WHAT'S GOOD: Let it Come Down (1952), a novel by Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles is all but unknown to my generation. That is a shame, because he was one of the most influential, and in my opinion, best American writers of the 20th Century.
Bowles seemed to experience just about everything in his life. Before becoming a novelist, he was a protégé (and lover) of Aaron Copeland, a collaborator of Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles in New York, a friend of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin and an initiate of Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris.
On Stein’s advice, Bowles settled in Tangier’s international zone in 1947, and especially as a result of his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, attracted generations of visiting cultural icons to Morocco (the Beats, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger) until his death in 1999 at the age of 88.
It was Bowles who inspired William S. Burroughs to move to what Burroughs called ‘Interzone’ in the 1950s where he would write the bulk of Naked Lunch.
Burroughs described The Sheltering Sky as “almost a perfect novel,” and it is generally regarded as Bowles’s best. But I believe his second full length work, Let it Come Down (a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), is a superior work.
The story begins with the protagonist, Nelson Dyar, arriving in Tangier where he hopes to break away from the ennui of his old life working as a bank teller in New York.
Dyar is hungry for experience and ready to say yes to everything, and his lack of discrimination and status as a Westerner opens up the full spectrum of the Zone to him.
From the stately homes of the expatriate noblesse to the bazaars and brothels run by the local Muslim population, to Dyar all doors are open, and he is ready to walk through any that he encounters.
Like Bowles himself, Dyar moves to North Africa out of a sense of dissatisfaction with his life in America. But unlike Bowles, Dyar is not a writer or artist of any kind. In fact he has no discernible interests or hobbies, and is so submissive to the tide of events that he seems to lack even free will, a disposition which leads him logically and ineluctably to a horrifying endpoint.
He sniffed the wet air, and said to himself that at last he was living, that whatever the reason for his doubt a moment ago, the spasm which had shaken him had been only an instant's return of his old state of mind, when he had been anonymous, a victim. - Paul Bowles, Let it Come Down.
As with most good fiction, Let it Come Down contains no overt or conscious message. But when asked for an explanation about his protagonist’s actions, Bowles responded that “whatever is intolerable must produce violence.”
Dyar’s life in New York was intolerable. And when he does not find whatever he came to Tangier in search of he is moved to embrace yet more extreme paths.
The novel’s zenith is at its end, but the earlier stages of the protagonist's journey resonate much more with me. Dyar encounters duplicity at every turn in Tangier. And yet whenever he pictures himself back in New York he sees only an anonymous drone, a ‘victim’ as the narrator puts it.
Like Bowles, Dyar went from a comfortable prison to a precarious freedom, but a freedom nonetheless. Because of this, there is no hint of nostalgia or regret in Dyar’s final, grisly action.
We're left to wonder: if Dyar could erase everything and return to his bank teller’s cage as though nothing had happened, would he?
You hope the answer is yes. But you can’t help feeling that in losing his mind in the desert, Dyar draws closer to what he was willing to risk everything—his past, his future, even his life—to find.
Let it Come Down is both a portent and a parable of the savage alienation and monotony of life for those unable to discover a passion.
While it contains no overt message, the book’s hidden message is clear: write a story, climb a mountain. Do something, anything, to infuse your life with meaning. If not you just don’t know what you are capable of.
What's Good are short reviews of under-appreciated or misunderstood works.