Gimme Shelter

Spoiler alert: I’m going to discuss the novel The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. If you intend to read it (and didn’t see the movie), you may want to skip this entry.

I recently read on a literary agent’s blog a couple of lists of what one should definitely do when writing a novel, along with exceptions of when you don’t have to. One of the rules was that the reader be given a reason to care about the characters.

This made sense to me. Would you want to go on a trip with people who you disliked? Perhaps I should have paused more before getting on the bus, as I found none of the major characters in this novel sympathetic. When the character Port died, I thought I’m glad he’s gone, because he was kind of creepy. I also felt little sympathy for Kit due to her incomprehensible, destructive behavior, although when she actually became a slave I started to care a little more, wanting her to escape. That may have been as much from feeling that no one should be a slave, as from caring about Kit.

Still, the idea of taking a trip with people is just a metaphor, and maybe it doesn’t entirely apply to reading a book. In spite of disliking the major characters, I did finish the novel, so perhaps there was something else there that pulled me through (it’s also a fairly short book). There are various things we can get from a work of fiction, and identifying with the characters so that we have cathartic experiences is only one of them. We may also feel that we are getting something from a book spiritually or philosophically, or that we are learning about a topic in a way that catches our interest, or we may be entertained by the style of the book. In The Sheltering Sky, the thing that most held me was an interest in the exotic path Port and Kit follow as they descend into incoherence, chaos, and finally madness and death. The fact that they did this so stupidly, and so incredibly pointlessly, did not add to my ability to like them, but it was a somewhat interesting literary trajectory.

On Wikipedia, the apparently random ramble they make through Algeria and Morocco is described as “an attempt by Port and Kit to resolve their marital difficulties”. This view of their trip strikes me as trying to create a meaning where there may be none. If they really are taking a trip to try to renew their marriage, then it is even more strange that (1) they invite a third person to accompany them, (2) they always stay in separate rooms and never even discuss staying in the same room, and (3) Port gladly visits a prostitute and wants to visit another, growing angry and disappointed when it does not work out. No wonder they continue to have marital problems.

Just how entertained can we be by totally unpleasant characters? This question may raise a case where humor has the advantage over tragedy. There is a long and satisfying history on this, beginning with the character Falstaff, who Queen Elizabeth liked so much she had Shakespeare bring him back for a sequel. As more modern examples, we can cite Homer Simpson, or every character on Seinfeld. You would not want to actually meet a single one of these people (or at least I wouldn’t—I don’t know about you), but in artistic terms, they are all delightful.

I also wonder whether Bowles, in writing this book, was thinking at all about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which also uses the idea of moving away from known civilization, accompanied by diminished sanity. Although I finished reading The Sheltering Sky, and felt caught up at moments, I will not be telling my friends they should read it, and I’m glad I can move on to read something because I like it, and not because I think maybe it’s An Important Book.

If you are one of the many people who really loved this book, this is where you can tell me how wrong I am.

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