THE SAINT OF INCIPIENT INSANITIES
By Elif Shafak. Farrar Straus Giroux. 351 pp. $25
Elif Shafak was born in France and raised in Spain, has published four novels in Turkish and now teaches at the University of Michigan. She may be intimate with the disorientation of the expatriate, but she does not restrict herself to a literal definition of border-crossing. As the characters in her exuberant, uneven first novel in English make clear, feeling like an alien has little to do with visa status.
A shabby, rambling house in a Boston suburb is home to three graduate students in three different fields from three different continents with three different religious orientations. They share -- well, not much, actually, but somehow each has found a home with the other two. Abed is a Moroccan biochemist, a Muslim teetotaler fond of argument and haunted by a jinn that stalks his nightmares. Piyu, a devout Catholic from Spain, is at dental school despite his morbid fear of sharp objects. And Omer, newly arrived from Istanbul to study political science, denies all gods except three: alcohol, marijuana and coffee.
Opposite these foreign men are three American women who are, if anything, even less at home in the world. Alegre, Piyu's Chicana girlfriend, cooks copiously for the roommates as well as her own tribe of aunts while hiding her bulimia from all of them. Gail is a bipolar, suicidal, fiercely doctrinaire chocolate maker who unexpectedly and rather inexplicably marries Omer. Gail's jilted partner, Debra Ellen Thompson (never just Debra, please), rescued Gail from paralyzed anonymity at Mt. Holyoke, fell in love with her, and is now in powerless thrall to the woman she once empowered.
With characters this extravagantly eccentric, there isn't much room for plot. What we get instead is a series of wacky, occasionally brilliant, infuriatingly overstuffed soliloquies, as the perspective shifts from one character to the next. These are interspersed with group scenes in which two or more players offer their opinions -- often at high volume -- without actually offending anyone. Defiantly unstereotypical though they may be, the characters are still rigidly consistent in their contrasts. Having endowed her creations with so many quirks and hidden wounds, Shafak stops short of giving them life.
The true center of Shafak's novel is language itself. Words fill every inch of the frame, cavorting, crowding, parading, nesting within each other and leering from corners like the teeming figures in a Bosch painting -- words that can unlock the secrets of a culture or, just as easily, obscure them further. In Shafak's hands, the words are often more tangible than the ideas they are trying to transmit. Omer is "in every single layer down to the lowest echelons of his soul, demoralized and unsettled, poo-scared and exhausted into slow motion by the hyperspeed of that crepuscular hologram called 'time.' " Shafak delights in clever parallelisms: Describing the solidarity of expats, she notes that "they detached from their own flocks to migrate to faraway lands, and once there, they flocked into detachments." Acutely aware that language is the key to their happiness in America, the roommates invent a game to enlarge their vocabularies; their resulting sesquipedalianism -- "a long word to define the lust for long words" -- seems to have affected their creator as well.
Shafak loads her narrative with an exhaustive multiplicity of detail, a refusal (or an inability) to filter details that echoes the bewilderment of the stranger in a strange land. Thus, at the moment that Omer opens his eyes on his first morning in his new home, "a UPS van loaded with letters and boxes, a hacker on his way to break into the computer of one of his professors who he heard had accused him of being a 'hacker,' a Norwegian tourist lost on his way to the Museum of Modern Art, and a pizza delivery boy who had just received two phone calls from people unknown to him . . . plowed through Pearl Street." Sometimes exhaustive is just exhausting.
But there are serendipitous gems to be found in Shafak's prose. She understands the ancient fear that loving a foreigner can provoke, the sense that "even if the couple managed to get along flawlessly, when they tumbled deep down into their own slumber each night, their gods would start fighting till dawn." She has a sharp eye for American absurdity, like the tendency to give florid names to shades of paint -- a puddle of Alegre's vomit, Shafak points out, matches the chip of pink called It's a Girl! Her message, shorn of linguistic flourishes, is simple and deeply humanist. Life in the borderless modern world can bring all but the strongest to the brink of incipient insanity. In the end, Shafak asks, "Who is the real stranger -- the one who lives in a foreign land and knows he belongs elsewhere or the one who lives the life of a foreigner in her native land and has no place else to belong?" *
Janice P. Nimura frequently reviews fiction for Book World.