Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Sheltering Sky (by Paul Bowles)

A beautifully written novel that is less like a novel and more like a meditation on existence and on death. I was spoiled because I read the preface, which gave away the major thing that happens 70% into the novel (why do they do this, why) but one of the interesting things in that preface was the idea that Bowles wanted to try to write about the experience of death "from the inside." He does a great job with this.

I'm going through my highlights (which is my favorite thing about the Kindle app; how easy it is to highlight passages you want to revisit) and so many of them deal with the metaphor of the sky. In this novel, the sky is a protective covering for the "giant maw" that lies behind it, so a lot of the characters have ominous experiences looking at the sky. And it works perfectly with the novel's idea that we are all covered under this giant illusion that protects us from the reality of death.

The plot is a group of dilletante Americans traveling through Africa, and I feel like there is so much to think about with how they get consumed by the landscape and what the landscape represents. I haven't decided how I feel about how the "natives" are presented; I think Bowles is self-aware about this stuff, and that his characters are the obtuse ones, not the author. He also acknowledges that Kit functions "as an object" during the final, rapey parts of this novel, (she is systematically raped! but she kind of likes one of her rapists! but her identity is slowly being eroded! and she ultimately realizes she has to escape!) but he doesn't really explain why he does this.  So I have to think about this too.

Anyway, do you enjoy pondering mortality and working through various possible post-colonial and feminist readings of a text? Then this book is for you! (Really, it was a great, meaty read.) (Any insights welcomed in the comments.)
Trivia! A quote from The Sheltering Sky is on Brandon Lee's tombstone. It's one that I highlighted too; how could you not?

"Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."

Here's another good one.



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