JUNE 15, 2020
“PLEASURE DISAPPOINTS, possibility never.” It is with this quote from philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that Zaina Arafat opens her debut novel, You Exist Too Much, setting the stage for a story that explores the implications of, and reasons behind, the infinite pursuit of possibility. An unpretentious read, what the novel lacks in richness and layers, it makes up for in accessibility and honesty, steering clear of the stereotypes that so often plague characters from a Middle Eastern background.
What could be, what should be, and what is are the sources of conflict in this tale that traces the steps of a young, bisexual woman of Palestinian origin who checks into a treatment center for “love addiction,” that maladaptive coping mechanism that pushes her into the arms of one temporary lover after another, idealizing the unavailable and avoiding commitment. She is perpetually prepared to forgo what she has in favor of a mirage, just out of reach.
When the reader first meets the narrator, she is a DJ in Brooklyn, an absent partner to a live-in girlfriend, working long nights and lying to her conservative mother about the nature of her relationship, which has gone lukewarm as the novelty has worn off and which she purposefully sabotages with one-night stands and the romanticization of potential paramours. One of the women she pines for is a married professor with a child on the way. It is her girlfriend’s discovery of her infidelities — and the sobering and embarrassing realization that her destructive, obsessive patterns have been exposed — that is the catalyst for change. She seeks help at the “Ledge,” a center specializing in addiction and a vehicle through which she may plunge into the murky and trauma-laced depths of her psyche. There, she meets an eclectic cast of characters struggling with variations of a similar problem, and the introspective journey brings her to confront the motives behind her actions.
Arafat’s unnamed narrator inhabits the realm of margins. That she remains nameless suggests that she is at once familiar to the reader and unknowable. She prefers to be loved at a distance, “the safest way to be loved.” She is all too real, flawed in a way that is inevitably relatable. “You exist too much,” her perpetually disappointed mother tells her, but she would seem to exist insufficiently also, always falling short of expectations and never fully embodying socially prescribed identities.
Her queerness puts her at odds with her mother, so much so that she is plagued with guilt at causing her distress, as though her sexuality were a deliberate offense on her part. “[S]he should’ve had better. She didn’t deserve this at all,” she says, sympathizing with her mother’s own self-pitying laments. Her failure to live up to her mother’s standard of femininity is a constant source of tension between them. Yet, even as a child, she could not help but relish straddling the boundary between male and female, as when she donned her uncle’s trousers to hide her feminine body from the gaze of judgmental older men in Bethlehem. “Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space,” she says of her realization.
The novel travels across both time and physical distance, with frequent flashbacks and vignettes spanning the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. While the larger geopolitical conflicts take a backseat to the interpersonal ones, the narrator is unmistakably an outsider in her travels to Nablus. As a Palestinian navigating an occupied territory with all this implies — including grueling border checkpoints and the disrespect that is a consequence both of suspicion and power imbalances — she is an eternal stranger.
She is too American to feel entirely at home among her Palestinian relatives. To her uncle, her ways are those of an “ajnabi, a foreigner.” “I was the American cousin […] [b]eing regularly excluded, I developed a preference for solitude,” she says. A language barrier removes her one degree further from the stability of a fixed identity. “For the majority of my childhood, I only ever understood a third of what anyone was saying.” Yet her heritage is conspicuous enough in her American surroundings to impact her interpersonal life. “We’re not in Saudi Arabia,” her girlfriend Anna reminds her when she withdraws her hand in public. In an ironic and futile attempt to ingratiate herself to the narrator’s mother, conciliatory Anna tries to appear more feminine, a move which the narrator knows will backfire. How do you appease someone disinclined to accept you?
At the root of her alienation is a strained relationship with her mother, Laila Abu Sa’ab. This is evident from the very first pages of the novel, when she waits for her mother to offer a reassuring smile that never comes. “I began this habit of constant seeking, of endlessly striving to earn my way back, a pattern that would send me on a misguided and self-destructive quest for love.” A solid case could be made that Laila Abu Sa’ab is the most developed character; she earns sympathy without any sentimental pleas for it, by sheer virtue of her circumstances and in spite of her rough outer shell. While her past had promised so much potential, her present is the result of disappointments that she has never reconciled herself with and that she takes out on her daughter, whom she views as a vestige of her cruel and emotionally negligent husband — a reminder that she could have been more, could have had more, was indeed more as a member of the illustrious Abu Sa’ab family.
“I was not an Abu Sa’ab,” our narrator says, “a wedge driven even deeper after [my mother] divorced my father and dropped her married name entirely. After that I was a foreigner, an unfamiliar thing, other. I would never belong to her again.” Laila has a permanent, solid identity and as such, she serves as a foil to the protagonist. As the narrator says of her mother, she still has not lost her accent after 27 years of living in the States. In fact, Laila still considers the West Bank her home. She has none of the uncertainty of her daughter, choosing instead to remain firmly fixed in herself and project her aspirations onto the narrator. She is regal and dignified to a fault, but she avoids becoming a parody of herself as characters who cling to bygone glory often risk doing.
You Exist Too Much commits a few classic errors of the debut novel. It trusts the reader too little and explains too much. The jumps between past and present occur too frequently at certain points and without the breadth necessary for the reader to become fully immersed in one scene before proceeding to the next. It could be argued that this intentionally mirrors the narrator’s own meandering thoughts as she processes her past, but there is little in the way of structure in these flashbacks. A nonlinear format would need more room to breathe. There is a sizable cast of characters, perhaps too many for a novel with such tight space. Largely indistinguishable apart from some surface-level traits, the narrator’s lovers blend into one another, which says something about how many she takes; her liaisons are her defining characteristic. Some are more believable than others. It is painful to see her fall for her Argentinian man, especially considering that their affair follows her stint in rehab and the accompanying epiphanies and resolutions to do better. She goes back and forth with him, between doubt and giving him the benefit of it, in a way that comes off as tedious. She is, for the most part, self-aware, which makes their pairing even more eyebrow-raising as there is little about him that does not characterize all the other lovers she has discarded for fear of becoming too involved or vulnerable, in perennial want of something better.
Nevertheless, it must be said that You Exist Too Much fills the queer Middle Eastern gap in the literary market. Moreover, it does so with a lead who is sympathetic and a story line that avoids the tropes that often accompany characters contending with their sexuality. The novel’s bittersweet conclusion is natural, not forced, favoring resolution through empathy and quiet acceptance over the spectacle of a grand reconciliation or confrontation.