Paul Bowles's ruthless unsentimentality and cruel wit are
not for everyone. Some readers enjoy a liberated voice in his
work. One acquaintance of mine says he has "a piece missing."
Ordinary human sympathy is the piece I think she means. Bowles's
enthusiasts are glad to trade sympathy for the absence of ordinariness.
Nobody denies he could cast a spell.
That last claim--that he could cast a spell--is certainly
true. Bowles wrote fondly in his autobiography of his first exposure
to Edgar Allan Poe as a child (he even dedicated his first book
thus: "for my mother, who first read me the stories of Poe"),
and his best short stories, as diverse as they may seem initially,
all might be profitably considered nightmarish but unstoppable
tales of the grotesque.
In the passage of the autobiography in which he reminisces
happily about Poe, he also praises Hawthorne's short fiction,
and those early experiences of short fiction combined with the
fact that Bowles's emotional distance from his characters as
well as his audience surely led him to favor short fiction as
a writer. The short story is arguably Bowles's best form; his
novels tend to be episodic, and even in The Sheltering Sky,
the plot structure is a bit rigid. Even in his earliest stories,
though, he manages the arc of dramatic tension wonderfully, and
his writing voice's stark but poetic beauty meets the genre's
demands for compression wonderfully. Take , for instance, this
passage from "The Echo" (1946):
Aileen put the letter away, smiling a little, and watched
the wings diving in and out of the small thick clouds that lay
in the plane's way. There was a slight shock each time they hit
one, and the world outside became a blinding whiteness. She fancied
jumping out and walking on such solid softness, like a character
in an animated cartoon.
It's the understated beauty of Bowles's exotic settings (Latin
America, North Africa, etc.) in these early stories that strikes
the reader: the world, his characters discover, is a strangely
wondrous and yet dangerous place they had not exactly anticipated.
Most dishearteningly, perhaps, it doesn't seem all that interested
in accommodating them with what would seem their due as Westerners.
In time, as Bowles's Western characters find themselves sucked
away from what they know, they become disengaged from their own
selves and even witness their actions from an affect-free distance.
When the main character in "The Echo" twists her ankle,
for example, "she heard herself cry out," Bowles tells
us. Coming unmoored from the world is, inevitably, a bad omen
for Bowles's characters; it is never a simple matter of being
freed from the burdens of inherited social restrictions, as it
is often for, say, E.M. Forster's travelers. Cut loose from their
familiar world, Bowles's characters tend to die or come too close
to it for comfort. And they are, almost always, aware of the
ontological slippage (which is what makes the stories so dramatically
compelling, I suppose). As he is swept down a jungle river in
"Pastor Dowe at Tacaté" (1949), the title character
finds himself entertaining dangerous, anxious thoughts:
At each successive bend in the tunnel-like course, he felt
farther from the world. He found himself straining in a ridiculous
effort to hold the raft back: it glided far too easily along
the top of the black water. Farther from the world, or did he
mean farther from God? A region like this seemed outside God's
jurisdiction. When he had reached that idea he shut his eyes.
It was an absurdity, manifestly impossible--in any case, inadmissible--yet
it had occurred to him and was remaining with him in his mind.
"God is always with me," he said to himself silently,
but the formula had no effect.
Bowles's later stories (1960 and later) have fewer Westerners
in them, and he drives many of his plots with stories of magic
and kif, put more often than not to bad use. It's often
the failure to communicate that brings down the characters in
these later stories; characters are driven by paranoia and anger
to use magic against their enemies. In a gesture that may be
obligatory for a master of the Literature of the Outsider, it's
frequently the misunderstood outsider (the perennial Bowles hero)
who suffers. The husband in the beautiful story "The Garden"
(1964) is fed poison, for instance, because his wife mistakes
his garden-tending happiness for a secret pleasure he won't share.
When the poisonous herbs fail to reveal the husband's 'secret,'
the wife receives some grim advice from the old woman who had
sold them to her:
"You have given him too much," the old woman said.
"He will never tell you his secret now. The only thing for
you to do is go away quickly, before he dies."
The woman ran home. Her husband lay on the mat with his mouth
open. She packed her clothing and left the town that morning.
The shift away from Western characters is understandable:
having lived in Morocco since 1949, Bowles at some point ceased
to be simply an American living in a foreign country, and he
quite naturally began to concentrate on presenting the world
as seen through the eyes of the people who, in the earliest stories,
seemed so strange and exotic. One can't help regretting the shift
in perspective, at times. His last stories sometimes lack strong
dramatic tension, partly because his story forms changed to something
more didactic and partly because, frankly, it's the Other, full
of fear and mystery (or "the combination of repugnance and
fascination" as he said admiringly of Poe) that draws us
so clearly to the best of his early stories. Still, the chance
to watch one of the last century's short fiction evolve over
the course of decades is something no serious reader should miss,
and one can only hope that the publication of a definitive text
like The Stories of Paul Bowles helps elevate his enduring
popular appeal above the cult level.