Alameddine, Rabih 1959–
Alameddine, Rabih 1959–
PERSONAL: Born 1959, in Jordan (some sources say Beirut, Lebanon).
Koolaids: The Art of War (novel), Picador (New York, NY), 1998.
The Perv: Stories, edited by Michael Denneny, Picador USA (New York, NY), 1999.
I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters (novel), W.W. Norton & Co. (New York, NY), 2001.
Also contributor of stories to Zoetrope: All-Story.
SIDELIGHTS: Already a respected painter, Rabih Alameddine began writing in the late 1990s, often weaving his Middle Eastern background into his stories. His first novel, Koolaids: The Art of War, interweaves the long-running war in Lebanon with the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) crisis in the United States through the use of four characters. Samia is a mother in Beirut whose diary entries bring the terror of the random incidents of war home to Alameddine's readers. Mohammed, like the novelist himself, is a painter working in the United States—his works of art are celebrated in his adopted country as wonderful abstractions, while his fellow Lebanese immigrants "recognize them as visual representations of their home country's horrors," according to a Publishers Weekly critic. Samir is a gay man whose sexuality has forced him to leave Lebanon for the United States; and Mark is a gay American who is HIV-positive and has sat through many a bedside vigil for friends dying of the same disease. Throughout his novel, Alameddine intersperses his fictional characters' viewpoints with excerpts from actual news stories and quotations from famous people.
Koolaids met with a positive response from many critics. Though Mark Lindquist, reviewing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, felt that "despite some interesting ideas and memorable imagery, [Alameddine's] book demonstrates little feel for narrative," Roger W. Durbin hailed Koolaids in the Library Journal as "fascinating reading … immediate, pitched, and frightening." A contributor to Publishers Weekly summed up the novel as "a graphic portrait of two cultures torn from the inside."
Alameddine followed Koolaids with the collection The Perv: Stories. Most of the tales here feature characters who lived in Lebanon during that country's civil war. The stories share a commonality: many of the characters have been deeply affected by the conflict and cannot be at peace, whether they still live there or have moved abroad. A number of them have gay men as main characters, exploring how their homosexuality has left them isolated from their culture. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly wrote of The Perv: "These stinging narratives vibrate with an electrical tension that comes partly from Alameddine's penchant for the outrageous, partly from his unflinching view of a society in chaos."
Alameddine's second novel also explores a cultural divide similar to the author's experiences. I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters is the main character's attempt to write a memoir. However, each time Sarah Nour El-din starts, she can only make it through the first chapter. The novel includes her nearly sixty tries at the first chapter, many quite incomplete. Guardian reviewer Maya Jaggi noted: "While it lacks the compelling immediacy of Koolaids, it confirms Alameddine as a captivating storyteller who can move and amuse even in fragments."
Over the course of I, the Divine, it is revealed that Sarah was born of a Lebanese father and American mother in Beirut. After her parents' marriage ended, she and her sisters were raised in Lebanon by her father and stepmother. She is the victim of a rape, becomes pregnant as a result and has an abortion. As an adult, Sarah moves to the United States to elope with her first husband, goes to college, and loses custody of their son to him when he returns to Lebanon. Returning occasionally to Lebanon herself to deal with family situations, Sarah chooses to live primarily in the United States. There, her relationships with men are difficult at best. For example, the mother she is trying to get to know again kills herself. Yet Sarah still finds her own voice, becoming a successful painter. Although a Publishers Weekly critic worried that the novel's narrative style borders on being just as confusing as Sarah's distressed state of mind, the reviewer added that "Sarah is a compelling, believable character who struggles to establish an identity as she navigates between cultures."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Guardian (London, England), September 21, 2002, Maya Jaggi, "The Discomfort of Families: Maya Jaggi on an Accomplished Tale of Traumatic Lives Spanning Beirut and America," review of I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, p. 29.
Library Journal, May 1, 1998, Roger W. Durbin, review of Koolaids: The Art of War, p. 135.
New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1998, Mark Lindquist, review of Koolaids, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1998, review of Koolaids, p. 69; May 17, 1999, review of The Perv: Stories, p. 54; October 29, 2001, review of I, the Divine, p. 37.
Mississippi Review, http://www.mississippireview.com/ (October 4, 2005), Kieron Devlin, interview with Rabih Alameddine.