From the beginning of Mona Prince’s So You May See, I was clear about what the narrator, Ayn, was trying to accomplish. She writes, in no uncertain terms, “I will write about you and me, about our love story.” She explains that she will “subsume it within a travel narrative” so that the changes and discoveries within herself and within her relationship would mirror the changes in landscape. She explains that she will add sex, politics, and some psychoanalysis to the narrative, to enact a “tried-and-tested recipe for fame.” Essentially, Ayn’s prologue acts as a sort of thesis statement, a road map for the novel, a set of promises that sometimes read like a contract, or vows:
I will write my love story just as it is, incomplete, and from my, sometimes less than objective, point of view . . . I will make an effort, in accordance with my ability or my understanding, to make room for the perspective of my co-partner in the story . . . I will write passages based upon moments I lived through without adhering to a specific form. The passage may take the form of a narrative, a prose poem, a quotation from other texts, or a letter. A section may be long, one line, or one word; in the literary register or colloquial; with a fair deal of sarcastic asides or critical interventions that sometimes undermine what I’m writing.
What choice did I then have but to examine the entire novel in terms of whether or not it delivered on these promises? From then on, for better or worse, reading So You May See became more of an assessment of the terms it had set for itself than an open-minded exploration of the text.
That being said, as an exploration of a relationship and of the love within it, So You May See definitely came through, to the point of feeling near-obsessive. Or perhaps that was just the nature of the way Ayn feels about Ali. I went into the book expecting a character’s thoughtful reflection on her true love—and in a sense it was. However, for a story about two grown adults, the plot seemed quite childish: two people meet at a party, they swiftly come together and go through a honeymoon stage, one of the two repeatedly distances himself emotionally, the other keeps coming back for more heartache, all the while exploring her other sexual options in a seemingly unhealthy way. Most of the time I was irritated with Ayn. I feel like this is not the ideal way to feel about a novel’s protagonist, but when Ali revealed that he was going to marry another woman, and Ayn continued to insist he was “a gift from the Lord that I didn’t know how to treasure,” what else is there to feel? Sweetie, I wanted to scream, he’s marrying someone else and you blame yourself? What’s wrong with this picture?
Plot frustrations aside, sometimes the actual writing was just bad. I’m not an Arabic or translation expert, so I’m not sure if I ought to blame Mona Prince (author) or Raphael Cohen (translator) but at times I felt like I was reading the work of an amateur. But Liz, you might well interject, isn’t the whole novel supposed to be the work of an amateur writer? Isn’t Ayn supposed to be someone just trying her hand at writing? Yes, I would answer, but there are some phrases, such as “Do you know what my bank balance is from my past drug dealing?,” that do not appear to be the intentional affectation of beginner’s prose. In other places, the writing seems to evoke nothing but laziness: “I scratch him, kiss him, bite him. He gets turned on and does likewise.” Scratching, kissing, and biting are supposed to be frenzied expressions of lust, right? So why does the scene read flat?
Another minor point of issue was the sprinkling of poetry throughout the text. From the beginning, it was obvious that Prince/Ayn (for, at the moment, I do not know on whom to blame ineptitude) was not a poet. Lines like “a kind of familiarity, of spontaneity, that made our bodies’ union natural / as if we’d been together in another, past life” are riddled with cliché. Others, like “because you’re linked to me with an umbilical cord,” feel clunky and awkward in the midst of shorter, succinct lines. Above all, the poetry is unremarkable, nothing to publish, nothing I would read if a book of it were presented to me, which begs the question, Why is it there? Surely the prose would survive on its own, and the inclusion of poetry does not make the text experimental, as I believe Prince believes it did—poetry plus prose in the context of one work does not equal nouveau-writing.
To be fair, though, there are some moments of beauty that shine through the mediocrity. Ayn’s dreams about her teeth falling out and her insistence that they mean Ali’s impending death ring with the truth of irrational love worries. Phrases like “he drip-feeds me his beauty,” and “she is still shepherding her wilderness” ring with the patience of waiting for the right image and expression of that image. Passages like “We will wake up at dawn one day to the sound of bombs falling on Baghdad. The tears will gel in our eyes in mourning for the civilizations of Mesopotamia. We will await our turn” are haunting and lovely. I only wished there were more of them to enjoy throughout the novel.
Like I mentioned before, Ayn outlines her entire novel before the plot even begins, promising readers a love story and the specifics of its construction. Her final declaration of intent, though, is not to accurately capture the specifics of her relationship with Ali. Instead, she declares, “What concerns me now is to gamble at writing as I gambled at love: with even greater audacity, I will go wild with writing like I went wild with love.” Ironically, this assertion is the perfect embodiment of the novel; when you gamble, sometimes it pays off and you take home the jackpot. However, more often than not, the casino takes your money and you have little to show for your efforts. In this case, I’d have to say that So You May See went bust.
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