you’re at it?” she demanded.

“Humanity?” cried Port. “What’s that? Who is humanity? I’ll tell you. Humanity is everyone but one’s self. So of what interest can it possibly be to anybody?”

Tunner said slowly: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I’d like to take issue with you on that. I’d say humanity is you, and that’s just what makes it interesting.

“Good, Tunner!” cried Kit.

Port was annoyed. “What rot!” he snapped, ‘You’re never humanity; you’re only your own poor hopelessly isolated self.” Kit tried to interrupt. He raised his voice and went on.

“I don’t have to justify my existence by any such primitive means. The fact that I breathe is my Justification. If humanity doesn’t consider that a justification, it can do what it likes to me. I’m not going to carry a passport to existence around with me, to prove I have the right to be here! I’m here! I’m in the world! But my world’s not humanity’s world. It’s the world as I see it.”

“Don’t yell,” said Kit evenly. “If that’s the way you feel, it’s all right with me. But you ought to be bright enough to understand that not everybody feels the same way.”

From Paul Bowles’s 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky.

Their faces are masks (From Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky)

He walked through the streets, unthinkingly seeking the darker ones, glad to be alone and to feel the night air against his face. The streets were crowded. People pushed against him as they passed, stared from doorways and windows, made comments openly to each other about him-whether with sympathy or not he was unable to tell from their faces-and they sometimes ceased to walk merely in order to watch him.

“How friendly are they? Their faces are masks. They all look a thousand years old. What little energy they have is only the blind, mass desire to live, since no one of them eats enough to give him his own personal force. But what do they think of me? Probably nothing. Would one of them help me if I were to have an accident? Or would I lie here in the street until the police found me? What motive could any one of them have for helping me? They have no religion left. Are they Moslems or Christians? They don’t know. They know money, and when they get it, all they want is to eat. But what’s wrong with that? Why do I feel this way about them? Guilt at being well fed and healthy among them? But suffering is equally divided among all men; each has the same amount to undergo Emotionally he felt that this last idea was untrue, but at the moment it was a necessary belief. it is not always easy to support the stares of hungry people. Thinking that way he could walk on through the streets. It was as if either he or they did not exist. Both suppositions were possible. The Spanish maid at the hotel had said to him that noon: “La vida es pena.”

“Of course,” he had replied, feeling false even as he spoke, asking himself if any American can truthfully accept a definition of life which makes it synonymous with suffering. But at the moment he had approved her sentiment because she was old, withered, so clearly of the people. For years it had been one of his superstitions that reality and true perception were to be found in the conversation of the laboring classes. Even though now he saw clearly that their formulas of thought and speech are as strict and as patterned, and thus as far removed from any profound expression of truth as those of any other class, often he found himself still in the act of waiting, with the unreasoning belief that gems of wisdom might yet issue from their mouths.

From Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. The protagonist Port’s thoughts here remind me of Jarvis Cocker’s line in Pulp’s song “Common People”: “Everybody hates a tourist.”