Carl Shuker betrays his best qualities in his latest novel.
In one of the great lines of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus famously says, “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The nightmarish history of modern Lebanon provides the setting for Carl Shuker’s latest novel, Anti Lebanon, a post-colonial dystopia. Like Shuker’s 2005 debut, The Method Actors, it is an ambitious work and an important development in New Zealand literature.
Anti Lebanon, named for the mountains that straddle Lebanon and Syria, takes in a large sweep of modern Lebanese history. At the centre of the novel is the young Leon Elias, whose Greek Orthodox family is one of the many affected by Lebanon’s internecine power struggles. He has a father haunted by his past involvement in the Lebanese Civil War, and a dead sister, Keiko, assassinated by a Phalangist death squad. Leon, who has abandoned his postgraduate studies, spends his days supervising a run-down amusement park.
Leon and his friends watch anxiously as the fragile pluralism of Lebanon’s multi-confessional state begins to fracture, while the Lebanese army appears to be withering away: “When fighting goes sectarian, uniforms come off and soldiers go home to their tribes.” Hezbollah are rumoured to be making a bid to wrest control of Beirut, as the Maronite Christians fortify the eastern suburbs of the capital. There is also the sinister influence of a pro-Syrian party whose “swirling swastikas” have appeared on Beirut signposts. Lebanon’s history of violence is summed up by a Phalangist militiaman: “When you do not pick a side, you pick a side.”
Leon’s subsequent flight across Lebanon, precipitated by the mysterious killing of a Phalangist thug, sees him travelling to Syria and then on to Jordan and finally Japan. During his lonely odyssey, there are numerous flashbacks that focus on his and his father’s shared guilt over the death of Keiko. Leon is therefore faced with an existential dilemma: whether or not to return to Lebanon and join the legions of “vampires” – real or imagined – who have perpetrated massacres like those at Sabra and Shatila, Karantina and Damour.
This recurring vampire theme is used to accentuate the more surreal aspects of the narrative, but it is only partially developed and clashes with the ostensible realism of the novel. However, despite such inexplicable idiosyncrasies, Anti Lebanon moves forward in an atmosphere of mounting dread and apocalyptic desolation.
Shuker, a master of suspense, has opted for a style that alternates between Cormac McCarthy’s hauntingly bleak lyricism and the more ornate of Joyce, William Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon. There are also echoes of Don DeLillo (Mao II) and JM Coetzee (Life and Times of Michael K). Happily, out of the myriad influences that come to bear on his writing, Shuker has created a distinctive voice that makes him one of our country’s more accomplished young writers.
There are times, however, when his desire to extend the possibilities of language and the form of the novel comes at the expense of plot and character development, a common affliction among postmodernists who seek newness and novelty in prose. Furthermore, a preoccupation with atmosphere and setting, skilfully rendered as it is, sometimes has the effect of turning sections of Anti Lebanon into extended pieces of travel writing.
The human experience – the flesh and blood realities of daily life in a failed state – is often dealt with in a perfunctory manner, and in this Shuker struggles to create a sympathetic central character.
The compassionate artistry that made his 2006 novel The Lazy Boys so compelling echoes only faintly in the ruined world of Anti Lebanon.
ANTI LEBANON, by Carl Shuker (Counterpoint, US$15.95, import only).