Top positive review
A dark warning in a well executed, satisfying novel. .
Reviewed in the United States on August 31, 2017
O’Neill presents a light satire of the contemporary social scene brilliantly, but the fun covers layers of more serious subtext. If the reader is not tuned in to the underlying social criticism, the ending comes as a shock. It is an uncomfortable ending as it is clearly intended to be. We get to kind of like this narrator. His explanations for what he does seem to make sense. His excuses for inaction are plausible. He seems like everyman just trying to get along in the world. But there is no system of values beyond his immediate comfort. O’Neill underscores this void just before the conclusion by having the narrator recall little quotations from John Kennedy and George Washington and Anna Julia Cooper from his mother’s kitchen, which he denigrates as sixth grade wisdom. X is too cynical to take comfort or meaning from this past. The blank, white wall he ends up facing is like a dissolution of his personhood, a horrific image.
In the beginning, however, we seem to be embarking on a fun sendup of silly expats in Dubai. Before he gets to Dubai, there is a great parody of the online community analyzing and eventually belittling an act of spontaneous bravery by a citizen. We can all experience the shock of recognition in that presentation. This is what the public discourse has become. You do start to pick up on X’s unusual lack of real human relationships though. His sexual relations go a fraudulent pretense of intimacy, to soft porn, to hard porn, to a massage chair. In the end his lover is a massage chair. The chair, Pasha, becomes a chilling metaphor for the complete depersonalization of relationships.
X’s sin is not corruption but complacency. His dishonesty consists in his failure to call out the cruelty that surrounds him. The deferral of all responsibility in the gibberish of user agreements seems so clever to X. But power relationships will always rule when the rule of law does not apply. The situation (also the name of his living quarters); the situation in Dubai is unacceptable. It violates in every respect the wise and honest standard humanity aspires to. The imagined emails that X does not send are exactly what he ought to have been sending if he were an honorable person. And, of course, at the heart of his inaction is Jenn, the woman whose future he stole because it was convenient. This novel has so many great sentences in it, but the one about Jenn is so right:
“There was always a chance she’d change her mind, and there was nothing to stop me from telling her that come what may I would not have a child with her because our quasi-marriage was a living death for me—surely a pretty significant piece of information that is absolutely one’s obligation to communicate to one’s partner in a timely fashion. Jenn, I’m so sorry.))”
We don’t really understand this about X until well into the novel. It comes as something of a shock. And then the rest of it starts to fit the pattern. Jenn’s retribution speaks of her loss. Her continuing, energy eating, enmity. She did not move on. The novel is ultimately an apt portrayal of the thing we have most to fear. If we don’t insist on those sixth-grade values, and fight to the death to defend them, Dubai is the future.