The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
I’m not usually a reader who finds that a weak ending spoils even the most enjoyable of reading experiences, but I can’t say anything about this without a first oh dear for the fumbled dismount. Port and Kit are a dysfunctional American couple travelling aimlessly through North Africa, just after WWII, I think. Kit is a tightly wound neurotic, engrossed in her obsessive compulsive magical thinking interpretation of the world. Port is distant and wry, seeming recklessly set, in his own way, on finding some experience that will make him feel, or perhaps make him not feel at all. Both drift into infidelity. Both intend to restart their relationship, re-establish true communication, at some vague future period. I’ve read another book by Bowles, Let It Come Down, and what I found with that book was true of this; Bowles writes on Heart of Darkness territory, but manages to circumvent my usual response to nullness. As well as the sleepwalking characters, there’s the alien land and culture, the exposure of which to the Western characters making both too vulnerable, and the sense of dread caused by the characters’ increasing loss of control combined with this setting and situation.
I liked all this – Kit and Port’s slide into automation, the sense of an unidentified quest or flight, the mounting dysfunction. Then there is a disaster, like we all knew there would be, and Bowles drops the ball with Kit’s reaction to it. She goes into the desert with two Arabs on camels and loses her sense of identity and memory of disaster in enjoying being raped by them. More follows, but it’s all in the same vein. I was all set up to buy quite a lot, but no one can sell that. No one gets to sell that Ethel M. Dell stuff while wearing their Serious Psychological Drama hat. It’s irredeemably silly and the book does depend on being taken somewhat seriously. It’s also terribly sexist, of course. The deadpan use of the trope assumes even more about the desirable rapist situation than more overt breathless fantasy type stuff.