The Sheltering Sky (1949)
by Paul Bowles
I read this fever-yellow nightmare of a book during my junior year in college, when I was living in Seville. It was my first time outside the U.S., my first experience with the disorienting and liberating anonymity of travel. In fact, my goal was to become more anonymous—to peel away from my blonde countrywomen with their Fodor's and their Reeboks, the indigestible American lumps in the crowds. Of course I failed at this. All of Spain's real castles reminded me of Disney World; I ordered gazpacho off every menu because the one time I'd deviated I'd been served some kind of ensalada that looked like a plate of eyeballs in mayonnaise. But I held out hope that my accent would disintegrate. Soon, I thought, this world would feel less foreign; maybe I'd even get mistaken for a native. My friend Tim, probably sensing the depths of my delusion, recommended Bowles's famous Saharan gothic.
In The Sheltering Sky, a Western trio's optimistic hubris catalyzes an annihilating event—one of the most chilling reversals I've ever read, in part because it occurs smack in the middle of the book. An American couple, Kit and Port, tour North Africa with a friend. Port considers himself a "traveler," not a tourist—so much an intimate of the North African desert that he anthropomorphizes the sky as a benign entity. Then Bowles repeals this notion of the sky as "sheltering": Port's passport is stolen, which sets a horror show in motion. But Bowles doesn't presume to be the god of his book; he's merely tracking his characters down a warren of consequences. And Port's bureaucratic conniving, juxtaposed against the imperturbably blue sky of the Sahara, makes for one hell of a terrifying picture.
This book changed the way I read. Safer novels had primed me to expect a certain kind of arc—characters were challenged by events but they overcame them; characters were refined by the machinery of plot, they "grew" as people, they changed for the better. Bowles's characters succumb to the desert. If they survive it, as Kit does, they become new creatures that you could not really label "improved" in the conventional sense. By deviating from the arc that I'd expected for Port, Bowles exposed my childlike faith in arcs, in a happier story, a route through the desert. I realized just how pampered I'd been as a reader (and a traveler) and how little trust I could place in my own predictions of what was bound to happen, in my life and in novels.
Most readers probably know all about the gut-drop you feel when you approach a book's final few pages: Uh-oh, how will she wrap this up? But Bowles's triumph with The Sheltering Sky is to craft a narrative with a tragedy so shocking that, after this particular event (page 234 in my edition), you'll heft the rest of the story and wonder: How will this continue?
I've never felt safe inside a book since.
Karen Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia!, was published in February.