When a writer known for their success in the literary world goes slumming in the genre ghetto, one never knows what might result. For example, you may find solid work that’s more than offset by stunningly pompous and condescending attitudes, as in the case of Susan Hill. You may be the recipient of impressive imaginings, accented by blindly ignorant denials, as with Margaret Atwood. You may get stellar, albeit demanding and peculiar, tales accompanied by acceptance — even grudging embrace — of genre influences, as in the case of Cormac McCarthy.
I have no idea how New Zealand writer Carl Shuker — recipient of the 2006 Prize in Modern Letters for his debut novel, and a frequent critical darling — feels about genre fiction, but his latest novel, Anti Lebanon, certainly utilizes genre constructs to great advantage, resulting in a novel that mixes its ingredients almost seamlessly, and borders on brilliance before retreating a bit.
As its title implies, the book is set in Lebanon, where Arab Spring has brought even more uncertainty than usual to the lives of the Christians there, virtually ostracized by a Hezbollah-dominated government and caught in the crossfire between other warring religious factions. Against this backdrop, we meet thirty-year-old Leon Elias, college-educated as a hydrogeologist (and Lebanon’s water resources are a recurring theme here) but underemployed as a security guard. His father, Didi, a former military hero, is likewise working below his expected station, because he backed the wrong horse during one epoch of the unending jockeying between Lebanon’s many factions, while Leon’s sister, Keiko, was murdered for posing a political threat via her growing prominence. The complications in Leon’s personal life are like a microcosmic version of the various relationships and intrigues that entangle the entire nation. As Leon’s father says at one point:
“Politics in this country is one long and very dangerous soap opera full of lies and repetitions and clichés. Every episode’s climax leads to no resolution. We are in season fifty-eight at least, and few of the original cast remain. Apart from those grizzled old men— like me— who are typecast and cannot get another job.”
One drunken night, everything changes for Leon, as the following passage foreshadows:
It was that time of a night when a certain drunken sweet spot hit. People began to say what they really thought, in the generous context of what they’d said that they didn’t really think before and had gotten away with. When the smart and bored began to push the limits of what others would tolerate, and when abrupt furies and half-felt passions turned into speeches; whims turned accusations.
It’s abrupt fury that leads a friend of Leon to accidentally kill a fellow reveler with a punch, leading to Leon taking a late-night trip to dump the body, the corpse balanced precariously behind him on his scooter. It’s towards the end of that journey, when the body suddenly stirs and bites Leon on the neck, that things really take a turn for the strange.
Meanwhile, in a flashback that is gradually revealed, we learn that Leon had created an experimental film and submitted it to a local competition, an act that eventually leads him to a presentation that purports to tell of the history of the vampire in Lebanon. Rarely seen and only half understood, the vampires of Anti Lebanon have relatively little in common with the familiar western version, leaning more toward the pyr, fallen angels in Persian mythology.
…pyr have slept in the Lebanon for long, long before this, the lecturer said. He was perhaps picked up— like a germ— by Godfrey de Bouillon and Peter the Hermit somewhere in the Serbian forests between Belgrade and Nish on the First Crusade, accidentally recruited on the march toward Jerusalem. Suspicion and the pogrom revive the pyr and give it vivid life. Any troop of soldiers with cynical leadership, a sacred cause, and little in the way of qualms is the pyr’s natural habitat. The pyr is lost in time; he haunts the present, and lost in the labyrinth, haunts all times.
There is never a traditional “conversion” of the bitten victim to vampire, in the sense that readers of western vampire fiction will be familiar with. In fact, there remains significant uncertainty as to what, if anything will happen to Leon after his bite. Mystery, as well as some occasionally mystifying events, ensue, interspersed with some truly memorable descriptive passages such as:
The unfinished bridge over the intersection hulked in shade, just an archway now, the on-ramps never built, all graffitied, weeds growing from its stump, flags and faded banners drooping from its parapets. Here everything temporary is permanent.
Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of.
Halfway through Anti Lebanon, I thought it was the best novel that I’d read this year, and potentially the best I’d read in several years. Unfortunately, Shuker loses control of his narrative a bit in the latter stages of the book, coincident with Leon’s meanderings beyond Lebanon’s borders. Despite its somewhat disappointing conclusion, Anti Lebanon remains a truly impressive melding of genre elements with mainstream sensibilities. I hope Shuker’s dabblings in the dark are not a one-time experiment; return visits would be most welcome.