Sheltering Sky, The

by Paul Bowles


I read this when I was 22 or 23 and didn’t get it at all.  It seemed vaguely important, but also boring and plotless.  Re-reading it as I near 30 has been eye-opening.  It’s a haunting story narrated beautifully.

Bowles made this a kind of anti-novel.  It still doesn’t really have a plot, but that doesn’t bother me as much anymore.  It’s more an exercise in existentialism, nihilism, and the ennui of Western civilization’s bourgeois youth.

Along the way, Bowles displays a penetrating insight into the psychology of a married couple on the outs.  Through dialogue and occasional omniscient-narrator comments, he captures the frustrating disconnect and alienation they suffer, mostly through a tragic lack of clear communication.  An example from the beginning:

“It seems as though there might be some place in the world they could have left alone,” said the girl.  This was to please her husband, because she regretted having felt annoyed with him about the maps a moment ago.  Recognizing the gesture, but not understanding why she was making it, he paid no attention to it. p.7

The entire book is filled with such subtleties.  One of my favorite lines is his characterization of Kit, the wife, early on:

She was no more disturbed by other people as such, than the marble statue is by the flies that crawl on it. . .p.39

This is just awesome.  Bowles doesn’t have to directly tell you that she is cold, condescending and unfeeling.  He just compares her to a friggin statue.

The level of detail in the book is truly mesmerizing.  Bowles is one of the only authors I’ve ever read who can transport you to a setting just through his flowery descriptions.  He remembers details that nobody else does, and they make the scene come alive.  Perhaps my favorite such moment:

From a grilled window over his head came hard female voices and the metallic sound of kitchen activities, amplified by the stone walls and tile floors.  This room, even more than the others, reminded him of a dungeon.  The electric bell of the cinema was audible above all the other noises, a constant, nerve-racking background.  He went to the writing tables, lifted the blotters, opened the drawers, searching for stationery; there was none.  Then he shook the inkwells; they were dry.  A violent argument had broken out in the kitchen.  Scratching the fleshy parts of his hands, where the mosquitoes had just bitten him, he walked slowly out of the room through the foyer, along the corridor into the bar.  Even here the light was weak and distant, but the array of bottles behind the bar formed a focal point of interest for the eyes. p.51

I could see people arguing that this passage is completely irrelevant, having nothing to do with plot development or even characterization, and they’d probably have a point, although that doesn’t make it any less AWESOME.  Who can’t relate to this guy stuck in a sweaty hotel room with mosquitos biting him?  You know EXACTLY what Bowles is talking about, yet how many other authors have shown the attention to detail to put it down?  Like I said, he transports you there.  You empathize completely, and it’s all a part of the lingering hypnotic effect that Bowles weaves around you from the outset.

##SPOILERS##  It’s not a perfect book, and it mostly has to do with Bowles’ non-traditional story telling.  There is no real beginning-middle-end, and there’s no true plot.  It’s just a study of characters dealing with the phenomenon of existential angst.  It’s most noticeable when the main character, Port, dies a little more than halfway through.  Until then he has been the most compelling character in the book, so his absence leaves the reader without any real anchor in the story.  This makes the nightmarish finale much less gripping than it maybe should have been.

Other than that, I love this book.  I guess I just can’t recommend it to a lot of people because most of those outside of the literary crowd probably wouldn’t get it, just like I didn’t the first time around.

Original Review


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