While closing out his bar tab, a man spots my copy of Rabih Alameddine’s Koolaids and asks, “What’s it about?”
“The Lebanese Civil War,” I say.
He looks surprised. “Seems like a small book for all that.”
But I’m not finished. “It’s also about the AIDS epidemic.”
He raises his eyebrows, and just before I can say what else, the man leaves. I know I’ve botched the dress rehearsal of this review. I feel as if I’ve just reduced a great piece of literature into stale newspaper clippings, as if I’ve just enacted one of the novel’s theses: maybe, as an AIDS-free American, I can’t be bothered with the actual narratives of either of these wars.
To be fair, ‘What’s it about?’ is not an ideal question for a book like Koolaids. One should probably begin, just as Alameddine does, by thinking about how the book is written. This novel is composed of vignettes, or “infinitesimal” segments, that resemble literary chaos. In the recurring playlet embedded within the novel, Arjuna poses an existential question to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Are you suggesting life has no purpose? No unity, nothing to pull all these illogical vignettes into a coherent collage?”
The playlet, which reads like a tragicomic adaptation of Mahabharata (imagine, if you will, Vyasa passing his quill to Beckett), co-stars Arjuna and Krsna, and less expectedly Eleanor Roosevelt, Julio Cortázar, Krishnamurti, Jesus, Mame Dennis, and Tom Cruise (“who looks lost”). The very fact of an exchange between Cruise and Roosevelt, not to mention their selfsame voices (“Tom: Why me? Eleanor: Oh, shut up.”), is an exercise in anachronism. It’s a pleasure to watch Cruise jockey for relevance as American egomania is reduced to stock character. Non-spoiler alert: Cruise has already played a larger role in this review than he does in the entire novel.
Alameddine is a keen perpetrator of this kind of de-centering—of Tocquevillian exceptionalism, of homophobia, of Islamophobia, and of thanatophobia (fear of death). At this very particular intersection, a triumvirate of protagonists—Mohammad, Samir, and Makram—relay an ironic narrative epitomized by this standalone vignette:
In America, I fit, but I do not belong.
In Lebanon, I belong, but I do not fit.
As other critics have noted, it’s not always possible to tell who’s at the mic, so the feedback loops get braided (sometimes knotted). To hear one is to hear all.
As Alameddine is, like his characters, a painter and writer who divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut, it is feasible to read Koolaids as an occasional roman à clef (maybe even a roman à passe-partout). The characters convey sympathetic narratives of massacre, revolution, counter-revolution, assassination, and scandal. In America, the foci expand to Lebanese-American art, sexual fantasy, artistic tutelage, and the recurring AIDS arc (hookup, infection, diagnosis, prognosis, deathbed, and death itself). We are reminded, again and again, via Alameddine’s preferred postmortem motif: “No one escapes the little tag on the big toe.” Accordingly, the three protagonists are just slightly outnumbered by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, minor foils whose intermittent quips measure the pulse of this text. With so many intervening perspectives, the graphic suffering of an AIDS patient may be followed by an equally graphic fellatio fantasy. The novel’s heart is thusly arrhythmic.
Other voices too, are distinguishable by their form. There is a diarist, for example, whose entries catalog her family’s disintegration as a result of political corruption and an editorialist whose columns chronicle Lebanon’s shaky geopolitics. Against a backdrop of unhinged interiority, these incidences of formal artifice help the novel achieve critical verisimilitude to ground readers. Like Adam Thirlwell’s textually acrobatic Kapow! (an ensemble text following the lives of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the midst of the Arab Spring), Koolaids’ polyvocality creates a signature turbulence. Occasionally I am reminded of Joe Brainard’s I Remember or Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too, the way their preference for nonlinearity makes the interstices matter most of all. In Koolaids, the formal interstices are the only constant. This is where Alameddine psycho-spatially recalibrates, breaking the page between all the epistolary, ekphrastic, fantastical, scriptural, dramatic, journalistic, eulogistic, and hallucinatory vignettes.
One protagonist regularly hallucinates conversations with Coover, Borges, Hesse, Updike, and Sparks. This iconoclastic salon tows the line between pastiche and errata, reverence and farce. Elsewhere, the sparring of world leaders plays out in a tragicomedy of errors, the result of which is that Beirut, one of the world’s oldest cities, is shelled to rubble. Figures from Israel, the United States, Palestine, Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Syria (then led by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father) contribute to the prevailing bedlam. One of the more incidental instances of intertextuality in Koolaids relates to Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath (“Where do they come up with these names?” a character asks). It’s worth noting that Al-Qaeda cited this city-razing campaign in its justification for the World Trade Center attacks. Too, there is a one-off mention of the 1983 United States Embassy suicide bombing in Beirut, the first-ever act of terror by militant Islamists on American soil (almost thirty years before Benghazi). By inviting America into the frame, Alameddine is merely being historical—or elaborative, as when he compares “cleaner, tidier, more orderly, and antiseptic” East Beirut to “a smaller Marin County.” It is not a frame so much as it is a frame of reference.
And when there is no frame of reference? One protagonist resorts to unapologetically trolling readers who are presumably uninitiated in the horrors of either of this novel’s wars. While visiting an unconscious AIDS patient, the speaker’s curiosity (“Insensate? Insentient?… Palsied?”) transforms into second-person speculation. “What if it were you?” he asks before delving into the scatological humility of the AIDS invalid. Eventually, the speaker withdraws this projection, saying, “Don’t worry. It won’t happen to you.” For this speaker, the reader’s ignorance is always under scrutiny: “Ox sat. I bet you don’t know what ox sat is.” And it’s true—at least for this reader. After a brief explanation of oxygen saturation, the vignette ends with another accurate exposure of my ignorance: “I bet you don’t know what a picc line is.” The narrator is desperately trying to valuate a knowledge set he’s steeply learned.
Recently, Beirut has become a natural refuge for rebel fighters fleeing the Syrian Civil War. These newcomers enter a city whose infrastructure imploded in the wake of its own civil war. Even though it’s 25 years later, Beirut still has one of the worst civic infrastructures in the world. Alameddine’s patchwork is a necessary blueprint (see the seams between canvas and diary) that vindicates a generation of Lebanese émigrés. By taking the girder-and-panel approach to cultural reconstruction, Koolaids lays a foundation that’s funny but firm, replacing all the buckled pieces with these scant pages. While these characters are berated for ending their family lines, the Republic rejoices as new lines are drawn triumphantly in the sand. The protagonists collaborate on a cadaver exquis that demarcates their fraught fitting and belonging—the unruly polygon of expatriation and détente.
Even though I’ve finished reading it, I still take Koolaids with me—to the bar, to appointments, to my classes—hoping somebody asks again. Maybe next time, I’ll talk about the how rather than the what. Or maybe I’ll just quote Mohammad’s friend, who says of the art critics’ reviews: “I do not have the acuity, or acumen to comment on what was written. I am not omniscient.” With this flourish, he disavows his narrative authority while brandishing the privileged limits of humanity. It is only through accumulation and association that the vignettes begin to resemble omniscience, something that registers like art and rives like war.