THE ANGEL OF HISTORY by Rabih Alameddine


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A poet reckons with emotional stability after his lover’s death, with a few cameos from the spiritual world.

Jacob, like many characters in Alameddine’s oeuvre (An Unnecessary Woman, 2014, etc.), is highly literate, Middle Eastern, gay, and tormented: as the story opens, he's checking himself into a San Francisco psychiatric clinic because he's “having hallucinations, hearing Satan’s voice again.” News of another drone strike in his mother’s native Yemen hasn’t helped his sanity, but his central despair is the inability to shake the loss of his friends and partner during the height of the AIDS crisis. The novel’s fractured narrative captures the variety of coping mechanisms Jacob has tried: he recalls visits to S&M dungeons, delivers irreverent and satirical rants about politics and culture (“if I hear one more stanza eulogizing the scent of orange blossoms in Palestine, I will buy a gun, I swear”), and recalls his peripatetic childhood separated from his parents. Alameddine adds a mystical layer to these memories in sections where Satan (presumably a projection of Jacob’s anxieties) holds court with Death and various saints to prod Jacob to continue his self-loathing. As in An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine is excellent at weaving literary references into his storytelling, and his set pieces have a sardonic cast that captures Jacob’s struggle to make sense of a world overflowing with HIV and innocent war victims; one digression is an extended boy-meets-drone fable. That said, the novel’s continuous shifts into different rhetorical gears risk making the novel feel almost centerless, or at least distant from the core story of Jacob’s stint in the clinic. Nobody could reasonably recommend that Alameddine restrict his limber imagination, but his swoops from dour to catty to fablelike to earthbound can be jarring.

A feverish portrait of a mind in crisis, echoed in some overly fragmented storytelling.

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2576-7
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2016


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