October 29, 2006

BOOKS: Exiles in America, Christopher Bram (2006)

Zack and Daniel have been together for more than twenty years, and have settled into a comfortable suburban life in northern Virginia. Zack's a psychiatrist, and Daniel teaches art at the local college, where a new artist-in-residence has just arrived.

He's Abbas Rohani, an Iranian painter, and Daniel and Zack strike up a friendship with Abbas and his wife, Elena. That friendship eventually leads to an affair between Daniel and Abbas; both couples have open relationships, so neither Zack nor Elena is particularly bothered by the affair at first. But as it develops into something more than a simple sexual fling, both marriages begin to show signs of strain.

The novel is set in the fall and winter of 2002, just before the Iraq War begins, and geopolitical developments only add to the increasingly complex relationships among the four.

I can't talk about my reaction to this book without giving away some details about how it ends -- more along the lines of narrative tactics -- so fair warning: If you are averse to spoilers of any type, stop reading now.

At the end of the book, the war in Iraq has begun. Daniel and Zack are watching the news, and discussing their own relationship and that of the Rohanis, when suddenly Bram (Bram's narrator, to be more precise), who has not been a presence in the book until now, leaps in and asks if we're offended that these men can be discussing such trivialities as their own romance in the face of such global catastrophe, or are we more offended that they're allowing world events to distract them from the events of their own lives?

"I'm not being sarcastic. I'm just asking," says the narrator. "Because I don't know how to do it myself. I don't have an answer here. I'm in the dark with Zack and Daniel."

This strikes me as a monstrous copout on Bram's part. "Gee, I dunno how to end the damn book," is what these final paragraphs boil down to. "Let's just leave the characters here and fade out, because I don't have a clue how to resolve the mess I've written them into."

And it's a horrible shame, because for 360 pages or so, Bram's written a marvelous book. The characters are magnificently vivid; the relationships are complex and painfully real; and events are surprising without ever feeling arbitrary. But those final paragraphs are such a cheat that despite all of its strengths, I'm left with a strong sour taste in my mouth, and I can't recommend the book.

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