RABIH ALAMEDDINE'S The Perv is an excellent book of stories which has received no notice in any newspaper or magazine (perhaps because Hollywood junkie Jerry Stahl has just published a novel also called Perv). Alameddine is a painter as well as the author of a novel, Koolaids: The Art of War. His new collection of stories, The Perv, displays a pattern of formal experimentation more typical of painters than of authors -- while extremely various in form and structure, the eight stories in this collection share a sensibility and a palette. They return again and again to the same subjects (Lebanon, displacement, bigotry, AIDS, the burden of memory) and the same emotions (primarily peevishness and longing) even as the author's narrative strategies shift. Several stories employ the conventions of memoir -- chronological recollections told with the irony and omniscience gained with time -- while others are simply collaged fragments of first-person observations, memories, and documents blending disparate times and incidents.

In the title story, which is the best in the collection, a man dying of an unnamed disease shows us letters exchanged between an older man and a boy, at the same time telling us about himself and about the boy. This man is very angry. His low opinion of the reader gives the story a tremendous spark. At one point he scolds us: "I know you fucking jump to conclusions. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Did you ever stop to think that you are the perverts, not me?" As we continue reading and discover the narrator's distaste for us and for the "perverted man" writing to the boy, this titillating question looms ever stronger. The narrator is not the author of the predatory sex letters, though he may be the author of the boy's replies. This exquisitely balanced knot of role-playing and co-dependence provides both a thrilling roller-coaster ride into the psychology of predation and a vivid, realistic glimpse of the relation of writer to reader. For its title story alone The Perv deserves a wide readership and significantly more critical attention than it is now receiving.

Alameddine is at his best when he pursues innovative formal experiments. The more conventional "memoir" stories (especially "My Grandmother, the Grandmaster," "Grace," and "Remembering Nasser" -- though they are not memoir, they are made up) only demonstrate Alameddine's ability to work in this genre. Here he is mining a form which is too exhausted to yield anything of great interest. That said, these are fine, accomplished excursions into the form, and anyone with a taste for, say, the work of Tobias Wolfe or Michael Chabon, or an interest in the subjects of Lebanon and the cultural displacement of a moneyed, privileged international elite, will be well rewarded by these neatly shaped fictions. By contrast, the title story and "Duck" -- like Koolaids, Alameddine's thrilling free-fall of a novel -- juxtapose fragments of narrative mixing times, realities, fantasy, memory, and reportage without the mufFLing cocoon of connective tissues that dull the impact of the more conventional pieces. Here, the reader is placed abruptly cheek-to-jowl with the mind's immoderate abundance of information and associations. This strategy has its own rich history (William Carlos Williams' masterful book-length poem, Paterson, is one of the best examples) and, notably, most of its development has come from writers who self-consciously borrowed, and learned, from the work of painters exploring the formal possibilities of their medium. Alameddine, with his peripatetic personal history spanning Lebanon, England, France, and America, brings to this tradition a distinctly late-20th-century, post-Colonial politics and density.

Support The Stranger