Originally published in Out Magazine's 2016 Out 100 issue
Midway through award-winning author Rabih Alameddine’s new novel-in-fragments, The Angel of History, his narrator Jacob compares AIDS to a river that drowned everything he knew but him. “I thought I had triumphed,” he says, “only to discover years later that the river’s persistence, it’s restlessness, trickled into tiny rivulets that reached every remote corner of my being.”
Like Alameddine, Jacob is a writer, living in San Francisco but raised (in part) in Beirut, Lebanon. But there the similarities end. Jacob has been struck numb and dumb by surviving the first wave of the AIDS crisis, his poetry stoppered; Alameddine burst onto the literary scene with 1998’s searing, experimental novel Koolaids, which contrasted the hell of war (the Lebanese Civil War) with the hell of plague (AIDS).
“There was nothing reasonable about those years,” Alameddine tells me over a video chat from Lebanon, the computer’s anemic internet glitching the sarcasm in his voice until he sounds like a nest of angry, gently-accented bees. “So none of the writing could be reasonable.”
Indeed, reasonable is not a word I would apply to Alameddine’s oeuvre: beautiful, comic, painful, catholic (with a decidedly lowercase “c”), effulgent, effusive, anarchic, ekphrastic, cathartic, or acerbic? Sure. But who could call a novel, written in the form of an autobiography but made up entirely of first chapters – like Alameddine’s third book, I, the Divine – reasonable? Alameddine seems always to be working at the outer limits of what one can say and how one can say it, blowing straight to shit that hackneyed old adage that you can either play with form or content, but not both at the same time.
“My writing is an expression of who I am and how my mind thinks,” he shrugs deeper into his mom’s couch, when I mention how unique his work is. “And my mind is fucked up.”
For a writer whose work is often bold and denunciatory, Alameddine is sweet and self-deprecating in person (and, he bids me to mention, single). His life is divided between San Francisco – where he does his writing – and Beirut, where he spends time with his extended family. As we talk, he spins his laptop around, showing me his mom at the other side of the room, her cat crouched over him, an aquarium, and a plate of fruit. When I ask him how life in Lebanon compares to life in SF, he says “the plums here are amazing.”
The Angel of History also jumps back and forth between the United States and the Middle East – Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon, at various points. The present-tense action follows Jacob-the-former-poet as he checks himself into a psychiatric ward to quiet the voices in his head, while the voices – Satan, Death, and the Fourteen Holy Helpers (all saints of Arabic origin who were removed from the Catholic canon at some point) – reminisce about Jacob’s life. Their goal, as Satan says in the first chapter, is “to help him remember, to harrow the soil and dislodge the silt.” Only through facing his memories will he be able to regain his poetry.
Although he bucks at the label pessimist, Alameddine takes a dim view of gay life in America today. “We are no longer in opposition to the dominant culture, and even though it’s helpful in some ways,” he tells me, “once you get accepted, the price you pay is exorbitant.” Once you are part of the system, it becomes your job to uphold that system – even the parts you find abhorrent, because they cannot be separated.
This is a view that Jacob shares. In a scene set a few weeks before the opening of the book, Jacob rages at two gay twenty-nothings in a café, screaming
All AIDS books are out of print because of you, because you only read books sanctioned by the petite NPRsie… 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 and fuck me more daddy while they shove you in a vestibule and you pretend it’s Versailles.
As stunning as this passage is – I had to put the book down and immediately text it to a few friends – it also hints at the problems that prevent The Angel of History from being the emotional tour de force that Alameddine’s other novels are. Whether they proceed in a linear fashion or not, Alameddine’s books always place the past and the present in intimate tension. Each feels immediate, necessary, and real. In The Angel of History, however, the past overwhelms the present, and the modern moment feels thinly rendered, a screen upon which to project anxieties, fears, and frustrations.
In truth, all AIDS books are not out of print right now. I’m not suggesting we live in some halcyon era where AIDS is discussed openly & intelligently everywhere, but compared to a decade ago, we are living in veritable AIDS renaissance, filled with blockbuster exhibitions (Art, AIDS, America), new movies (United In Anger), remakes (The Normal Heart), and so much more. The issues of today – HIV criminalization, PrEP, skyrocketing infection rates in the black community – are nowhere to be found in this novel. Further, while parts of the book touch on our racist, Islamophobic elision of Arabic with Muslim with terrorist, those moments seem to have no bearing on Jacob’s actual life. It feels as though one of the narrators from Koolaids simply Rip-van-Winkled his way to 2016, unaware of how the world had changed while he slept.
And perhaps that is part of the point. Alameddine says he wrote the book “to allow myself to go through the grief and the mourning that I did not allow myself then.” It is an attempt to grapple with things long buried, not with the experiences of today. Whereas Koolaids used a non-linear structure to convey the chaos and horror of life in wartime, Angel’s non-linearity feels more like the fog of PTSD, always slipping into yesterday, unable to completely engage with what is current, what is present, what is real. Jacob is utterly passive, and his eventual triumph comes in the form of defeat.
The phrase “angel of history,” is taken from an essay by early 20th century German philosopher Walter Benjamin, describing a painting by Paul Klee in which an angel looks fixedly back at something while flying ever forward. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, “he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” Causality is broken, chaos reigns, and every subsequent action is simply absorbed into the giant shitpile that the angel can’t turn away from. In this case, the metaphor could apply equally to Jacob and Alameddine himself.
Thankfully, there are things that still give Alameddine life. In particular, he tells me, it is the current generation of queer poets of color – Saeed Jones, Ocean Vuong, Derrick Austin, and Jamaal May, among others – and the political ferocity of the transgender community that remind him that the present still has things to recommend it. Indeed, although he won’t say much about it, his next book will be about a transgender woman “trying to remember.”
The Angel of History will not suit all readers, but for those – like Alameddine – trying to grapple with what cannot (and should not) be forgotten, it will surely hit home.