A Riveting Ugliness: Point of View and Character Sympathy in Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky

I was so impressed with the compulsive readability of Paul Bowles’ fiction that I decided it would be worth writing a two-part post on his work. This first part will focus on his masterwork, the 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky is a gripping novel, extremely compelling as storytelling, though profoundly dark and disturbing. On one level it is a straightforward, chronological travel narrative. It is also, unmistakably, a psychologically terrifying exploration of human mortality.  Bowles is extremely skilled at creating and sustaining narrative tension, and his limpid, elegant language propels the reader into a story fraught with danger.  His landscape descriptions are second to none. He creates a profoundly vivid setting for the characters to move through and endows it with symbolic significance—sky imagery is at the center of the novel—without beating you over the head with it the way Conrad does in Heart of Darkness

After reading The Sheltering Sky I became obsessed with Bowles and immediately went out and rented the Bertolucci film, which in contrast to the novel (and all of Bowles’ stories) I emphatically do not recommend.  The film doesn’t work at all, in my opinion, because it simply reproduces the basic story line of the novel but does not — cannot —reproduce the interiority: the way the characters’ somewhat warped worldviews drive the story, and give it its elegant mounting tension and its disturbing psychological power.  

The main characters in this novel are not pleasant people — not, probably, the type you’d want to have dinner with, much less accompany on a bus and train trek across the Sahara Desert.  Kit is jumpy and paranoid, hovering at the edge of psychosis.  Port is mean, jaded, selfish, and existentially depressed.  You would think a novel that spends as much time as this one does occupying the minds of such people — emphasizing their internal experiences and perceptions as the main field of action — would risk losing most of its readers in the first chapter.  But this reader, at least, had the opposite reaction.  Why?

Part of the answer is that Bowles’ narrative voice is compulsively readable.  His clear prose has an admirable way of propelling the reader forward from one scene to the next, like a strong river current carrying a canoe.  The other part of the answer is that his characters are riveting. This may seem to contradict the grim picture I painted above, but remember a reader’s “sympathy” (for lack of a better word) for a character does not necessarily hinge upon whether we like him—as in, would we invite him over for a beer—but on whether we understand him.

In The Sheltering Sky, the physical details of the main characters’ appearances are sparingly given, while those of the minor characters are more fully drawn.  Explored at length in this book, on the other hand, are the main characters’ personalities, quirks, and world views.  Much of this exploration is accomplished through interior monologue—often one character pondering another—which affords the reader a nuanced understanding of the characters and reinforces the verisimilitude of their actions and dialog throughout the rest of the book. 

While it will be a rare reader who shares Kit’s obsession with omens, we can understand her nebulous fear that things are constantly on the point of falling apart.  Similarly, while we may not share Port’s extreme alienation from the rest of humanity, we can understand his sense of being alone in the world.  The definitive fear shared by Kit and Port, of course, is one shared by us all at one time or another:
“You know what?” he said with great earnestness.  “I think we’re both afraid of the same thing.  And for the same reason.  We’ve never managed, either one of us, to get all the way into life.  We’re hanging on to the outside for all we’re worth, convinced we’re going to fall off at the next bump.  Isn’t that true?”
Once we understand what motivates the characters, whether or not we would like them in real life, we’re ready to follow them throughout the book.  At some level we empathize with them, and—maybe this is the most important thing—we feel we have gotten to know them, so we have a vested interest in following the story to its conclusion to see what happens to them, which we sense from the beginning is gonna be bad.

To some degree, particularly when the story is told from Port’s third person point of view, character sympathy is also driven by description.  The reader is captivated by the terrifying beauty of the desert landscape, and especially the sheltering sky itself, which seems ready to crack at any moment to let in the dark, awesome force waiting without. 

We can relate to Port’s terror, his sense of solitude and fear of death. Despite the fact that he wouldn’t be an ideal dinner guest, we’re pleased to experience northern Africa through his eyes, because his observations are acute.  And we’re right there with him, nodding sagely, when he launches into one of his thumbnail psychological sketches of the minor characters, which are as penetrating as they are ungenerous. 

Although Bowles possesses a strong, highly authoritative narrative voice, the success of The Sheltering Sky depends upon the reader remaining sympathetic to the point of view characters. The remarkable thing, given the nature of his characters, is that Bowles achieves it so perfectly. Though we may not like Port and Kit, we share their existential fears. Their outlook on the world is not only believable, but compelling and often beautiful. So we follow them into the terrifying depths of human experience: Port’s slow painful death, and Kit’s headlong plunge into a dark, exotic world of rape, slavery, and, ultimately, madness.  It's a harrowing, intense reading experience—a dark tour de force. 

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In the next post, we'll take a close look at what I believe is one of the best (and most disturbing) short stories ever written, Paul Bowles' "A Distant Episode."