October 2021

The Wrong End of the Telescope

By Rabih Alameddine
Review by
“Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative,” Rabih Alameddine writes in his latest novel, a slippery tale of seeking and messy in-betweens.
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Award-winning Lebanese American author Rabih Alameddine’s sixth novel, The Wrong End of the Telescope, is as complex and multifaceted as its narrator. The story is a shape-shifting kaleidoscope, a collection of moments—funny, devastating, absurd—that bear witness to the violence of war and displacement without sensationalizing it.

Mina Simpson, a transgender Lebanese American doctor, arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos to volunteer at a refugee camp. It’s the closest she’s been to Lebanon since she left her home country decades ago, and the first time she’s seen her brother (who flies in to visit her) in years. On Lesbos, Mina meets a family from Syria and becomes close with the family’s mother, who is dying of cancer and whom Mina steps in to help however she can.

As Mina struggles to make sense of the crisis unfolding before her, she recounts the winding path of her life: her Lebanese childhood, her experiences in medical school in the U.S. and her comfortable middle age in Chicago with her wife. Moving between past and present, the novel unfolds in short chapters with whimsical titles that perfectly encapsulate Mina’s dry humor, wisdom and compassion (e.g., “When You Don’t Know What to Say, Have a Cookie”). 

Interspersed with these chapters are sections addressed to a gay Lebanese writer whose work has had a profound impact on Mina’s life, and who seems to be a reflection of Alameddine himself. “Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative,” Mina tells the unnamed writer in one of these chapters, an unsettling truth that Alameddine embraces in this novel. He refuses to offer easy solutions to impossible situations; his characters do not learn lessons. This is not a novel about transformation. Its strength lies in its slipperiness, its thoughtful engagement with the messy in-betweens and the harsh but revelatory realities of liminality.

Mina, her fellow volunteers and the refugees they meet are all seeking something: safety or wholeness, a new home, old friends, a different narrative through which to understand their lives. The Wrong End of the Telescope is a gorgeously written, darkly funny and refreshingly queer witness to that seeking.

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