Sex is the point of this tale--not philosophy or politics--and sex is what we get. "Extreme" sex, as in Tristram's previous work: wire hangers used as handcuffs, anal penetration, full-body shaves, blindfolds, drawn blood, sex role reversals, the ever-smoldering threat of violence. But even in the wake of Abu Ghraib, the strenuous transgressiveness in this book seems oddly...idle. From moment to moment, the heroine does not know what she will do next--and neither, we sense, does the author. Should she make the Persian man phone his wife, or should she whip him with the coat hanger; should she slip out of the hotel room and abandon him, dress up in his pant suits, shave his body like an Islamic martyr, slit his throat or ask him to marry her? Tragically intense as she is intended to appear, the widow in fact resembles a bored channel surfer. Shall she turn on the bloody murder mystery, she wonders, or the quiz show; a Merce Cunningham ballet, that scene with the hijackers or My Big Fat Greek Wedding? In the end she just toys with the remote. And Tristram toys with us.
But if After says little about the world after September 11, less about being a Muslim or Jew, and nothing whatever of pressing policy issues, it just might suggest something about eros. Together with other nominally political erotica like Marguerite Duras's Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (both of which it insistently echoes), as well as Bernhard Schlink's recent novel The Reader and Bertolucci's latest film The Dreamers--it suggests that we are viscerally drawn to our antagonist. None of these tales are about politics nearly so much as about our attraction to the Forbidden, the Other, the Unfamiliar, even the Adversary. In fact, it barely matters whether the lovers portrayed in these fictions are divided by politics, class, age or religion--whether they consist of a French girl and an enemy German soldier in Hiroshima, a shady American and a pampered Parisienne in Last Tango, a 15-year-old whiz kid and a 30-year-old tram conductor who turns out to be a Nazi in The Reader, or a Muslim and the victim of Muslims in After--what matters is that the lovers are divided; that they are remote from each other, prohibited to each other, alien.
We are accustomed to viewing this sort of attraction--the forbidden-fruit brand--as negative, shallow, feckless and even dangerous: It makes people have affairs with other folks' husbands; it makes presidents succumb to interns, and students romance their professors. But perhaps there is another way to view it, especially in the context evoked by After, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and The Reader.
Perhaps we can view this attraction as nature, for once, overcoming the competitions and hatreds and fears foisted upon us by society, and bringing warring, pouting, fearing, or simply irreconcilably "diverse" persons together. Perhaps nature is more--rather than less--moral than culture in this instance. Culture drives us to pursue our self-interest, to befriend those people most like ourselves and best able to aid, echo and promote us; nature nudges us to embrace the impractical, the strange, indeed, sometimes the hostile. It urges us to reach across boundaries, to "sleep with the enemy."
Half the reason, it is tempting to think, for the near-universal incest taboo is the fact that in love--unlike in friendship, work or regional politics--we dread someone like ourselves; we dread our "twin," our "cousin." We want the sister of the chieftain next door, not our own! It is the exotic, not the familiar, we crave. If, in sunlit social life, we choose co-workers, lunch guests, neighbors and even (as has often been remarked) house pets that resemble us, in the darkened corners of erotic fantasy, we very often choose the Other. Is this, then, such an ungenerous instinct?
Even the heroine of After, ill-developed as she is, feels closer to a sizable part of humanity after her encounter with the man she elects to view as Muslim. It is hard to think that a few illicit love affairs between Israelis and Palestinians, Iraqis and Americans, would not do more for the strained relations between these peoples than another speech by Ariel Sharon or President Bush. The point here is not: Make love not war. Or maybe it is--but in this case "make love" must be seized in its widest sense--not as the silly acrobatics performed by the characters in Tristram's novel but as the engagement with difference, the fascination with opposition that we all feel and only need to cultivate and translate into wider languages. If reading Tristram's book could prompt such impulses--and only then--it would be well worth the hype.