“Misery is what you get for not dying—misery but some good stuff too.”
This line appears in a diary entry written by Jacob, the protagonist in Rabih Alameddine’s new novel, The Angel of History. It may strike the reader as misanthropic, but the final part of the line, “some good stuff too” suggests that Jacob’s reflections are more than just straight-up cynicism.
Set over the course of one night in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic, The Angel of History follows Jacob, a half-Yemeni, half-Lebanese poet and the son of a prostitute, as he revisits the events of his life, including his childhood in Yemen and Egypt, his schooling in Lebanon with neo-colonial French nuns (and informal education in the brothel where his mother worked), and his experience as the only one of his friends to survive the U.S. AIDS epidemic.
Jacob’s survival is a reminder to younger readers that those who lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s continue to bear the scars and trauma of loss and abandonment. As a young gay man, who was not yet in high school during the height of the AIDS epidemic, reading The Angel of History was perhaps the closest I will come to understanding just how terrifying and traumatic it must have been for those who lived through it.
In fact, Jacob has a few choice words for the younger generation of gay men who did not experience the AIDS crisis. When one young gay man remarks about how horrifying it must have been for the writer Joan Didion to lose her husband and daughter within eighteen months of each other, Jacob responds:
You think that’s horrifying? You feel sorry for her? She’s lived a full life. I had six friends die in a six-month period, half a dozen of my close friends including my partner. We were nothing but babies, where was she when we were dying, where were you, you motherfuckers? […] How can you not know your history? You with your righteous apathy, how can you allow the world to forget us, to delete our existence, the grand elision of queer history?
Still, Jacob does not seek our sympathy. He knows that sympathy is a useless currency. He exists in and of himself, seeking neither approval nor acceptance. And it is this that makes the moments of vulnerability in The Angel of History so powerful.
Alameddine shows the history of the AIDS crisis in all its ugliness, and his refusal to sanitize or romanticize only makes Jacob’s grief all the more heart breaking. Take this line, from near the novel’s end, where Jacob reflects on life after the death of his lover, Doc:
I lie on my side, head sunk in the pillow, waiting for first light, for the lift of the curtain, waiting for you, how your right hand used to entwine with my left in the universal slow dance, how our bodies fit in bed, yet you didn’t show up.
This sentence is particularly heavy because Jacob and Doc’s relationship is never idealized. It is up and down and contradictory and perfectly in line with their status as outsiders—as ‘diseased outsiders’, as many homosexual men were viewed in the 80s and early 90s. This, like the book’s other queer relationships and friendships, are beautifully rendered in all their dimensions by Alameddine: the shame, guilt and stigma, but also the freedom, joy, and humor (Jacob’s participation in S&M practices draws interesting parallels with his sexual, racial and ethnic identities).
Alameddine has a special talent for breaking your heart with one sentence, and, with the next, having you in tears of laughter. Take this passage where Jacob excoriates his lover’s mother for stealing all their things following Doc’s death:
There’s a special place in hell for people like your mother, she’s probably there now, circle four, quadrant B. Quadrant C, Thomas Friedman’s, is waiting for him completely empty because no human could possibly do enough evil to have to suffer Friedman’s company for eternity, but I digress.
There is so much more in this novel that bears mentioning: from the question of what we gain and lose through assimilation (“We refused everything, rejected their heavens and their hells, and you turn around and accept both and you keep saying I do and I do and I do … while they shove you in a tiny vestibule and you pretend it’s Versailles.”), to society’s need for an ‘Other’ (“Homos, homos, homos, kill, kill, kill, fags, dykes, sting ‘em, smite ‘em, there, there, we feel much better, but now we’re gay-married in the armed forces, so al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda, kill, kill, kill, Hamas, Ayatollah, bomb ‘em, drone ‘em….”), to challenging ideas of queerness (“Sand nigger wherever I went, my mother’s ancient blood coursed in my veins, sand nigger because I was an Arab, nigger because I was black, nigger because I was queer, nigger because I was an exile, nigger because my dick got hard when you whipped me.”).
Yet, the novel does not feel heavy with ideas. In fact, at times, I wanted Jacob to sit me down on his lap and tell me his stories, to teach this young queer Arab kid how to live in this messed up world. But, Jacob wouldn’t do that. He’s not the grandfatherly type. He’s more like a scatter-brained, flamboyant uncle who teaches by existing, with no care for whether you catch the message. Instead, he flutters into a room, exists, and walks out, leaving behind a string of unconnected thoughts like a faint whiff of perfume you are unable, at first, to decipher, but that slowly settles into your heart, leaving you with a sense of familiarity and nostalgia.
But nostalgia for what? Jacob tells us he abhors nostalgia: “I loathed the poetry of nostalgia, so I chopped down the olive trees of my ancestors, if I hear one more stanza eulogizing the scent of orange blossoms in Palestine, I will buy a gun, I swear.” Except I don’t think Jacob loathes nostalgia. In fact, I believe he remains incredibly nostalgic.
What Jacob does seem to abhor is the nostalgia that seeks to white-wash, to present the history of lost friends, bombed homes, exile, and grief as somehow saintly or ‘good’. Instead, Jacob’s nostalgia is for something raw and real: the beatings and bombs alongside the smell of pine leaves and orange blossoms; the reckless freedom of queer life prior to assimilation, alongside the diseased and broken queer bodies abandoned by a government that looked the other way. This is a nostalgia that doesn’t seek to forget the reasons why we are where we are. This, in my opinion, is a responsible nostalgia.
In many ways The Angel of History feels like, if not a sequel to then, a (more accomplished) extension of Alameddine’s first book, Koolaids, published in 1998 and set at the intersection between the AIDS epidemic and the Lebanese civil war. Reading both novels alongside each other is a poignant reminder that grief and anger do not dissipate with time, nor does the pain of dislocation woven within the life of an immigrant, refugee, or exile.
Given the novel’s structure, the Angel of History requires the reader to give up on normal conventions of storytelling and submit to disruption, which, while uneven, remains pleasant and meditative. The novel frequently jumps to scenes where Satan, and Death interview fourteen saints who accompanied Jacob throughout his life, in order to interrogate Jacob’s memories. There are also excerpts from Jacob’s journals, as well as some of his short stories. Such a fragmented narrative would falter at the hands of many novelists, but Alameddine successfully weaves them together to create a beautiful portrait of a complex and unforgettable character.
Nevertheless, at times, the narrative can be difficult to follow: I found myself having to remember whether I was reading a journal entry, short story, a conversation between Satan and Death, or Jacob’s own thoughts at the clinic. But I didn’t mind this, and in a way enjoyed the quick leaps between different ideas and perspectives that were often only tangentially connected to one another.
Because of this, this is that rare book that, once finished, leaves you wanting to start all over again, with the knowledge that a second or third reading would lead to more hidden gems buried in the pages. The Angel of History has cemented Alameddine as one of the leading queer novelists of our times, exploring outsiders in all their forms and resisting categorization like a rebellious teenager. In the age of Trump, we need his type of nostalgia more than ever.
The Angel of History was published October 2016 by Atlantic Monthly Press.