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Tales for the Outsider
Paul Bowles's The Stories of Paul Bowles

by Doug Childers

With The Stories of Paul Bowles, the master of mesmerizing yet remote short fiction finally gets what a writer of his stature deserves: a complete collection of his short stories, stretching from his first often brilliant efforts in 1946 to his last, occasionally didactic work in 1993.

Paul Bowles, the American expatriate writer and composer who found his greatest fame late in his long career with Bernardo Bertolucci's film adaptation of his most important novel, The Sheltering Sky, has finally received what a writer of his stature deserves: a complete collection of his short fiction, stretching from his first often brilliant efforts in 1946 to his last, occasionally didactic work in 1993. (Bowles died in 1999 at the age of eighty-eight.) True, many of his six short fiction books are still in print, and in 1993 his steadfast publisher, Ecco Press, issued a superb anthology (Too Far From Home: Selected Writings of Paul Bowles) that included some of his best short fiction. But Ecco's new The Stories of Paul Bowles (released to coincide with Ecco's thirtieth anniversary) is especially valuable to Bowles enthusiasts because it offers stories that have never been collected before. And since the stories (sixty-two in all) are presented in chronological order, we can watch Bowles establish and refine his central themes as well as witness how his notion of the form changed over nearly fifty years.

As valuable and important as the new volume is, though, novices may find Bowles's fiction to be a bit cold and remote, and one can't help wondering what they must feel, reading prose that is both relentlessly aggressive in its themes and severely muted in its tones. As Robert Stone writes in his relatively brief but insightful introduction to the collection,


The Stories of Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles
Ecco Press
657 pp.

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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.


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