The Perception of Meaning  by  Hisham Bustani  tr.  Thoraya El-Rayyes  (Syracuse University Press, Nov. 2015)  Reviewed by  Nell Pach

The Perception of Meaning
by Hisham Bustani
tr. Thoraya El-Rayyes
(Syracuse University Press, Nov. 2015)

Reviewed by Nell Pach

No one has ever really gone on the Internet. “With all this technology, absence has become a lie,” writes Hisham Bustani in The Perception of Meaning. Absent presence—that paradox of electronic communication—slowly emerges as a central motif in this enigmatic and yet wonderfully immersive novel. It is a motif recapitulated, indeed, in this paradoxical reading experience of immediacy and indefinite deferral, ready assimilability and indifferent resistance; in short, a reading experience the agonizing speaker(s) of this fractured indictment of modernity knows well. Indeed, this meditation on the nature of perception opens with two apparent invitations to the abnegation of ordinary, easy perceiving—Bustani calls them “entrypoints”—in the words of Sufi mystic Al-Husayn bin Mansur al-Hallaj, executed in the tenth century on accusations of heresy, (“He who has vision forsakes hearsay, and he who knows the envisioned forsakes vision”) and Rabindranath Tagore (“I close my eyes . . . and see”), shared national poet of India and Bangladesh. Technologically-enabled remote viewing—a kind of vision that is as easily suspended, when convenient, as attained—and its attendant phenomenon of apparent presence in absence is unequivocally sinister here. It comes in the form of news broadcasts that report the ongoing effects of the United States’ absent presence the world over as a result of its imperialist adventures; it also comes in the angst-inducing lure of online friend-stalking.

This incongruity of scale—the trivial backlit by the momentous or vice versa, hashtag-first-world-problems in the third world—is a favorite rhetorical gambit for Bustani throughout the novel. Descriptions of familiar, routine small pleasures and stresses bump against catastrophe that is, in its enormity, beyond absorbing. Published by Syracuse University in a bilingual edition that includes both the original Arabic (Bustani is Jordanian) and an award-winning 2014 English translation by Thoraya El-Rayyes on facing pages, The Perception of Meaning juxtaposes, like overlapping Internet browser windows, the suffering of the social media adept/addict with the headline-ripped violence of war, environmental destruction, and cynical corporate profiteering therefrom. If you’ve ever had Facebook and open at once on your screen, you know the feeling. Spectacles of human carelessness at large and at small abound.

The writing—broken into short imagistic prose-poem-like units that run from a single sentence to a few pages, a format that recalls Calvino or Borges—is a jarring combination of poetic abstraction and exuberant, limpid surrealism cut with up-to-date witticisms that tend to ring flat and reductive. Sometimes such deflating quips feel cheap. It is possible that this cheapness is the point, though these moments seem more like participation in than commentary on the nihilism the novel generally purports to critique. Here’s the novel’s take on “the handsome whale, Tilikum,” Sea World’s fallen star and chief exploitee, who features in the mix of pop culture, violence, and pop-culture-mediated violence in the fittingly-named first section “Apocalypse Now”:

They stole him from his ocean and crammed him into a fish tank.
And when he drowned his trainer in protest,
he was at once transformed into material for news broadcasts.
Chewed between newscasters’ teeth and swallowed,
to provide their daily allowance
of Omega-3.

The smirking conclusion to this grand account of persecution feels like a punch line, a dark joke made in a status update. The human denial of animal otherness, animal wildness, slips into the popular obsession with proper eating, as one television segment gives way to another. The tone and velocity of the novel recall the provocations and spectacles of Futurism. It lacks Futurism’s actual infatuation with modernity and excoriates humans for the destruction we bring obliviously down upon ourselves and the world, but an element of grim satisfaction still surfaces in depictions of it. The aesthetic sense is inverse, yet the affective result is the same.

Nihilistic joy in human solipsism resurfaces elsewhere, as in the novel’s version of the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption that grounded European flights and, as one of sparse notes included by the author points out, “[cost] airlines billions of dollars in losses.” Reimagined in Bustani’s seductive surrealist style, which seems to infuse being into everything it touches, the volcano “opened its mouth and screamed,” at which “the business class passengers,” scornfully figured here as children “enraged to have their colored lollipops snatched away,” meet “in the top floor of a skyscraper” and resolve to plug the volcano with a “gigantic stopper,” only to uncork celebratory champagne that transforms into lava “700–1200 degrees Celsius.” The Dantean contrapasso dissolves the passengers beyond recovery: “In billions of years, other beings—smarter than we are—will not find their fossils.” Vital and absurd, the tale feels not unlike Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Soviet-era propagandistic but subversively surrealist drama Mystery-Bouffe, a somewhat prescient-feeling romp of melting ice caps and visits to hell that pits allegorized characters against one another in a battle of classes, natural forces, and technological agents, silly and also grave. No triumph of the proletariat emerges here, however, even as the “business class” are burned out of existence.

There is something satisfying about this utter expungement of the human from the Earthly record. Certainly, we deserve it; a subsequent episode in the same chapter features a man heedlessly feeding paper, figured as the mutilated corpse of a woman, into a photocopier: “The tree’s foot this time. Her head. Her hips. Her trunk . . . Months ago, she was magnificent, spreading green in the air, seducing the birds. Today, her body parts lay dismembered/pulverized/bleached in the trash can.” Speaking for the screaming volcano and the murdered tree, the narrating voice of “Apocalypse Now” seems to place itself somewhere slightly outside the human as well; it knows human devastation in all its intimacies and intricacies and it sets out to present the case against the accused. At times though, this presentation is glib, self-satisfied, without any clear sense of the narrator’s own implication in the proceedings, whatever that may be. Less vivid articulations of the case strive for haiku-like pith but feel a little tired, and a little lazy: “Behold the flowers sprawled out over the fields: / white, red, yellow, lavender. / How naïve, / they do not know the concrete is coming.” “‘Humans are descended from apes?’ / Who says the apes would approve?” Cute, but I’ll need you to bewail the state of humanity with a few more citations.

In fact, the prose of this opening section is richest and most original when it deals with humanity in greater specificity. “Apocalypse Now”—which includes a swatch of dialogue from its Coppola namesake—seems to speak directly, uncompromisingly to Western readers, engaging the legacy of Western colonialism and Western culture on terms that verge on pedagogical. To be sure, most of Bustani’s literary allusions are drawn from the Arab world and are often creative additions to or commentaries on existing literature, as if he is joining in on a communal project. Describing a curiously hybrid “balcony/scandal” that yearns for escape from its wall, Bustani invokes Palestinian poet Murid Barghouti, who once wrote a balcony with dreams of flight: “She whispered to Murid once upon a drunkenness: if only I could fly.” Much of the novel, however, feels as though it is written for Westerners. The novel seems to address Western readers, from the American pop cultural references to the particular bent of the notes; one more indication of the continuing legacy of Western-centrism, from one point of view, though it is certainly not pandering, and engages explicitly not just with culture but with race as well. “The White God cruises across the river of bare-assed savages with opera music,” begins an excursus of intellectual favorite Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. The accompanying note is less explanatory than polemic:

Fitzcarraldo was not an opera lover, he was a rubber baron with an army of 5,000 men who carved out for himself a piece of land in South America the size of Belgium. But the German director Werner Herzog did not see a story in that! The baron dismantled a ship and transported it over a mountain, and the Europeans built an opera house in the Amazon. Now that’s a story! Thus, the lying white movie with a mongrel plot came to be.

The anger and sarcasm feel searingly personal; those who insist that Western incivility (that is to say, atrocity, frequently parenthetical in Western discourse) be discussed civilly will undoubtedly find this challenging, and dismiss it on the grounds that it is angry. That is a risk Bustani takes, invigoratingly, over and over again.

The real heart’s blood of the novel gets pumping, however, in its last third’s brooding, tormented reflections on technological engridment. “History Will Not Be Made on This Couch”—a chapter I at first expected to be about something else, and maybe there’s a low bar for what counts as couch history for me—evokes the surreal experience of monitoring the 2011 Egyptian revolution, televised, a stream of text messages that variously seem to report from the frontlines on the events (“‘The thugs. They r killing us.’”) and hint at the recipient’s snug domesticity (“‘I wish I was with u to hold u tight and tell u I have the world in my arms.’”) The experience of this modern news viewer, impotently watching, is one of guilt and spatial disjunction: “The television is on fire, and history isn’t being made on this couch. / The television is on fire, and the remote control doesn’t change history. / The television is on fire, and I am here, in front of it.” That sense of disconnect is perhaps the overwhelming affect—or lack thereof—that attends media consumption, although a contrarian must point out the role of technology, particularly social media, in the Arab Spring. The chapter begins with a dedication “To the revolutionaries of Egypt who left their couches and burnt their televisions,” but is meaningful contemporary political action only to be found at the barricades?

This overtly political meditation, however, is given fairly little space in comparison to interludes that probe further into the inner life of the multimedia consumer. History may not be made on this couch, but there are plenty of paranoid personal counterhistories and fantasies fashioned on it in the novel’s eighth and ninth chapters that run parallel to “History Will Not Be Made . . .” in their consideration of the meaning of life online. Bustani’s most lyrical and poignant writing comes here—coupled, however, to a troublesome persona determined to bring suit against his fellows even as he reveals his own implication in all of his grievances. This jealously Facebooking malcontent and his low self-awareness are both deeply funny and will be, for at least some Facebook users, excruciatingly familiar, though to exactly what degree his furious expostulations are satirical is unclear. Throughout, the narrator strikes postures of moralistic isolation that seem keenly felt, likening social media use to sexual promiscuity in a way that evidences a somewhat fogeyish attitude to both. “Today, I’m the only one left holding up his trousers, walking shyly through the Nudist Market,” he grouses. “The entire world is having sex in a giant bedroom full of wires. / The entire world is peeping into that room and masturbating.” Is that so terrible, if that’s what you’re into?

Still, it is difficult to imagine that a chapter entitled, marvelously, “This Deluge of Emotion is Going to Make Me Vomit” is not at least a little self-ironizing. Like any paranoid lover, the speaker is sincere in his wretchedness, but not insensible of its absurdity. “Everything dissolves into digital language, 0 1, 0 1, and bodies evaporate to become shapes on a screen,” but the virtuality of this world does not make its slights and victories any less visceral. The jealousy is of so histrionic a timbre that it’s difficult not to read it as comic: “What is left for me when my darling has shared with all the inhabitants of the earth? What is left for me when my darling is available to chat with anyone at any time?” All the same, these sententious lamentations stir to life on the page because they bear out a truth many find unpoetic: real life happens on the Internet, as much as anywhere else, and the endless series of exercises in compromised dignity that is human existence is more varied than ever. The constant possibility of social interaction means that in any moment lack of interaction becomes interaction in itself, and under these new rules, technologically-mediated interaction is more unparseable than ever. “How will I know if Like is a passing courtesy, genuine admiration, flirtation, or a hint at something to come?” the speaker demands. One hardly has the heart to point out that it might also be an unconscious phone-scrolling tap.

Against cyber-sociality, Bustani pits a realm of sensuality and imagination that he gives up for lost. The older sensorium is not just receptive but creative, accustomed to absences and able to conjure the absent beloved accordingly; there is more than stimulation in this life of the senses. Longing is tenderer and not so hectic here, and though no less painful, less destructive:

I take you out of my head:
I leave my nails on your buttocks
I leave my fingers on your nipples
I leave my teeth on your neck
I leave my tongue on the lobe of your ear
I leave my foot inside your mouth
I leave my lips on the curve of your breast
and suddenly:
I search but do not find you,
and that bed that spoke beneath our bodies
has become a coffin,
and the colored sheets, a shroud.
There is no one there, no one.
You have left, leaving your perfume suspended in the hallway,
and some hairs on the pillow,
wearing parts of my body as a necklace on yours.
That is how the writer put his lover to paper, then faded.

Absence is by no means agreeable, but it opens a space for art; when absence is a lie, the narrator tells us, then “imagination is a lie.” The real void comes in the absence of absence, when “Sight collides with tall buildings and the lights of big screens, smell is muddled by the odor of exhaust fumes and canned perfumes, touch has evaporated with the rough feel of selfishness, taste has melted in artificial flavoring, smell has been pierced by the clanging of wheels turning and turning without end,” and our senses have taken leave of us: “the five senses held a meeting and decided to commit mass suicide, and this is why Man runs, every day, in a world that is vacant.”

Such earnest nostalgia for an earlier time—an earlier way of loving, writing, feeling—is a little suspect. A pastoral fantasy seems to be operating in the denunciation of current sensory life; exhaust fumes and canned perfumes are smells as surely as the—apparently not canned?—perfume that the speaker’s love leaves in his hallway. Do we really no longer remember departed lovers like this, no longer look for traces of them on our own bodies, even if we also get on Facebook to drop them a Like? The essential complaint of Bustani’s Facebook cuckold is that of a lover—and writer—of any age: “How will I know if the kisses at the end of every sentence she sends to whomever leaves a line of nonsense on her wall are different from the kisses she gives me? . . . How will I know if my kisses are really kisses and not a long line of the letter x?” How have we ever known? Lingering words that may not mean what we thought they meant, melodramatic emoting over mundane pleasantries, simultaneous high stakes and practiced carelessness: was love ever conducted differently?

Bustani’s argument is that we no longer have the possibility of distance that “sharpens the senses,” though he also seems to acknowledge in one moment that, aesthetic ideals notwithstanding, lovers will incorrigibly ache for presence: “(He wrote to her after she was gone) / The most beautiful woman is the one at a distance . . . except you. / Your beauty that spilled over the bar is still fixed to my lips . . . (He wrote to her after she was gone) / I envy that place, because it encloses you like the palm of a hand. And as for your breathing, there it goes wasted on stairways instead of in my bed . . . When he couldn’t handle it any longer, he crammed himself into the telephone wires and appeared in her dreams.” The italicized line is that of contemporary Libyan novelist Ibrahim al Koni; the bereft lover’s citation both acknowledges and challenges the human tendency to valorize what is out of reach. Ultimately, he’ll take a sinister modern network over separation. For the space of the abrupt ending, the imaginative and the technological magically coincide; telephone wires carry sentiment and sensuality, and lyrical love-lettering becomes electronic.


Nell Pach is pursuing a Ph.D in English Literature at the University of Chicago. She has previously written for Music & Literature about W. G. Sebald and Can Xue.