Rabih Alameddine’s ‘Angel of History’: Corny and Glorious

Lebanese-American novelist Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History hasn’t yet appeared — it’s available next month — but it’s already made the 2017 longlist of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence

This review first appeared on BookWitty:

Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History is not a novel so much as a fabulous cabaret show that’s set across multiple times and continents. Our performers shift through a fantastic array of costumes and voices, yet the show remains intimate, cigarette-hoarse, and caustically comic.

The performance is held together by the narrative efforts of our central character, the mediocre poet Jacob/Yaqub, and his muse Satan/Iblis, who is brought to life as an impeccably dressed, digital-recorder-wielding “Cast Out Angel.” This Satan may exist only in Jacob’s mind, but that hardly matters. What matters is that Satan cares about Jacob, and especially about keeping Jacob queer in a world that wants him ordinary, khaki, and corporate-friendly.

Satan calls on a wide range of helpers to revive Jacob’s memories and return him to his poetry. First, he brings out the recorder to interview Death, and later the fourteen holy helpers in their turns: Acacius, Barbara, Blaise, Catherine of Alexandria, Christopher, Cyriacus, Dionysius of Paris, Erasmus, Eustace, George, Giles, Margaret, Pantaleon, Vitus. These too are cast-outs, after a fashion. The fourteen were once called on and celebrated across the Medieval Christian world, yet their feast was suppressed by the church in 1969.

The story begins and ends with Jacob’s current life, which is based in contemporary San Francisco. In the foreground, Jacob is at a free Crisis Psych Clinic, where he hopes to get himself committed for a few days, or at least acquire some pills that will suppress Satan. But his muse, Satan, will not go quietly.

All those who Satan interviews have been part of Jacob’s history, beginning with Death, who tells of Jacob’s birth in a small village in Yemen. He and others recall how our prodigal son was moved from here to the capital, Sana’a, before heading with his mother to a whorehouse in Cairo; then to his father and a Catholic school in Beirut; a hospital in Stockholm; and finally to the US’s one-time queer mecca, San Francisco. There, he found himself at home, at least until his world was ripped apart by AIDS.

The deaths of his circle of friends—they make a magic seven in all—is at the heart of the novel. But Satan (or Alameddine, or both) doesn’t hesitate to drag in any number of marginal characters. After all, this is a love song for the marginal, and Alameddine is at his best in this post-realist landscape, by turns corny and glorious.

The Angel of History alternates between Satan’s interviews, the free clinic, Jacob’s journals, and Jacob’s stories. Although Satan maligns his amanuensis’s prose, some of the best marginal characters come in these stories. It’s here that we find a drone who crash-lands in Yemen and falls in love with a young boy named Mohammad. It’s not quite love at first glance, as the drone explains: “I was taken aback by the sight at first, but once he took one step down the mountain and the sun no longer obscured as many details, I saw him for what he was, a possible terrorist. His swarthy complexion gave him away, as did the ascetic aspect of his billowy clothing: no color, no denim, no Gap Kids, no Diesel.”

But fall in love with Mohammad he does, just before our bashed-up drone is rescued by his fellow Americans. While recovering, the drone decides he can kill Mohammad: “collateral damage.” But once he’s back and sees the boy’s exposed buttocks being punished, he can’t “bear to witness Mohammad’s suffering. I intervened. I swooped down, buzzing the proceedings.” Their star-crossed affair gets a wonderfully neoliberal ending, as the Americans—courtesy of this drone—bring the village chain restaurants, democracy, and a Nike factory, where the boy gets a sweatshop job. Not only that, but, “We improved the lot of women in the area. You’re welcome, oppressed women everywhere.”

Another of Jacob’s stories, “A Cage in the Penthouse,” tells of a conservative businessman from Muncie who gets a job in the big city. There, he finds that New York’s liberal gays are not so different from people like him! In fact, his gay boss has decided, rather innovatively, to keep a wild Arab instead of a dog or cat. This story, like the one narrated by the drone, is by turns funny and discomfiting, much like an improvised performance, where at any moment a member of the audience might find themselves in the spotlight.

While humor is its primary mode, The Angel of History is also tender, particularly when on the subject of Jacob’s lost friends. There are further sweet moments with his current bestie, Odette, who is surely a hat-doff to Marcel Proust. And while we have Good and Evil, Pleasure and Pain, the moral of the story is friendship, much as it was in Alameddine’s previous novel, An Unnecessary Woman. Yet the touch here is far lighter. In the end, it isn’t clear if Jacob has done the right thing for his health and sanity. But, praise God, he’s done the queer thing.

In the acknowledgments, Alameddine tells us that a “big part” of the book was drawn from the life of San Francisco poet and performance artist Wayne Corbitt (1952-1997). Corbitt was raised in a strict religious home, and his fearless creative work, according to a retrospective in the San Francisco Chronicle, “focused on his identity as a gay black man who liked S&M, and, later, as an artist with HIV.”

Jacob got his Christianity not from relatives in Indianapolis, but from French and Lebanese nuns in Beirut. But Jacob’s Yemeni-Egyptian-Lebanese-Muslim-Christian background matters less than his chosen identity, and the identities that chose him back.

The book falters a little when it insists on talking current events, as when Jacob drags in a pocket version of the Arab Spring via his Auntie Badeea, or when he tells a joke about the much-lampooned New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman that comes off a little too earnest. But in such a varied show, an occasional flat joke hardly matters; we’re quickly off to the next scene. And the central character himself, Jacob/Yaqub, is rendered with such grace and tender love that we, like Satan, can’t help but forgive him anything.

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