Solitude is noisy. That the life of a loner is one of quiet ease disentangled from the lives of others is a myth. The mind can't get a break while it listens to someone else's conversation.
Instead it keeps churning, building up stories and piecing together characters it only encountered for a moment. Words and meanings accumulate inside thoughts without logic or restraint. Thoughts have less order than the carefully processed spoken word. The mind of the lonely man can be extravagant.
By Rawi Hage
W.W. Norton & Co. ($25.95).
The mind of a lonely man who obsessively reads can be dangerous. In "Carnival," Rawi Hage, a Lebanese-born writer based in Montreal, depicts the chaos of loneliness. He presents the fantastical inner life of the narrator, Fly, a taxi driver and a wanderer in a fictional city infested with crime and populated by seedy pleasure-seekers during a large carnival celebration. The book is a series of vignettes of his brief and, at times, reoccurring encounters with people he meets.
From episodes from his childhood in a traveling circus, to driving prostitutes to meet their johns, rescuing a bookish woman from a marriage to a man who doesn't read, to his incidental involvement in drug deals, Fly ticks through one sordid encounter to another.
"Meet" is the key word here, as meetings are the extent of his emotional relationships to anyone. He fashions this image of himself in long-winded prose, from the description of his mother, "the trapeze artist with the golden hair, tossed me out of her self to the applause of elephants and seals," and the bearded lady who raised him, to his pride in being forever unattached when he says: "No wanderer ever rests on the curb to play or feed. No wanderer ever chooses to travel the same road twice. I am a wanderer."
The shallow sketches of these fleeting characters are only fleshed out by fantasy. He doesn't know enough about them to make them real, only an outline of a grim profile to be filled in with the lives of fictional characters he reads in his books.
Fly describes and deliberately tries to reinforce his self-fashioned image as a wanderer throughout the book. The basis for this is that he is a type of cab driver who wanders the streets and picks up passengers off the sidewalk, as opposed to "spiders" who wait at taxi stands or respond to a dispatch.
Mr. Hage's prose mimics this rootless character raised in a circus in Europe and displaced to a city in the Americas, reading obsessively, driving aimlessly and then going home to pleasure himself while imagining himself a fictional hero in a mythical story.
Despite his effort to detach, to be a voyeur, and live outside the city he wanders, he is confined by his world of books. His apartment is filled with floor-to-ceiling stacks of books from histories to pornography, organized and reorganized according to his own classification system.
Fly's obsessive tendencies with books pattern his speech and confuse his thought, blurring his view of his own city and its inhabitants. His neighbor, Zainab, a young woman and a Muslim scholar he unsuccessfully attempts to woo throughout the novel, is a foil to the restless cabbie.
Zainab is obsessed with one book, the Quran, and while she realizes its shortcomings in practice (being a woman who enjoys a drink among other offenses), she is committed to those words.
The plot is messy and the prose over-the-top, such as when Fly decides to call it a night and go home: "My mind was made up; I was heading back to my rug to invoke the sun, the blood of martyrs and insects, the fermenting of liquids, and the flying carpets of old palaces."
And when a series of murders spreads through the city in the final act it seems like a last-minute attempt to shock and quicken the pace of the drifting narrative. Fly's world is a bleak place, filled with themes of death and the grotesque and gritty pleasure.
But what stands out is Mr. Hage's description of the mind of a loner can be even more discomforting. How does one manage the chaos that's created when one chooses a life separated from flesh-and-blood human beings?bookreviews
Julia Fraser is a writer living in Penn Hills (email@example.com). First Published July 28, 2013 4:00 AM