Wednesday, August 28, 2019

What did the book club think of Call Me Zebra?

We had an interesting discussion of Azareen Van der Vliet's Call Me Zebra. I had picked the book because of the phenomenal reviews and author recommendations, as well as its status as the PEN Faulkner prize winner for 2018. But then I hit a speed bump when one of our regulars warned the other attendees that it was very difficult to read. And so we were kind of offered a challenge.

The story is about Bibi, a refugee from Iran. Her family was for many generations part of the intelligentsia who helped overthrow the government of the Shah, only to have the Ayatollah turn on them after he came to power. I don't think this is an unusual narrative.

Bibi, who has renamed herself Zebra, escapes with her family, losing her mother on the journey and her father after they settle in Manhattan. So she decides to go on a pilgrimage, packing up her worldly goods, including a lot of books and possibly her father's body, and setting off, first for Barcelona and then the small town of Girona. At the apartment where she's staying, she decides to take the resident bird. Many have called the bird their favorite character in the novel.

In Barcelona, Zebra hooks up with Ludo Bembo, which not enough reviewers have noted is a fine typeface. For those delicate flowers among us, I should note that there are a number of sex scenes, including some unusual descriptions. She's able to gather up a ragtag following to head off on her pilgrimages, each one referencing a different writer. Not an easy person to be with, Zebra breaks off for the group and heads off on her own.

But nobody would ever say that this is a plot-driven novel. It is a story of ideas, with references to philosophers and great minds in literary theory. It is about a person in exile, who holds onto these ideas as a way to give herself stability in what must be PTSD. The problem is that if you are not well versed in the theory, it's likely harder to enjoy the book than if you were more knowledgeable.

What appears to be a book about books is not quite that. While Zebra carts books around with her through the entire story, she never does read, and very few book titles stand out among the philosopher-authors. In fact I counted - two Don Quixotes, de Cervantes and Kathy Acker*, and Dickens's Bleak House. The Wall Street Journal's fiction critic Sam Sacks notes the connection: "Zebra’s metaphysical quest, like that of Don Quixote, is marked by ridiculous hauteur and deeply buried sorrow."

Instead of reading, she is fixated on transcribing and orating. For her, literature has become a belief system, as substitute for the religion which she renounces when she reminds us that she is from a tradition of Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists. It's also a defense, as Nathan Scott McNamara noted in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

One thing I noticed in reading about the book is that while many reviewers called the book funny and absurd, I wasn't always sure what they were referring to, as at the same time they took Zebra's obsessions at face value. I had come to see Zebra as a kin to the protagonist in Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Sometimes I wondered whether critics were conflating Zebra and Azareeen. That might be why Oloomi noted in one interview that she did not come from a family of readers.

I kind of feel like the Kirkus reviewer got it, calling the book demented and bizarro. And I should note, that's enthusiastic. In The Millions, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim noted that we see all ourselves in Zebra's self-absorption. But this was another tricky part of the book - it's hard to see yourself when the character tries so hard to be unlikable.

Once again, themes overlapped between two books, because isn't Washington Black also a story of exile? For those who complained, however, that Wash's travels didn't seem to have a financial logic to them, Oloomi has an answer - Zebra's mentor gives her $10,000 to travel out of his academic budget? Why? We don't know.

Have I made it clear that while Call Me Zebra is not for everyone (alas, including several folks in last night's meeting)? Still, it's a worthy investment for an adventurous reader and a great fiction alternative to all those folks browsing our philosophy case. I can think of a bunch of those readers for whom this book might be a great recommendation, including one fellow Boswellian. I'm giving my copy to him now. And I recommended it to another potential fan (he was buying Doxology) on my way back from lunch. He noted that he's done well by the PEN/Faulkner in the past.

My sister Merrill and I happened to spend Saturday in Chicago, where we went to Unabridged Bookstore. Ed had one of his legendary shelf-talkers, dense and full of quotes, which in this case, seemed perfect for the book. He named it one of his ten favorite books of 2018, calling it "an astonishing novel, inventive and exhilarating."

Up next we read The Overstory on Monday, October 14 (note another special date) at 7 pm, at Boswell. Here's the rest of the Boswell-run book clubs:

*And Don Quixote as inspiration never ends. Up next is Salman Rushdie's latest, Quichotte, available September 3.

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