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“Daring, dazzling . . . a tough, funny, heart-breaking book.” Seattle Times
“[A] refreshing statement of honesty and endurance ...funny, brave full of heart and willing to say things about war and disease, sexual and cultural politics that have rarely been said so boldly or directly before.” The Sunday Oregonian
When National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle finalist Rabih Alameddine’s dazzling literary debut Koolaids first published it garnered exuberant praise from Amy Tan, Rick Wallach, and Sarah Schulman, among others. Detailing the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the Lebanese civil war in Beirut on a circle of friends and family during the eighties and nineties, Koolaids mines the chaos of contemporary experience, telling the stories of characters who can no longer love or think except in fragments. Clips, quips, vignettes and hallucinations, tragic news reports and hilarious short plays, conversations with both the quick and the dead, all shine their combined lights to reveal the way we experience life today in this ambitious debut from bestselling and acclaimed author Rabih Alameddine.
“Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life.”Yiyun Li
“Rabih Alameddine is one our most daring writersdaring not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.”Michael Chabon
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels Koolaids; I, the Divine ; The Hakawati ; and An Unnecessary Woman ; and the story collection The Perv.
Read an Excerpt
I wonder if being sane means disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality.
Death comes in many shapes and sizes, but it always comes. No one escapes the little tag on the big toe.
The four horsemen approach.
The rider on the red horse says, "This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth war."
The rider on the black horse says, "This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth plague."
The rider on the pale horse says, "This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth death."
The rider on the white horse says, "Fuck this good and faithful servant. He is a non-Christian homosexual, for God's sake. You brought me all the way out here for a fucking fag, a heathen. I didn't die for this dingbat's sins."
The irascible rider on the white horse leads the other three lemmings away.
The hospital bed hurts my back.
* * *
Time. Time is what I need right now. I can't think straight anymore. I should not have said that. I try never saying the word straight. Let's say I can't concentrate. That describes my predicament accurately. I can't speak English anymore either. Really. I can't think in English. It's back to my roots. I now think and dream only in Arabic. I haven't done that for the longest time.
James was here the other day. Or was it today? I can't think straight. Time gets very confusing.
James says something to me. I reply. He has that look of utter confusion. He doesn't understand a word I say. I switch to English. It's really easy for me to switch between two languages. I actually can communicate clearly in three. French is my second language. English is my third. Most Lebanese can speak three languages. I can really speak only two. French has been completely forgotten. I have not dreamed in French since I was a boy. I spoke English when I was a boy. It actually was the first language I spoke. I had a nanny who spoke only English. She was from Liberia. She was black. So is James.
James sits on the chair in front of my bed. I lie down quite a bit these days. He always asks how I am feeling. Great, James, I am feeling great. I am not dying. He always implies that I am. James sits on the chair in front of my bed. James looks tired. He is slouching. His socks don't match. It isn't as if they don't match in the classic sense. That is, they do not match anything he is wearing. My father says a man's socks must first match his tie. If that doesn't work, they must match the shirt; followed by the jacket, if it is different from the pants. Pants should be the last match. If none of that works, one is supposed to wear black socks. But if you ask me, one should go out and buy socks which match. James is wearing white tube socks, and that simply does not work since he is wearing nothing else which is white. He is slipping. I tell him, but he doesn't understand me. I must have said it in French and he doesn't speak French. Most Americans speak nothing other than English. Hold on a second. I am an American and I speak French, so that statement does not describe my predicament accurately. Actually, French has been completely forgotten and that describes my predicament more accurately.
James sits on the chair in front of my bed. He looks tired. At thirty-nine, he no longer looks as young as he did. Neither does my father. There was a time when James was handsome. Or was he just nice-looking? I can't remember that far. I ask him why he comes so often to visit me. His mouth drops. I guess he understood what I said. I must have said it in English. James looks so cute when he is shocked. His eyes get so wide.
* * *
I open the door for Kurt. "Hi there," he says cheerfully. I grunt acknowledgment and head back to my chair. He comes into the living room, where Scott and I are sitting. Scott puts his book down to receive a kiss from his latest boyfriend.
"What are you reading?" Kurt asks, picking up the book. He sits on the arm of the chair and tousles Scott's hair. "Spanking the Maid? That's a provocative title. What's it about?"
"Spanking the maid, of course," Scott replies. He picks up another book. There are no less than eight books on the table next to him.
"I wish I could read as much as you do," Kurt says. "This is such a short book. It's not a book. It's a short story."
"It's a novel, or whatever Coover wants to call it. A book's length is irrelevant."
I wonder how long this relationship is going to last. I continue reading the paper, trying to ignore both of them.
"I guess you're right," Kurt adds. "Still, I probably would prefer books that are more substantial than this. Something which takes time to develop."
Four weeks tops.
"Here, let me read you this." Scott picks up a Calvino book. "You might find it interesting:
Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can discover the continuity of time only in the novels of the period when time no longer stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.
"Do you follow this?"
"Not really," Kurt says. "Are you ready to go to the movie?"
Two weeks. Not more than two weeks.
* * *
James took his friend's hand and kissed it. "I come to see you because you're my best friend," James said.
"You should go out more often," he said and burst out laughing.
"I know. I know."
"I'm not your best friend, James," he said. "I never was. I was Scott's best friend. We had him in common."
"You're my friend, Mo," James said. "You are my friend."
* * *
March 20th, 1976 Dear Diary,
This day is without a doubt the worst day of my life. The shelling was getting closer to our apartment. My husband thought it was okay to go to work today. No problem, he said. They won't be fighting here, he said. The children were underfoot all morning. The maid was having another Egyptian anxiety attack. She was no help. When a loud shell exploded, she let out a bloodcurdling scream which made Joumana cry. I wanted to slap her, but didn't risk it. Then it happened.
We heard the whistle long before it hit. It must have been only a few seconds, but it seemed eternal. The only thing I remember about those seconds was the look in Samir's eyes. He heard it. I heard it. We looked at each other. The shell exploded on a floor somewhere below us. The whole building shook. Every pane of glass in the apartment exploded. The children screamed. I screamed. The maid did an Egyptian pirouette and fainted. I yelled at the kids to get moving. We were going down to the shelter. I was proud of how calm I was. I had been expecting this for some time, but one never knows how one will behave until it actually happens. Samir slapped the maid, bless his little soul, and shoved her out the door. We ran down the stairs, which luckily were undamaged.
God in all his mercy decided to send my husband home just in time. We met him going down the stairs. We took him down with us to the makeshift shelter in the building's underground garage.
We arrived at the same time as the Sanyuras. Labiba Sanyura was in her nightgown. How embarrassing for her, I thought. She did not even have time to put something on. Although, with her weight, she should not walk around the house in a nightgown. The children were all excited. They tried to find out the news from each other. My husband asked if anybody knew which floor was hit. Someone said the shell had hit the fourth floor. My first thought was how lucky we were to be higher up. This made up for all the times I cursed our luck having to use the stairs to go up eight flights when the electricity was out. As if we all had the same thought at the same exact instant, we all looked around to see if the Habayebs were down here. They were not. I started praying they were not at home. I realized it was not very likely. My eyes started tearing.
Najwa Habayeb is my friend.
My husband, bless him, said someone should go up and check on them. Basil Rawda screamed, "Are you crazy?" My husband said, "If they are up there, they would need our help." Rawda, who is a very unpleasant man, said, "Then you go up. If you want to orphan your children, you go up." My husband got a hard look in his eyes, which I knew so well, and said he was going up. I was so proud of him. Najib Hafez said he would accompany him.
I told my husband I was coming along. I had to check on Najwa. He convinced me I was acting silly. We could not risk both our lives. They left and stayed up there for fifteen minutes. I started getting hysterical. Rawda told me my husband was crazy. I told him he was an asshole. That shocked both of us. He never said another word for the entire day. My children were distracted, but I kept waiting. The shells kept falling and falling. I felt my control slipping.
When my husband came into the garage carrying Najwa, her face covered in blood, I lost it. I screamed. The children screamed. Mr. Hafez, who followed my husband, was carrying Marwa, Najwa's four-year-old daughter. Everybody stared at them in disbelief. I got myself under control and ran to help my husband put her down. He told us Najwa's husband and three boys were dead. Killed by the explosion. Najwa was hit by two pieces of shrapnel. One was lodged in her stomach and the other seemed to have cut her forehead. Marwa, who was in the middle of everything, was completely untouched. We had no bedding or pillows down in the garage. I sat down and placed Najwa's head on my lap. My husband covered her with his jacket. We had to wait a long time before we were able to take her to the hospital. They all left me with her and started talking among themselves.
I don't recall much of what happened for the twelve hours before we were able to drive her to the hospital. All I remember is Marwa never left our side and she never cried. I also remember talking to Najwa constantly even though she was unconscious. I remember singing her favorite song to her, "Tal'a Min Beit Abuha," which translates into "She's Leaving Her Father's House."
* * *
Scott died in 1990. They never really figured out what finally killed him. You know how some people die and it seems just right? They are at peace. They have a glow about them in their last days. They say the wisest things. Scott wasn't one of those.
* * *
A time unknown. A life unborn.
My life has become nothing but regret. When the nurse told me I was HIV positive, I wanted to scream. Hold on a minute. Hold on. I haven't even begun to live my life. I thought I had more time.
After a childhood of complete and utter confusion, I started grasping who I was when I turned fourteen. It was not a single event which precipitated a change. It was gradual. My fourteenth year, 1974, was the happiest year of my life. I had finally adjusted to living in Lebanon. The war started in 1975. When I was told I was to be sent out of the country, I wanted to scream. Hold on a minute. Hold on. I haven't even begun to live my life. I thought I had more time.
* * *
THE WORST PAINTER OF ALL TIME
When Ben Baxter noticed his first KS lesion, he went on disability. Having worked as a corporate benefits consultant, he had set himself up well. He was covered, and would be able to live on disability for the rest of his life, albeit a shorter one now. Nevertheless, he handled his early retirement, as he called it, with gusto.
Ben's lover was an accountant who loved to paint. He had gone to art school, and spent a lot of his free time copying the masters, both traditional and modern. Art being a part of his life, Ben decided he too could be a painter. Now that he was living the life of leisure, he could concentrate on being an artist. With the help of his lover, he got set up with materials as well as a gorgeous, large easel.
Now, one has to know that Ben was crazy, or maybe I should just say funny. After all, he was a New Yorker, and had a master's degree in psychology from Columbia. Come to think of it, I take it back, he was crazy. We got along very well. We were, for whatever reason, the closest of friends, even though I was unable to stop making fun of him. It may have been because both of us were East Coast queers living in San Francisco.
At the time, some things in my life were changing. I had seen an exhibit of my friend Mohammad's work at a downtown gallery, and my whole view of art changed. For the first time, I started entertaining the idea that maybe I could paint. I walked into Ben's house for a dinner party. Ben was strategically placed before his canvas with a brush in his hand. "I just have to add some touches," he said, and kept adding touches until all the dinner guests came in. That was Ben, not just a painter, but a drama queen too. The painting was a copy. Since his lover copied all the masters, Ben was following in his footsteps. Except Ben was not copying any of the masters, he was copying a bad painter who painted naked Asian boys. The original paintings were really bad: no depth, no understanding of color, and composition from hell. Ben's copies were worse, and throughout his "career," he never got better.
I learned a lot from Ben's painting. Technically, it was the first time I saw anybody do a grid to copy a painting. It was an epiphany. I had never thought of myself as being able to paint because my drawing skills were atrocious. Watching the grid, I realized maybe I did not have natural ability, but I sure could do that. More important, I watched Ben. Painting became a panacea for all that ailed him. His spirits were lifted. I was so impressed, I asked Ben to help me start painting.
Ben was very helpful, but he was very confused by how I started to paint. My first paintings were like nothing he had ever seen and he made sure to tell me so. Whereas Ben was studying naked Asian boys, I was studying color. These paintings were formless, nothing more than color explosions. At that point I had very little interest in representation, while he thought naked Asian boys were what art was about. Let me elaborate a bit about Ben's paintings. The originals he copied were very flat. They looked like color by numbers. Draw in a sky and fill it with paint, draw in the eye and fill it with paint. Ben's were even worse. I once asked him if he thought the sky was all one color, cerulean blue. He had no idea what I was talking about. Whether it was sunset, sunrise, cloudy day, or sunny day, Ben's skies were always cerulean blue.
Ben and I got our first show together. It was a nonjuried show by the local gay bulletin board service to which we both belonged. I did not feel I was ready. I had been painting for about five months, but the show was done because of the notes which I uploaded to the BBS when I started painting. I could not back out. Ben, on the other hand, was ecstatic. People were about to see his genius! He entered one of his naked Asian boys and a copy his lover made of Léger's La Lecture. He proudly told me nobody would be able to figure the Léger was a Léger copy since La Lecture had not been seen in the US since 1945. How can one explain that anybody can tell a Léger painting because of the style? It was then I realized he was simply artistically blind. Couldn't see worth shit. It is said that Skinner taught pigeons to tell the difference between a Monet and a Matisse. Those pigeons could tell more about painting than Ben.
Ben continued painting and produced one horrible painting after another. He thought they were all masterpieces. He gave them to friends. They never knew what to do with them. They hid them in closets and brought them out when he came to visit. He kept on painting. He kept on painting until he really couldn't see worth shit due to CMV retinitis.
Ben died this morning at 5:19 a.m. The world lost a bad painter and a great soul. I miss him already.
* * *
I always thought if Beethoven could do it, so could I. The truth is I am not Beethoven. Hell, I am barely a John Tesh. When I started losing my eyesight, I could not paint anymore. I could not force myself. My dealer said she would be able to sell out a show if I came out with some new paintings. I could not. I destroyed all my paintings, even the 60 by 80s I kept for myself. My studio is deserted. If I could not see my paintings anymore, no one else would.
I heard some collector sold one of my paintings to the Museum of Modern Art for five times what he paid for it three years ago. They must think I am dead or something.
* * *
Georges was my introduction to bisexuality. He was bisexual. I wasn't. He porked both my cousin and me. That made him a bisexual. It also made him my hero.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Koolaids"
Copyright © 2015 Rabih Alameddine.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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