Response to “The World Islands”

by on February 20, 2013

Responses Takes
Illustration by Sally ScopaIllustration by Sally Scopa

If the ultimate homecoming of death happens when you’re far from home—on vacation, or on business, or while in some distant and dissociated emotional state—your whole life must suddenly become fraughtwith the strangeness of having, at the last moment, failed to reach a conclusion. You end up frozen forever in the act of “just passing through.”

Especially if it happens in the artificially over-familiar ex-pat enclave of The World Islands, in an air-conditioned city boiling with desert heat, ancient tensions, and spooky new money, your death is bound to go unrecognized and unaccounted for, like you might rise from the dead a little hung-over, muttering, “What happens in Vegas … ”

But of course Jonathan is just as dead where he lies in the desert as he would have been in the New York bed where he first dreamed up the idea of going to Dubai. Maybe he thought he could transcend the need for roots and turn himself into a three-week-stint superhero, taking care of business with deadly cold efficiency anywhereon earth. Maybe he thought he could build a home in his suitcase and take it with him, trailing no connections behind.

But the fact is, when you escape from something you also escape into something. You can’t hang out nowhere.

Central to Jesse’s excerpt is a clash between ex-pat alienation and the irrepressible human need for intimacy. His characters, in life as in death, have chosen to leave home and yet, on the other side of the world, they want to forget how far they’ve come. Their little American ghetto is like a movie set, a micro-reality that turns its back on the much larger reality surrounding it. The rituals of life, from the baby born at the “American Hospital,” to the fledgling romance between Jonathan and Flora, falter and struggle to hang on in an environment that is doubly toxic to them (the city’s authoritarian culture makes it unwelcoming to newcomers, and its perch on the edge of the desert makes it unwelcoming to everyone).

Love, whether real or acted-out, is all that makes modulatingbetween the alien and the intimate possible. Love strains to achieve this modulation most palpably in a late-night scene between Jonathan and Flora, as they discuss having children and raising them in Dubai.

We watch the normal filtered through the strange back into the normal back into the strange: it’s normal, archetypal even, to be in a room at night with one’s lover, but strange to be an American in a room in Dubai; it’s normal to discuss having children, but strange to realize something like this (that Flora has already tried and failed to have children) about the person you’re discussing it with. Even though Jonathan is now closer to the “real Flora,” she’s also become less knowable, more of an island.

They’re both temporary occupants in a borrowed room in a city they don’t know, talking about founding a shared permanent home, for themselves and for the baby, who would come to know the world with that home as its center. I think here Jonathan realizes how far he’s come, and how lonely it’s madehim, and inwardly knows that he’s no more able to have children than Flora is.

In what feels like the very next moment, he’s speeding away in the back of a car with nothing but his Blackberry between him and The End. The Blackberry is a portal out of the mummifying desert and into a place overflowing with human substance, a safety net that helps him believe his life is bigger than the terrified quivering of an individual consciousness. Like the city’s endless rows of skyscrapers, it’s a tool for making habitation in the desert possible, comfortable even. Maybe he takes out his Blackberry to imbue the world around him with one last dose of unreality. Maybe he takes one last look at his calendar, packed full with other three-week stints around the world.

Then the safety net breaks: his message never gets through. The desert is too big, and his murderers know that better than he does. Now he’s alone with the reality of the place he’s come to, maybe for the first time, definitely for the last.

—David Rice