inComparison: Ex-Pat Novels
The expatriate novel is one of our oldest, hallowed literary traditions. From Moses and the Israelites roaming around the desert, to Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald and the rest carousing in Paris, stories of life in foreign lands have always captivated our imaginations.
Simon Van Booy is the latest author to assume the mantle for this unique literary form. The writer–previously known for his Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award-winning collection The Secret Lives of People in Love and also for his impeccable sartorial taste–has released his first novel Everything Beautiful Began After. How does it compare to the great expat novels of the past? We break the genre down to its component parts and rate how Van Booy’s book measures up.
Drinking: Alcohol consumption is a major part of any expatriate’s tale. The Gold(schläger) standard here is set by Geoffrey Firmin, a character from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. He is a man clearly intent on setting some kind of record for intoxication in dusty Quauhnahuac, Mexico. That guy really knew how to party. Van Booy’s book passes muster here. George, a troubled translator hailing from the American south, is often reduced to alcohol-induced tears and at one point needs to be rescued from his inebriated adventures on the streets of Athens by a sympathetic homeless guy.
Aimless wandering: A fine example of the spiritual seeker moving about the globe at random to outrun his personal demons is seen in Deb Olin Unferth’s 2008 book Vacation. Her protagonist Myers, perhaps suffering from a brain injury, wanders around Central America looking for his imaginary rival. In Everything Beautiful, Van Booy’s Henry, a handsome archaeologist, develops an obsessive fondness for air travel.
Locale: By its very definition, the expat novel can be set anywhere. Van Booy’s book is set in Greece, the birthplace of Western Civilization and current owner of an extraordinarily crap economy. Good choice, we say. But it’s not the best expat novel set in the Aegean. That honor belongs to The Magus, John Fowles’s taut psychological thriller of an Englishman’s encounter with lust and magic. (The combination of lust and magic trump all, come to think of it.)
Unrealized love: I think we can all agree that Jake Barnes is just plain embarrassing in his pathetic mooning over Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises. Get over it, bro. Unrequited yearnings and awkward misunderstandings are practically a requirement of the genre, and Van Booy scores high marks here for his skillful management of the love triangle between George, Henry and the lady artist Rebecca.
Spiritual dissolution: Geoff Dyer’s two-in-one novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is the story of a pop journalist who first meets the woman of his dreams while on assignment in Venice, then deals with personal tragedy by becoming some weird homeless wanderer in India. Henry’s journey has some notable parallels, minus shaving his head and taking a dip in the Ganges.
Misunderstanding local culture: Van Booy’s characters are a little too comfortable in alien lands. This might be because of their chosen pursuits: George translates ancient Greek, Henry unearths old bones and artifacts, and Rebecca paints portraits of old, half naked locals. It’s more satisfying to read about stupid Americans bumbling into bad situations, like the crew in Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. One wrong turn in that book, and you end up as a sex slave in North Africa.