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Paying attention to the actual

Anti Lebanon by Carl Shuker (counterpointpress.com/products/anti-lebanon, http://carlshuker.com/)
Reviewed by Pip Adam

Anti_lebanon_CAT
I feel like I’ve spent a long time waiting and hoping for a novel like Anti Lebanon by award-winning writer Carl Shuker, a New Zealander based in London. Yesterday I was speaking with a friend who is in a position where she can read and write most of the day. “What you realise,” she said, “when you’re engaged so intensely with and by fiction is the possibilities it holds.”

While other artists conjure fractal landscapes from computer algorithms and evoke experience in more and more colour, the writer has what they’ve always had: a story and a choice to make about how to tell that story. A book like Anti Lebanon demonstrates that the novel isn’t finished yet, that we haven’t come to the end of the possibilities of story, that we can keep pushing this funny little form and it will break and re-animate and keep us happy for a lot longer yet.

Anti Lebanon made me think about the novel as technology: a machine made by applying some kind of observable fact. It’s a novel concerned with and made from the real. Beginning in Beirut, the book presents a very authentic-feeling exploration of the Christian struggle in the Middle East. Characters articulate opinions and pass on facts which seem to gel with what could be observed in the real world; if not first-hand then in the media. What they say and what is happening around them seem to stem from real places and events. For me, one of the most satisfying elements of the book was the degree to which it absorbed me into its world. I felt like I was holding things in my hand as I read, that I was breathing the same air as the characters, under the same rooves and sky.

That comes down to Shuker’s artful descriptions which notice and represent detail in a sure and evocative way. This sounds easy, commonplace, what literature should be doing, but reading this book I kept thinking: “This is just words on paper organised in a particular way, yet they have the power to create a world which I can see and hear and feel just by reading them.” Perhaps this could be said about any book, but the fact I kept thinking it made me realise there was something very special about the way the world of the novel was conjured up. The books I love shout “catch up” as they run ahead. Anti Lebanon does that. I had the feeling of being dropped into a part of a bigger time and place: things happened before I got here and they will continue after I finish the book.

The novel begins, “He came awake to a dead and freakish still.” We follow Leon Elias from this awakening as cause leads to effect leads to cause. It feels like things are changing just ahead of us, that bombs are going off, that the past is leaping into the present, that monsters could be around any corner. The story doesn’t slow down to make sure we have everything we need, to check that we understand the role of Hezbollah in Beirut and that we know our way round the Demolished Quarter. The story knows what we need, and it doles out information and images accordingly as we travel alongside. And I think this is what makes the world of the book so absorbing: that the illusion is never broken by a guide pushing in to explain things. I was confused in places but it wasn’t a confusion which pushed me out of the book. I wasn’t suddenly sitting in my house asking myself what was happening. It felt more like being lost in a city, like if I kept walking, eventually, I wouldn’t be lost any more.

The pay-off for all this attention to the actual is the rush and turmoil the book delivers when it challenges what we experience and understand as real. The book shifts with immense force and in a heartbeat from what it looks like it will be (a novel concerned with presenting a realistic experience of political struggle) to something that was never sign-posted (a horror story complete with monsters). This move adds another dimension to the reader’s enjoyment of the book. As it holds these two types of stories in perfect balance, the act of reading becomes complicated in a compelling and thrilling way. How are we to resolve these two situations in the novel? Was it a horror story all along? Is the monster allegorical? Does it say something about how Lebanon has been “sucked dry” by faction after faction? But as I read on, these questions quickly settled and became quiet. I realised the monster was as real as the real – and the real was as monstrous as the monster – just as we stepped into the last chapter, where the book’s machinery is on display in all its glory and the reader’s satisfaction is complete.

Anti Lebanon is an extremely exciting book. It seems to suggest we can go anywhere with the novel, that it can contain anything. It’s masterful in its form and the story it tells is compelling, original and important.