Book Review: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles is an agonizing 10.5-hours-long piece of existentialist fiction. Most literature doesn’t evoke the rage in me that resulted from this book; I’d consider burning it if I hadn’t only listened to its audiobook.

According to the blurb, “Paul Bowles’s writing is so extraordinary, so special. The landscapes are magical, the characters are questioning so much–it’s haunting in a very beautiful way.” In addition, it is “a landmark of 20th century literature, a novel of existential despair that examines the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness of the desert.”

It’s also about detachment from the world and loved ones, and nihilistic tendencies that leave characters both empty and dumb. The story includes a love triangle within a faithless marriage, set in the vast expanses of North African deserts during post-WWII. There are culture clashes, international conflicts, and sickness. All that is fine, because it’s enough to make anyone ask, “Why the hell am I here?” and find a way to escape, which establishes a good story.

But, it belabored the existential theme to the point that I had to ask: “Why the hell am I listening to this?”

I’m all for existentialist fiction, but not when characters contemplate their existence only because the author seems to demand it, instead of developing existential crises on their own. Every character is selfish, naive, conceited, pompous, spoiled, and pretentious. I couldn’t care for or about any of them; nothing in their lives made me feel sympathetic toward them. The two men are unremarkable and unmemorable, but it’s the woman, Kit, who really pissed me off.

Through her actions, Bowles reveals that he knows nothing about wome. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought women were all irrational, flighty, weak, stupid, and overly emotional. Kit gives women everywhere a bad reputation. She avoids her husband, Port, despite passionate proclamations of love; has sex with the family friend, Tunner, despite said proclamation that was made to him; and even locks Port in a room while he’s on his deathbed. Spoiler Alert! She leaves his corpse there to rot, locked in that room, for the authorities to find.

What woman does that? I can go only so far in rationalizing her actions. She’s in shock. Ok, fine. She’s in shock and wants nothing nearby that reminds her of a faithless, failing marriage and a body she doesn’t know how to properly dispose. So she runs. Stupid woman, who has a passport, runs into the desert instead of deciding to return home to the United States.

Kit is also a slut. She finds people to make decisions for her in exchange for sexual favors, so all she has to do is exist. She falls in love with every male that gives her attention. She even expects a strange man riding past on a white horse to save her as if he’s her Prince Charming. In fact, she lifts her arms to him, as if he were going to swoop down and carry her off somewhere grand just because she’s pretty. She goes as far as saying she loves a different man after just meeting and sleeping with him, despite having also just met his wife. When she leaves this married man, she is accepted into a random caravan and is raped. Repeatedly. By two men. But somehow that’s okay.

And that’s what pissed me off. She accepts rape from a stranger as an act of love. She makes feeble attempts to smack him away and then lies there and accepts it like he’s a long-lost lover. What woman does that? What woman thinks, “He’s not doing this for himself. Every motion he makes is for me alone; they’re loving touches.” What woman begins to consider her rapist with affection?

A woman fights. She kicks, punches, and claws her way out unless she has a weapon pointed at her, which Kit did not. Because as a woman in that situation, even if the rape occurs, even if you’re battered and broken, you can be sure that you fought through it. But not Kit! Oh no. She loves him the moment she believes that he’s caressing her. She loves him so fervently that when his companion mounts her, she just stares at the “accommodating” first rapist in confusion and reproach. As if that, alone, would make him repent.

And of course, the initial rape is swept aside in florid prose meant to make the reader pause to consider symbolic implications of every little detail. We are detached from the action, just like Kit is mentally and emotionally detached from everything. She’s raped, but during it, let’s wonder at the glory of the rising and falling sand dunes of the Sahara desert. Such a technique is like a camera panning over to fluttering curtains next to an open window during sex scenes, back when movies strove for propriety.

Afterwards, she becomes his sex slave, pines for other male residents in a household while being held captive, and doesn’t argue when she’s forced to marry her rapist. In fact, when she finally flees, she’s still married to him—though I’m sure that doesn’t prevent her from sleeping with other random men along the way.

The argument that events and decisions are pertinent only to this character’s personality is weak, specifically because her characterization is weak. I never acquired a full sense of who these people were. Although Kit’s actions were always a surprise, I never learned anything more about her, no added depth.

So yes, I hated this book. It only serves to perpetuate the prejudices against women–flighty, irrational, over-emotional sluts and bat-shit crazy dolts. Oh, and it’s okay to rape, because she’ll love you for it. No thank you, Paul Bowles. You can keep your despicable and deplorable characters and your mutually cheating real-life marriage; meanwhile, I’ll block this book from memory.

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