A puzzling and unsettling book of short stories that plays games with popular tropes surrounding Islam, the Middle East and the Western subject.
Many of the stories in Transactions are named after a card in the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. This is Ali Alizadeh’s first trick, perhaps playing on memories of the Tarot symbolism in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, a classic moment of spy camp. But instead of Bond’s smooth suavity, the spies and terrorists who inhabit these stories exhibit a brutish real-world buffoonery informed by racism, fabricated histories and the messy accidents of global population shifts. It is to Alizadeh’s great credit that the reader of this book is frequently unsure as to where on the political spectrum the characters fall. Are we laughing with or at the various characters? And just who is evincing the most vicious stereotypes? Upon finishing the book I am still not entirely sure, but I enjoy the subtle ambivalence at play. Alizadeh’s stories are as richly psychological as they are political.
No one comes out of the book unblemished or unquestioned. Jewish historians, Middle-Eastern Muslim heiresses and Christian American think-tank directors are all plunged into a murky world of grasped opportunity and wounded ego which is as ugly as it is recognisable, and the bitter hollowness of lazy assumptions about race and culture are voiced by them all. This is part of what makes reading the book such a frightening and occasionally perplexing experience. We are used to laughing at the racist clichés of Western hegemony, but where do we sit when confronted by the equally vicious and destructive opinions of people we might otherwise view as ‘the oppressed’? In Alizadeh’s fiction there are no comfortable post-colonial assumptions we can rely upon. It is a world full of oppressors.
Sex, in the stories, is the true global language, a corporeal Esperanto that leads, not to greater connection, but to further and deeper divisions between places and cultures. Ukrainian porn stars reflect on their potential Electra complexes while engaged in the act of recording pornographic movies, and asylum seekers deliberately sex up their claims in cynical pitches to the prurience of European sanctimony. Aid workers, in this book, are essentially lost in the solipsistic haze of their own mania to be seen as saintly, another example of the author’s uncanny ability to strike at the very heart of sloppy Western assumptions about badness and doing good.
The recurring character of the lonely airport writer is one that particularly struck me, an easily recognisable character from the worlds that so many of us inhabit. This Everywoman subjects the victim of her banal emails to a series of striking observations disguised in a torrent of uninspired reflection. As an airport dweller, she gives voice to the tensions of transnational shifts, to the uncertainty of identity in a highly mobile world: ‘I’ve been subjected to too many languages, too many accents, too many words.’ And in this polyglot confusion, the individual voices of women (and the women are most fascinating in Alizadeh’s fictional worlds) are rendered intentionally too sharp, too accented, too fake – there is an impossible linguistic shift from webcam girl to low-budget horror film actress, sketching an international trajectory of performance open to all – and their screams are always too shrill for the men who direct them.
These stories add up to a critique of where we are now as a culture. But just who this ‘we’ is, is not made entirely clear, and the author is happy for us to drift uneasily in this unknown homeland. The characters who inhabit the stories are international, but somewhere, deep in the undertow, is a thudding and ominous roar of recognition. The reader treads uncomfortably on well-worn earth and it is a terrain where no one stands balanced. The elements that connect the stories are also those that leave me most perplexed: prostitution, Greek tragedy, Islamic militancy, the East-to-West migrations of the dispossessed. The narrators are also often performers and actors, self-consciously reflecting on their grandest or most tragic moments, frequently as players in the most performative types of radical politics.
Transactions took me a while to read, and it is taking me even longer to fully comprehend. Often I felt as if I hadn’t grasped the true import or meaning of a story, as though it was meant for a reader other than me. But I suspect this is precisely the effect that has been aimed for. There is a great deal of duplicity in Alizadeh’s characters, and a great amount of the action happens offstage. Poetic, political and monstrously clever, Transactions makes for thrilling reading that will have you shifting uncomfortably in your seat.
Ali Alizadeh Transactions Penguin Australia 2013 PB 240pp $19.95
Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (2010) and Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom (2013). You can visit his blog here.
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