Koolaids: The Art of War by Rabih Alameddine – The Art Amidst a War

With this kind of title, I guess "unconventional" is an understatement for this novel by Rabih Alameddine.
With this kind of cover, “unconventional” is probably an understatement.

Koolaids: The Art of War (1999) by Rabih Alameddine is not an easy read, to say the least. Unlike most prose works that give their readers narratives designed to enable the readers jump conveniently into the world of their characters, Koolaids presents its readers with vignettes that are not immediately correlated. In the first pages, the reader can sense some vague connections among the vignettes; the vignettes only give off strong impressions thanks to their subject matters of death, AIDS and war. As the reader barges through, the connections become more and more apparent, although the book still doesn’t “come out of the closet” as to what it wants to say with those vignettes. Eventually, despite its lack of lucidity, the reader will most likely find Koolaids a strong narrative of sexuality, identity and war presented in an appropriately unconventional manner.

The book promises death from the first page–as if to follow a rule of thumb of writing a novel proposed by a prominent novelist. The story opens with the imaginary scene of three figures–probably angels of death–discussing among themselves whether our protagonist is ready to die. After a while, the reader finds that this imminent death is associated with HIV/AIDS. Having said that death is apparent from the first page, I by no means say that the beginning of the novel only talks about death; I’m here discussing the major themes of the novel individually only for convenience, in order to do justice to each important theme. The vignette about AIDS-related death is side by side with other vignettes that discuss a character’s childhood in pre-Civil War Lebanon and the (homo)sexuality of another character living in the West Coast. In this early part of the book–the book only has vignettes, no chapters, no sections–the reader starts to be curious whether this is a collection of deathbed hallucinations. Of course, nothing is clear yet.

Another important theme in this book is the character’s coming of age and his realization of his homosexuality. Hailing from a Muslim family in Lebanon, the protagonist studied in France and then the United States. He had a number of homoerotic experiences as a young boy in pre-Civil War Lebanon, where homosexuality is not to be mentioned in public, and as a teenager in Paris. He came out of the closet for the first when he was in the United States, only to find out that the person wanted to tell about his homosexuality had just died in a brutal accident. Within in theme also, the reader finds vignettes narrated by various characters who are all gay men in the circle of our protagonist who, as the story opens, is on his deathbed. From these vignettes–remember, they are scattered and by no means aggregated in a particular section of the novel–the reader can see that the protagonist is a major painter with an unconventional background. He is Lebanese by origin, American by citizenship, a homosexual, and from a Muslim background–although “Muslim” here only means that he is of Muslim parentage. This miss-mass of identity makes him at one point question whether his fame as a painter is because he has such a peculiar background. We also find along this theme, a frequently quoted line that is related to the protagonist alienation as a Lebanese homosexual: “In America, I fit, but I do not belong. In Lebanon I belong, but I do not fit” (Alameddine 40)

Also a very important theme in this book is the Lebanese Civil War, which takes up a significant portion of the book. Vignettes about the bloody war mostly appears after the parts that talk about the childhood of several characters. The novels presents snippets of the brutality of the war that divides Beirut into East Beirut (for the Christians) and West Beirut (for mostly Muslims, with a number of Christian). The reader can find a number of scenes that depict the massacre of Palestinian(refugee)s (they are a significant element in the Lebanese Civil War, FYI) by the Phalangists (the Christian party in Lebanon). It also brings up the Sadra and Shattila massacre, which is also the main incident in the animation movie and graphic novel Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman. The closest tie between the Lebanese Civil War and our protagonist who is France and the United States during that time is the story about a mother who gets a slap in the face as she finds out that her husband is a homosexual who gets an offering of young boys every so often. What makes it worse is how she finds about it: when she goes to the Christian part of Beirut and meets a militia leader who then becomes her lover.

Despite the structure that is non-chronological and the juxtaposition that doesn’t appear to be logical, the novel demands the reader to finish it mostly thanks to the gravity of its subject matter, its wittiness and its peculiar combination of themes. Although some readers might find it hard to pinpoint who narrates a certain vignette (apparently, the vignettes don’t show distinctive language although they are narrated by different characters–and this is something to be elaborated further) or they might find it hard to build the connection between the numerous characters, it is not at all difficult to build a rough connection–logically as well as chronologically–between the incidents in the story. As the reader goes on deeper into the book, she can even decide whether a vignette is an actual part of the story or just a scene that the protagonist imagines. Every so often, the reader will meet again a variation of the scene that opens the book (the one with three angels of death), as if to reorient the reader who might get lost in the jungle that is Koolaids. 

As the reader approaches the closure of the book, she will have found several vignettes that appear like confessions by the protagonist of his intention to write a novel, a story or a narrative about various things, such as love, war, Lebanese immigrants, etc. His intention never really materializes into a full-fledged story or play or biography as he is so fragmented and haunted by the imminent death. With all this, it is valid for the reader to see that this novel that doesn’t look like any conventional novel–by the way, is there such a thing as “convention” for this genre? Bakhtin would say no–is actually fragments of impressions and, probably, bits of written materials collected from a person who is dying from AIDS. Of course, this is argument is made possible by the last vignette of the story that is also a variation of the opening death scene; the difference is that in this last vignette, all the three angels are in agreement that it’s time for the protagonist to die: “I die,” affirms the protagonist.

To conclude, after reading the end of the book, I began to understand why this novel dons “The Art of War” as its subtitle. Of course, the standard “Art of War” belongs to Sun Tzu’s treatise. It’s also possible to apply that sense of “Art of War” to this book. However, it will be more fitting if we understand “the art of war” in this subtitle as the craft of presenting a story during a difficult situation. In other words, this chaotic jumble of vignettes is the most appropriate manner (the art) of presenting the story of someone battling a terminal condition (the war) of the late stage of HIV infection. This is the art amidst a war.

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