Rabih Alameddine, The Wrong End of the Telescope
This is an award-winning novel about the 2010s Syrian refugee crisis, set among aid workers on the isle of Lesbos and told by Mina, a narrator of the same diasporic background (Lebanese-American) and generation (post-Nakba) as the author. If you have heard anything about this book, you will have heard about the two traits that Mina does not share with her creator: first, she is a doctor, and second, she is a transgender woman.
Both in and out of the book, Alameddine has been very open about his difficulties in writing it. During the worst of the crisis he traveled to Lesbos with a vague intention of volunteering aid, and found himself staring into the usual moral abyss of the notebook-carrying cosmopolitan: suffering was all around him, he was powerless to alleviate it, and his natural impulse, to make a literary project of what he saw, seemed fatally exploitative. Ironic autofictional layering couldn’t finesse the tangle. He was on the verge of abandoning the whole effort when, as he tells it, the figure of Mina appeared to him and showed a way out. In the completed manuscript she is not only an agent of compassion and wisdom, dispensing physical and spiritual relief to every soul she encounters, she also sits in judgment over the author himself, skewering him in the second person as he cowers incapacitated in a motel room, unable to carry out his self-appointed errand or to imagine any errand of greater worth.
Once the author has shown up he proves hard to dislodge. As the book goes on the author, who continues to be addressed as "you,” comes to overshadow both the “I” of Mina and the refugees who pass in and out of her care like faces in a gallery. Mina’s relation to the author is never exactly explained; we have to take her epistemic privilege for granted. Yet it is the author’s childhood, the author’s immigration to the United States, the author’s experience of 1980s gay culture that land with the force of reality. Mina’s own past experiences are more cursory and removed, with an air of best guesses. Apart from her relationship to her brother, which is touching and deeply felt, the scene that is most uniquely her own is, unfortunately, the worst scene in the book: a frankly preposterous episode involving an orangutan. At this point, if the question hasn’t come up already, we are bound to ask: what is Mina doing here? Why is she transgender? What is her necessary function that the author couldn’t fill on his own?
It’s of course familiar duty for trans characters to be put to work as devices, either allegorizing an imagined social sickness (through-line from Myra Breckinridge to all those damn horror movies) or standing in as maximally abject victims (Poor Tony in Infinite Jest). Alameddine is doing something subtler and better intentioned. Mina is himself and not himself; she starts out with a Lebanese boyhood like his own and ends up with an American womanhood that he doesn’t share, and the thinness of that womanhood on the page is our clue that we are still dealing with a device of some kind. Mina’s doubleness, I think, shows up the contradictory work that Alameddine needs his fiction to perform, to be real and unreal at once. As a doctor she does the practical good that the writer can’t, and as a fictional echo of the self she redeems what might have been a gauchely exploitative crisis memoir. Because she is like him, we trust the project; because she is not him, she can engage with the refugees as he can’t, and resolve their varied stories in ways that are far too neat for nonfiction—many of these anecdotes must have roots in reality, but outside a novel we'd never believe them. We are meant to end up feeling that Mina’s good work casts back over the fiction itself, that perhaps it’s enough after all to put words on the page, perhaps even that once the allegory is decoded, the male author will turn out to have been a healer in his own way.
The ignoble art of fiction has to be carried out in disguise, and at its most extravagant asks us to speak a foreign language as if we were natives. How foreign is too foreign? It depends on who’s listening, maybe. On who, when you inevitably slip up, will smile in understanding. My intentions were good. I had a tight spot to get out of.