Any book about a revolution that doesn’t end with a pile of bodies or a stack of questions is either a love story or a work of propaganda.
Revolutions fizzle out, they die, stagger into aimlessness, or grow regimes even more brutal than the ones they replaced. Revolutions exalt; revolutions disappoint. They glorify and then exhaust. They reveal and mislead. They bestow legitimacy on monsters or make kings of democrats or democrats of murderers.
Then, sometimes, they lead to peace.
Or to starvation, or sometimes to nothing at all, because it's hard to describe what happened in Egypt last year as a revolution anymore; after all, in order for something to be a revolution, something more should probably change. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Egypt has had a perfect revolution in the most literal definition of the word — a full orbit around a fixed center that brings everything to a point of return. A year and a half after the Jan. 25 uprising, the military remains in charge, no real parliament exists, and the new president’s powers are so stunningly limited you can easily overlook how the country’s sham political process might have collapsed had the military declared his counterrevolutionary opponent the victor. The political scenery looks a little different, but democratic self-determination returns to the carrot’s place on the end of the stick, a promise dangled in front of the country to tease it forward, always held a little out of reach. Welcome back, ya Masr.
Has there ever been a revolution that didn’t betray anybody, that didn’t lose sight of its beginnings, that didn’t spin out of control so far, so fast that it went careening completely out of sight? This is, to some degree, the question posed by Adam Thirlwell’s new novel Kapow!, a cyclonic attempt to novelize what just happened in the Middle East. Kapow! is very much a book of our moment — though not quite the moment you’d expect.
It ends with questions, by the way.
“I was imagining a story that was made up of so many digressions and evasions that in order to make it readable it would need to be divided in every direction,” Kapow!’s narrator writes early in the story. He’s explaining both the book’s pull-out sentences, which work like footnotes arranged geometrically inside the text, and the novel’s relentless philosophical and fictional digressions, which sometimes spill out to accordionlike pages. Kapow!’s bare-bones plot centers around a love story set in a fuzzy location that is obviously revolutionary Cairo, but the story is mostly narrated by a newspaper-reading, self-conscious, media-savvy London man (guess what Thirlwell is!) whose constant interruptions and narrative self-consciousness, in 2012, come off like a metafictional stutter.
Aesthetically and analytically, Kapow! is as intentionally messy as the revolution it’s narrating, whose real-life political chaotica has been likened to “Calvinball” because none of the regime’s games are ever played with the same rules twice. But it turns out Thirlwell’s deliberate aimlessness makes the novel more interesting as an artifact of our self-conscious intellectual and artistic habits than as a piece of cultural shrapnel flying off the Arab Spring.
The whole idea behind this book is either brave or conceited, because Thirlwell is British and has cavalierly novelized characters that belong to Egypt, a country that his own government used to occupy. I’ll call him brave, because the first call out of the Postcolonialism 101 playbook says attack, and this line of criticism — though not unwarranted here — is lazy, if not outright insidious.
For instance, Kapow! hits all the main notes of the Egyptian uprising that were covered by the Western media working inside Cairo — the “virginity tests,” the military trials, the rise of political Islam — giving each a cursory shout-out in the plot the way a newspaper correspondent might cover an interesting problem in one dispatch before skipping on to something else in the next. Kapow!’s characters similarly skid from topic to topic without convincingly expressing the real euphoria inside Tahrir Square or the deep anxieties surrounding it.
But this line of criticism is chilling, because it can be leveled at any writer or activist who takes an interest in another country. Revolutions are not property. They do not belong to anyone. Revolutions jump borders, inspire other movements, and — like a fire that brings the neighbors running — invite artistic, political, and intellectual inspection. Thirlwell’s book contains complex, messy, elegant and mostly self-aware thinking about an international event that needs more contemplation, not less. The alternative — silence — is just another form of marginalization, and the fear of appropriation today often comes from weak-knees and wet feet.
In novelizing the revolution, Thirlwell has done a bold thing and invited the Egyptian uprising to become part of his own history and part of the West’s history — which the insurrection already is anyway, if we want to be honest about the kind of interconnected world we live in today. Tell me you didn’t see the images of Tahrir Square in your living room and watch in awe. The feelings you had were real.
In fact, if there’s a real sin in Kapow! — which is a fun novel, by the way, and you should buy it — it’s that Thirlwell doesn’t take even bolder stands. The book is afraid. And it’s afraid because we taught it to be afraid.
Most contemporary critical theory is a project to destroy simplicity — simplicity of thought, simplicity of terminology, simplicity of culture. You might as well call it anti-Friedmanism or anti-Gladwellism, because at its best, critical theory opposes reduction and teaches us that sexual preference isn’t an either-or toggle between straight or gay, that there’s no such thing as “cyberspace” vs. “the real world,” that “hipster” is a lazy word to describe a youth subculture, and so on. The world is a deconstructionist mess, a newspaper left out too long in the rain, and you can understand something only if you first accept that you probably don’t really understand anything at all.
Aesthetically, Kapow! embraces this spirit of expansiveness and unknowability in a way that makes the book a mascot for critical theory and its authority-questioning habits: the self-consciousness over having narrative control, the self-doubting analytical style, the resistance to ascribe a simple explanation for anything. This doubter’s sensibility is reinforced by the reality that revolutions are massively confusing and usually end miserably. So from an artistic standpoint, self-consciousness and hedging seem like reasonable ways to write something so soon about (the scattered agglomeration of disparate uprisings that we should probably stop calling) the Arab Spring
Yet Kapow! — which, when at its best, is as much a novel about interrogating revolutionary optimism as it is about telling the story of its own characters — also betrays a contemporary intellectual sensibility that’s either nihilistic about the ways we should understand the world while living in it or afraid of being proven wrong to the point of paralysis.
“You can only understand a story once it’s over, at the end,” Thirlwell’s narrator says near the end of his novel, on a page featuring an entire column of upside-down text, as confusion and exhaustion take over his characters’ revolution much as it has in real-life Egypt. “Inside the rollercoaster, you’re nothing. So you have to imagine that you’re out of it, if you want to understand what a mess you’re in.” Kapow!’s narrator sweats over reading the newspaper and thinking that everything is connected to everything else — from the revolutions to the assassination of bin Laden — and he worries that it’s impossible to tell what details among all these infinite details would become historically important or augur which way things were really heading. So he decides the important thing is to capture as many details and digressions as possible and hope posterity finds a few of them important, prescient, or at least interesting.
But when it comes to meaning-making for those currently stuck on a long elevator ride with the angel of history, the narrator doubles down: “If you want to know what is really a digression and what isn’t, in a story, then you have to wait until the end.” And in the vague end of his story, which closes with a vignette of a young Egyptian stumbling off in a search for his lover, the narrator says, “You have to choose. Either you’re hopeful or you’re not.”
It’s nice that choosing comes back into the picture, because can we agree that “waiting until the end” is the last thing anybody should be doing in the middle of a revolution? You have to choose whether you think the military is lying, or whether you think your neighbors are lying, or whether you think your cause is just, and then you have to do something without knowing what the answers will be. Anything else and you surrender your duty as a human being to participate in history and civilization and life itself. Sometimes the duty to participate means that you’ll get everything wrong and look like an idiot in history’s eyes. But you’ll find that the people who worry about this sort of thing usually aren’t the ones glancing down the barrel of somebody else’s gun.
From an artistic perspective — rather than an ethical one — at least give Thirlwell credit for rendering uncertainty so accurately, because in one of his countless shards of digression, he predicted the apparent failure of the Egyptian revolution before failure seemed certain. “Power stays the same,” the narrator writes, paraphrasing Benjamin Constant. “It takes the forms of freedom because it needs them. It needs the spectacle. And then it profanes them. It fucks them over.” Egypt is still run by the military. There still isn’t a working parliament. America still gives the country $1.3 billion a year to do what America wants.
Welcome back, ya Masr, but congratulations on having your perfect revolution. Only nihilists, theorists and fools would confuse coming back with never leaving at all.