It Shouldn’t Work


I am familiar with Diana Abu-Jaber from a class she taught at my alma mater. I wasn’t actually enrolled in the course, but had the one scheduled afterwards. She was teaching Arab-American Literature, whereas I was taking a course on the Modernist Arab Novel taught by dry Professor Fishbein and populated by impossibly dryer graduate students. Jaber’s course, on the other hand, was filled with young Armenian/Persian and Arab undergraduates unsubtly flirting with one another. It was entertaining for me to show up early to observe the girls in her course as they would talk about their ‘right’ to wear veils and “be modest,” while they kept the upper parts of their potato sacs cinched so tightly that their bosoms hung out all the more alluringly to their potential husbands. Once the class would end, to prevent the suffocation of Professor Fishbein I would preemptively open the windows to clear off the stench from the cologne all the guys wore. During those liminal moments at the threshold, Abu-Jaber and I shared a kind of sympathetic connection as she would always wince a bit when the girls would discuss their ‘right’ to forgo clitoral stimulation. That, however, might have also been a side-effect of the cologne.

I made an effort to seek out her first novel, Arabian Jazz, shortly after I first encountered her. If you go online, you will see people discuss it as a quest for Arab-American identity, which is tantamount to telling a person not to read it. Eh, it was a first novel. Still, I enjoyed it because I saw the book as a therapeutic attempt to purge herself of her family; to mock her Lebanese relatives over in Syracuse which used to be a right reserved to Arabs until Caucasians stole anti-Arab sentiment from us after 911. These quests for identity are best when they’re about purging oneself of second-hand identities and obtaining it on one’s own, as all adults in every culture are supposed to do. Abu-Jaber is an East-Coaster, and discusses a demographic of Arabs (yes, they are still Arabs even if they don’t live in the middle-east… no need to be so literal about populations) that I tend to dismissively refer to as “the New Jersey Egyptians.” Ten years later, I saw a new book entitled Origins by Abu-Jaber at 57th Street Books, and decided to take a chance.

The first thing I noticed when perusing the book was the cover blurb by Chuck Palahniuk, leading me to wonder, “Jeez, what the hell happened to Diana?” While reading the novel I discovered she had written a memoir between this and Arabian Jazz. The unforgivable title of that book was The Language of Baklava. Upon learning this, I knew I couldn’t give Origins a good review. Nobody with such gratingly poor taste could write anything worth recommendation. As one of my bastard interns pointed out, if it had at least been titled The Language of Balaklava a reader might expect a good action/adventure terrorism story. Still, with Palahniuk on her side, perhaps Abu-Jaber’s sentimentality might have been traded for some entertaining abjection.

Rather, after reading it my sense is that they must have met in the Portland area Creative Writing circuit. Looking at it objectively, this book has a lot of the hall-mark traits of the creative writing seminar. It’s genre fiction about a forensic investigator — Lena Dawson — on the case of a baby murderer, but with a twist to keep the rest of the writing seminar fixed on the story. You see, the investigator was orphaned and for the first two years of her life, raised by apes! No. Really. That’s what we’re told.

My ambivalence stems from the fact that this is actually an excellently written example of the kind of thing that stems from these writing workshops. It has none of the excessive descriptive passages that would-be authors interpolate from their assigned writing exercises. It’s all measured, and when she does descend into lyricism, the passages are authentically moving. However, the ape thing tormented me as I read it. It kept intruding on the story, distorting the verisimilitude necessary for this kind of detection fiction. There’s a feminist angle inasmuch as Lena is forced by her conscience to go the extra mile in investigating the case as mothers are also being victimized by the murder of their infants. Even ‘the New Jersey Egyptians’ show up here and there, most memorably in the person of Mr. Memdouah, a former sociologist at SUNY Bimhangton who has become a destitute schizophrenic. Mr. Memdouah’s rants about the “technocrats” are especially entertaining if, like me, you think that all sociologists are mentally ill. Terrorism-paranoia also rears its head as Memdouah is, for a time, blamed for the murders. Since it would be sheer narcissism if anyone in Syracuse were to imagine that Al-Quaeda were after them, Mr. Memdouah gets aligned with Native American Rights groups. But we all know where the author is really going with this…

Though the whole ape angle does draw one out of the story, its purpose is clear. The roots of Lena’s identity are in question. She’s alienated from her humanity. As alien as the ape-thing is to the genre, it’s becoming kind of a cliche that forensic types are inhuman and somewhat robotic. If ever, to catch a glimpse of a shirtless David Boreanaz, you’ve watched an episode of that lousy show, Bones, you will know what I mean. Other characters refreshingly do comment on this. For example, the complaint “Lena, for chrissakes. You’re being a weirdo.” This kind of self-awareness on the part of the novel does give the reader some breathing room between the apes and the cops.

While there are glaring mistakes in judgment, the author of Origins is unmistakably talented, and in all good conscience, I can’t recommend it as there aren’t enough stylistic faults and idiosyncrasies for my bastards to mock.

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