Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Emotional Lives of Men

Our book club in general agreed that Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular was in many ways a book more respected than loved.  There are two storylines; one started strongish but then just kept repeating itself; the other started sooooo slowly and didn't pick up till the second half of the book.

Usually I do a reader's guide (or, let's admit, my thoughts in question form) for a book club book, but it's November and I'm on a time line here, so I'll just toss in a bunch of random thoughts.

This is essentially a book about what it means to be an Arab--particularly an Arab man--in Israel.  It covers a lot of ground in that respect, following two main characters in very different lives.  But since this is a translation of a book that was initially published in the author's home country of Israel, I know that Americans aren't explicitly the audience.  A book meant to tell its reader about a different culture is very different from a book meant to provide insight into the reader's own culture.

This meant that, as an American reader, there were definitely references that went over my head.  Racism and class/status are very big themes here--white Israeli vs. Arab, Jewish vs. Muslim vs. Christian, the professional class vs. the working class vs. students, city dwellers vs. villagers, conservatives vs. progressives.  I could tell that there were all kinds of signifiers flying around, but I couldn't tell what they meant.  I don't think that was very damaging to the experience of reading, but not knowing was sometimes frustrating--when, for example, there are explanations about going from one neighborhood to another, I can't tell if they're innocuous local color, or if they're the equivalent of going from Madison Avenue to Greenwich Village--any American reading a novel would understand at least the broadest implications of those neighborhoods.

So the plot: we have two stories.  In one, a well-to-do Arab lawyer goes about his well-to-do life.  There are scene setting details, and he's established as being basically the definition of bourgeois: very concerned with status, feeling his cultural shortcomings, both very self-satisfied and vaguely dissatisfied.  One day he buys a used book, and when he opens it, he finds a note from his wife--"I waited but you didn't come; last night was wonderful."  This sends him into an obsessive spiral of rage and fear and investigation--every manly, patriarchal bone in his body, including many that he didn't know he had, is fired up.

The other story begins with a social worker--socially awkward, melancholy, aimless in life.  We figure out eventually that he's the one the note was written to, but really, this just follows his life over several years, explaining how the note got into that book and that used book shop.  Unlike the lawyer, who spends the entire book over the course of one weekend, wrestling with the desire to murder his wife, not much happens to this social worker (Amir is his name, we eventually learn).  He provides a broader slice of Arabic-Israeli life: visits to his mother's village, unhappiness in his job, the poor housing and hustling poverty of young educated people.  Eventually he takes a job as a caretaker for a Jewish young man in a vegetative state, and drifts into a withdrawn isolation and passivity.  The rest of his story is the focus of the last half of the book, and while it's probably the most interesting part of the whole thing, I don't feel like I can give it away.

But anyway, it's a slow book, about observed details in these lifestyles.  I found the lawyer's completely irrational obsession with his wife's supposed unfaithfulness to be interesting in a "watching a train wreck" kind of way.  At first, he seems just kind of a yuppie tool, but as soon as he reads this note, he goes INSANE, strongly considers killing her, then decides that maybe he should let her relatives do it, but what if they won't, etc. etc.  Then there's an investigation procedural, in which a savvy lawyer uses the tools he has to figure out the details of her "infidelity."  It's not uninteresting, but it doesn't really build--he goes from zero to nuts and stays ramped up at nuts, running around in circles.

The other story starts out with a torpor that only comes from reading a story about a depressed guy, and it stays that way for WAY too long.  It wasn't a very long book, and many of the details of Amir's life are interesting, but for a long time it's about him being aimless and sad.  And there's an island in the middle of the book where Amir's story hasn't picked up and the lawyer's has leveled out at crazytown, and you don't like either of them and aren't really rooting for them and don't really care what  happens that makes the book kind of weak, even though, by the end, I was rooting for Amir and wanted to know what was going to happen to him.

Finally, I have to add this, even though I'm the only one in book club who noted it: to the extent that the book addresses women (and the infidelity storyline makes it a not-insignificant thing, even though the book is about Manhood), there's a level on which its take is that Arab culture's attitudes toward women are damaging to men.  The lawyer vacillates between condescending, hateful, and idealizing.  At first, this put me off entirely; eventually I came to realize that the author was making a point about how crazy and unhealthy he was, so okay, the author doesn't believe these things.  But when you come back around to these things as commentary on society, I just can't let go of the idea that there's a "poor men" element to the perception of sexism in Arab society.  And that makes me roll my eyes a bit--ooh, look how hard it is to have to deal with my complicated feelings about women.  Try being your wife in this situation, buddy.

(Please note that I say "Arab society" because, while some of the Arabs here are Muslim and some Christian, of varying degrees of piety, most or all of the attitudes displayed appeared to be much more social and cultural than religious.)

Anyway, that's my take on this book.  I thought I was hating it, but in the end I just hated most of the characters.  So it was....okay? I respected it.  I maybe even admired it a little.  But I didn't really relate to the humanity in it.  Hmph.

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