The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – Review

I’m not sure what to say about The Sheltering Sky. Part of me wants to refute that it is an existentialist novel, or maybe an anti-existentialist novel in that a few characters who seem to go through life attempting (or not attempting) to form their own definitions end up either dead, insane, or insanely unlikable.  But I don’t believe making a statement regarding existentialism was Bowles point.

Bowles was an American expatriate. Born in 1910, he came from a fairly affluent background, went to University in Virginia before splitting his life between Paris and New York in the 1930s and 1940s before settling in Tangier. I think this important in looking at his first novel, The Sheltering Sky. Rather than being about existentialism, I think it is about how Bowles came to view America and that he took this conceived vision of America and juxtaposed it with North Africa to highlight Americans as shallow, center-less creatures who crave being told what to do, how to do it and when to do it.

First, take Port. While the engine of the group, the one who most often makes the decisions for his wife Kit and his friend Tunner, he also finds himself at the hands of the natives he finds himself dealing with. The first major event of the novel has Port out by himself where he is approached by a native who he follows out of the city to a little collection of tents. Port doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t trust the guy, but he goes anyway. He is placed in a tent with a woman he clearly intends to sleep with, discovers she is trying to rob him and takes off. In the process of escaping he loses his wallet anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of other travelers (a bizarre mother/son tandem who steals his passports), of French officials when trying to find his passport, and from various locals that he interacts with.

Tunner is directionless throughout the novel other than his awkward attempts at seducing Port’s wife, Kit. Asked to go on the trip by Port, he is later clumsily maneuvered away by Port when he feels Tunner has become a hindrance. At the same time, he also stays in Africa until Kit is found at the end of the novel, though also from shame, trying to avoid the inevitable confrontation with their mutual friends at home NY. Also, he is the one who not only discovers that Lyle (the “son” in the mother/son tandem) is a thief and actually does something about it –  he hits him, repeatedly.

Kit, meanwhile, is bizarre. She is suffocated throughout the novel. She wants to react how she wants to react but continually finds she is restraining herself. FIrst it is because of Tunner, then it is because of other company they are around, then it is because Port is sick…and she is always miserable over it. Which all leads up to the outright bizarre third section of the novel where Kit goes off into the desert after stripping herself nude and bathing in a public pool. She goes off into the desert, gets herself picked up by a couple of men with a lot of servants and camels who take her to a city deeper in the Sahara where she is put up as a concubine. The guy’s three other wives hate her. She is loved brutally during the entire trip. She can communicate with no one because of the language barrier. She eventually escapes, sends a telegraph asking for help then immediately panics at the life she is going back to. Nevertheless, she is found, cleaned up, taken to a consulate where the woman assigned to pick her up at the airport and get her set up at a hotel realizes (or just believes) in an epiphany of confluence of light and shadow that Kit had gone mad. This woman runs off inside the hotel and by the time anyone goes back to the car, Kit has disappeared.

Meanwhile, the natives don’t seem plagued by any remotely similar problems. They just live. They make decisions, there are repercussions, and life goes on. For the occupying French it is pretty similar. God is never really mentioned with any particular group – there is no counterpoint to the idea of having the freedom to construct meaning through your own decisions or through the decisions of some supreme being.

Perhaps there is an argument for the type of decisions made by different culture but this is where I believe the novel moves from an existential novel to a novel about culture. And not just any American culture but the culture of the upper-middle/upper class Americans, a culture Bowles knew fairly well. Port inherited a lot of money when his father died and gave up writing to just travel. Or, not to travel but to just simply exist. When given the opportunity to truly break away from their culture, Bowles has his character fall into a life of sexual and social domination and isolation before apparently going mad herself.

In its own way, I wonder if Sheltering Sky isn’t similar to Great Gatsby. Only where the intellectual (or even spiritual or moral) inadequacies of the social elite are shown how damaging and destructive they are to everyone around them in Gatsby, we are shown how dangerous the outside world is to them in Sheltering Sky.  Like Oblivion, I have a feeling this is a novel I’ll be thinking about for a few days now.

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