When I was reading Paul Bowles' exquisite The Sheltering Sky, I jotted down a phrase here in my notes to include in my review: the ambiguities of human behavior.
When we create art, we (meaning we members of the human species) are almost always guilty of placing the art in a digestible context. Perhaps guilt is the wrong word to use, because it indicates a transgression - perhaps this context is wholly necessary in that art must be able to be internalized in some fashion or it fails in communicating anything at all. With writing, this translates into the creation of a pleasing and familiar story arc with discernible beginning, middle, and end. Many readers find great comfort in this familiarity - in fact, they demand it in their novels. Book series are an indication of this phenomenon. In book series, we are allowed to reenter a familiar set of literary preconditions and live among characters we've grown accustomed to. These same readers often despise books that upset the standard story arc. Books are not a place to be challenged, set off balance, or placed adrift in a morally ambiguous universe. Novels are enjoyed by these readers because they clarify moral situations, not muddy them! Readers of this sort will undoubtedly hate The Sheltering Sky and its ambiguities of human behavior. For the rest of the reading world, this novel offers a profound and moving experience. My son asked me this evening which book that I had read this past month had I enjoyed best? I told him this one, and in fact, I have plans to carry on with Bowles and read Let It Come Down beginning tonight.
Books like The Sheltering Sky - books so keenly observant of human frailty - are truly rare. And in being unafraid to show ourselves our frailties, it offers us rare and beautiful truths. It surprises me in some respect that this novel is not more highly valued, though I do see it ranked among best books of the 20th century. Bowles reveals himself a master observer. The character he creates with Kit Moresby is one of the most outstanding and complex I've read in the past couple of years.