Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Hakawati

I'm annoyed.

You know when you're reading a book, and you're near the end, and you look at how many pages are left and think, "Ok, I've gota dozen pages to go," but you're wrong because there are endnotes and you've only got one more page of the actual book?
I was just reading The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine and had that experience. I confess, I was irked. Impressive, that in reading a book that's just over 550 pages, I hit the end and thought, "But no, I want more."

When I read Alameddine's book I, The Divine, I knew he was a good writer. Not many can pull off a novel written entirely in first chapters.

With this one, I was impressed again. It's gorgeously written and brilliantly executed. Two of the cool things about it: it's metafictionally groovy and the fact that it's written in the style of the traditional storytelling from which the book takes its name. He starts out telling one story, then splits off into another, then divides again. You get the main character's story of his dying father, then stories of the family's history, then a folk tale, which adds in another folk tale, sprinkled throughout with numerous moments of "Let me tell you a story." It's mind-boggling how he juggles it all, and especially how he manages to make it perfectly coherent. Brilliant.

Technically, I can see how he pulls it off. The inter-cutting of stories is constant, so constant that he doesn't stick with a single one for more than a couple pages before switching back to another, so the different characters and plotlines are always fresh in your mind. Also, the overall structure is grounded into two arcs, the present-day arc with the main character, and the story of Fatima, with all others in some way branching off from them. So, while you've got dozens of stories going on at a time, you've still only ever got two. Make sense?

If I can ever pull off something that intricate and complex, I will be infinitely pleased with myself.

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