I believed I had read all the fiction Paul Bowles ever published in these 18 years since his death. The discovery last week of the short story collection Midnight Mass, with the familiar Black Sparrow paperback binding – earthy tan with green and purple block print – was thus a very emotional experience.
Immediately I was flooded by memories and thoughts of the man I considered my favorite author from the time I discovered him in ’87, the summer I got my first tattoo, until his death at the end of the last century.
Instantly, too, in that powerful way that great literature connects us with the world we are in, I remembered myself experiencing his works: where I was, the effect it had upon me. The empowerment and awe I felt after finishing one of his short stories or novels: blown away.
Paul Bowles was a huge influence on me as a writer and thinker. He was one of the most powerful allies in my struggle with immigration to the United States and in philosophical discourse in Europe. That he wrote from the subconscious as described by his wife, Jane, was the most romantic and amazing concept to me when I was young and I longed to be able to do that – not to understand it, but to do it.
The utter irrationality of the Western project, the neoliberal insanity we have all endured so long, was exposed by Bowles and then swiftly and violently shattered by the reality of life among the desert people of North Africa. In other works, a slow and seemingly disconnected series of events between locals in a village would be described with such lucidity and simplicity that the differences in thinking between east and west were made suddenly crystalline in the end – hits you like a koan.
The collision of culture was total and instead of Coca-Cola and the Golden Arches mowing down the village, the puny, minuscule westerners melted away in the heat of the Saharan sun, driven mad.
Midnight Mass is the last collection of Bowles’ short stories published by Black Sparrow and features at its center the elegant, drifting, rootless novella Here To Learn, a gorgeous story about a girl from North Africa who just keeps moving buoyed by her beauty, her wit and her ability to learn quickly how to negotiate the West.
The collection starts with the titular story, Midnight Mass, one of Bowles’ incredible parties; the Nazarenes careening around in their expatriated stupor of drinking, carousing and complaining, the locals bursting with romance only to become suddenly something else – the change of face.
There are stories about the locals and their fantastic, sometimes circuitous logic and its culmination in a kind of basic justice. There are tales about the utter undoing of our perception of a shared understanding of this world.
At the Krungthep Plaza is an amazing story set as the U.S. President is due to pass through a certain North African village. The machinations behind the scenes and the conflicts between locals, expats and the security teams are expertly related, culminating in a wild effusion of emotions that I can only described as angst against the way things are now.
It’s all just so great. I miss Paul Bowles.
Paul Bowles, 18 years after he died, was the best writer I read this year.