From Amazon

A work of extraordinary beauty and insight. A moving consideration of the tragedies of one man and an evocation of the broader human condition. Read this work to be deeply moved, to feel empathy, and hence to be more human. The best new work I’ve read in years.

One of the best in really good literature that I have read in a long time. The writing is superb and so well done. it is a somewhat complicated story being fragmented from one place in time to another, but if read slowly and deliberately easy to decipher. Feeling for this man who has lost his two sons and all the security in his life, written in beautiful prose, is a wonderful novel. The poetry and flow of the novel, as long as it is, is pure joy to read. Tariq is such a sensitive man who seems to find such tragedy in his life with little joy, it pulls at your heart strings all along the way. I would recommend the book to most anyone that loves a deep, touching read.

Salah El Moncef’s The Offering is unlike any other book I have read. It is so many things all in one—heart-wrenching, captivating, a love story, a mystery. The story is told first person through the main character, Tariq Abbassia Tunisian man who leaves his country for France with his wife and kids. Without spoiling the book, Tariq is a man who has suffered many tragedies in his life from his wife leaving with his kids, to his kids being murdered and experiencing a traumatic brain injury, Tariq desperately tries to piece together his life. What makes the story so fascinating is that the story is told by way of his own personal journal/diary after he commits suicide. Tariq is a poet, so his descriptions are phenomenal (which means Salah is an excellent writer) and captivating. His words are so evocative that you feel like you are right there with Tariq going through this self-discovery journey with him. I love how Tariq is trying to sort out the events of his life the same way the reader is—wanting to know all the details that lead him to ultimately commit suicide. My only gripe would be the book does jump back and forth between different events and time periods, however, if you pay close attention it all comes together beautifully in the end. This book is well worth the attention and time it takes to read!

Love this book. It is beautifully written. Moncef is able to paint a picture with his words; using subtle detail that gives the reader great insight into the characters and story. I don’t mean LOTR detail where you want less…I mean well-chosen, relevant, deliberate detail. The kind of writing that makes it hard to stop. And then find everything else he’s written and read it too…. This guy is talented.

The Offering is a gorgeously detailed story. It is an in-depth self-examination of a man who has been through so much trauma, and so much beauty in a relatively short span of time. The story is captivating and elegantly pulls the reader in with striking descriptions that make one feel as though they are in the story. The Offering is certainly not a happy story, but it is a beautiful one. It discusses tragedy, happiness, love, culture and relationships. While the narrator is very egocentric, he is also quite relatable. Ultimately, The Offering is a story that keeps the reader engulfed from beginning to end.

I started reading The Offering this afternoon and JUST finished it. I could not put it down. The book is all in different times and in different parts of the country. If you go too fast you could miss something and with this book you do not want to do that. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but pay attention to the introduction of characters. The Offering is a book that had all my emotions playing with me. I will say that in the end I took a deep breath and then told my husband the story. This book 100% saved a cold, rainy day. Please do not pass this book up. There are parts that are slower than others but it is well worth it in the end. I recommend this book to all readers.

I didn’t know what to expect but it was beautifully written. El Moncef describes everything just right, sights, scents and tastes, the scenery, the heat, the cafes, the markets, the white pavements and lush gardens. It is part detective story, and part psychological exploration, with a few good plot twists to provide suspense. The writing, however, is the real star and makes it also a love letter to the cities of modern France. It’s fluid too, so it’s a quick read.

This terrific, clever, beautifully written novel is unique, a blend of many genres and indescribable in any simple terms. Among other things it’s a detective story in which the chief detective is the narrator himself, a man named Tariqan Arab restaurateur and poet living in Francewho committed suicide and left behind the document that constitutes the novel. Along with other types of material it includes a diary Tariq kept while being treated at an institution for trauma victims. He has only vague and scattered memories of a horrific event. Despite a compulsion to avoid painful memories, he haltingly investigates his past, doing so especially via the process of writing. He is compelled to learn the truth about his life and, if he can, the nature of his own identity. Some of his memories involve vivid, often beautiful evocations of Paris, Bordeaux, Brittany, and Tunis, places where Tariq had experienced both love and loss. Strange and mysterious from the first, The Offering becomes more so when in bits and pieces Tariq recalls an incident of ritualistic human sacrifice, his interactions with a detective who investigated it, and the possible involvement of both a friend and a lover. But how reliable are of Tariq’s recollections, and if not, what is the truth? By the end of the novel enough evidence accumulates to indicate the answerperhaps. I’ve just scratched the surface of this complex, deeply felt, and fully realized novel.

“A few days from now, on August 30, my sons will be murdered.” This sentence occurs only a few pages into Salah El Moncef’s elegant yet shattering novel The Offering. In pointed and blunt terms, it gestures towards one of the traumas around which the novel’s narrative circles, but it is not the only trauma that the work carries within itself. For this is also a novel – as we learn from the fictional foreword – whose text appears only after its protagonist’s suicide, as if the author were channeling Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, itself a narrative delivered in the aftermath of disaster. The novel tells the story of Tariq Abbassi, who loses his children twice, who lives in Paris but is from Tunisia, who suffers a brain injury and can only hope to restore his sense of connection to both others and himself.

The novel’s style bears the traces of these disasters. It is a novel of fragments, of anachronistic remnants and anticipatory shudders. It is a novel that dramatizes the piecing together of a shattered life (the fictional editor is also a character), as well as a novel that asks its readers to participate in this piecing together. However, it is also a truly compelling read. I honestly had a hard time putting it down, in part because of my desire to know the details of Tariq’s life, to make sense of the traumas he suffers, in part because of the sonorous rhythms of El Moncef’s prose (if one can call it prose – it verges on being poetry). The novel can be read equally as a meditation on the impossibility of memory in the face of trauma and as a consideration of life in the diaspora. I recommend it for anyone interested in literature that is simultaneously experimental and pleasurable, artistic and entertaining.

When poetry meets a fascinating story… Salah El Moncef’s novel can be read in 2 days as the story is captivating, keeps you awake, and makes you want to keep turning the page until the end. But at the same time, it is not a novel to be read quickly, the writing is smooth and rhythmed like poetry, the words seem to dance and they express with subtlety and intelligence the narrator’s emotions, sometimes brutaly, sometimes softly, sometimes passionately, but always incredibly acurately.
I used to hate Paris, and this novel actually made me want to go back there, the descriptions of sceneries, buildings, parks, are amazing, it feels like travelling. I even could smell the flowers in the parks, the food of Tunisia, and much more as I was reading.
That is the kind of novel you talk about to your friends, the one you want your family to read, but you do not want to give them your copy, you want to keep it close . A novel you get emotionally attached to, as the story talks to the human instinct, to the greatest fears of our species, and our greatest hopes as well. I recommand it to everybody who has a taste for beautifully written pieces that talk to the soul.

This is a beautifully written story about life in a global society where displacement and precarity have become the rule for everyone. Poetic, uncompromising, heart-breaking, it points in a direction fiction has to go, if it wants to engage with this new world on its shifting grounds, from within the situations, troubles, and contradictions it presents and that we have no choice but to live. Salah el-Moncef has written a truly relevant book for the 21st century, cutting into the flesh of our times with deep intelligence and compassion. A must read!

What a journey! A mystery novel, a love story, a heartbreaking analysis of dead or dying relationships, a family tragedy… all the twists and turns, the joys, the fears, the pains and hopes and longings of human existence, all the depth of human soul. And if that depth of story was not art enough, the writing itself could find its rightful place as the very definition of poetry : incredibly evocative and mesmerizing in its beauty, yet direct, sharp and gripping. El Moncef has managed a literary tour de force, creating characters that are both familiar as well as intriguing, both relatable on a personal level as well as embodying everything any of us could ever hope or fear we’ll ever feel and experience (maybe let’s just hope we don’t).
As I leave this garden, I can only end by agreeing with the curator of that wonderful estate: “Unfortunately, not being a writer myself, I will never find the words to express why and how the reproduction of that mosaic—the sad and somber tale narrated in these pages—has become the center of my existence.” But it has. And I envy you, reader, for this journey is now all yours to make.

Reading El Moncef’s novel was like one of those bizarre dreams where you wake up and spend the rest of the day wondering how much of it was real. A bit like a David Cronenberg film. There are at least three different narrative levels here, and although it’s not written like a detective story, the effect is the same. I wasn’t sure how much I could trust what the protagonist was saying, who’s pathetic and desperate as well as “sympathique”. He’s so self-pitying that you have to wonder what he’s trying to hide. And his relationships with women are weird, there’s no other word for it. One liaison in particular with a former girlfriend who he reconnects with on holiday had me laughing and cringing by turns. El Moncef’s writing is superb, the way he describes Paris and especially Tunisia brings these far off places to life. Fascinating and moving without being “exotic”. It proves there are other sides to the world that owe their resonances to the strange power of human emotions, rather than to ethnicity. This novel is a great voyeuristic trip into those emotions.

From Goodreads

Memory, Trauma, Confabulation, and Narrative Identity Play: An Unsettling Puzzle

Tariq Abbassi, a French experimental poet of Tunisian origin, has lost his children, his memories, as well as his ability to speak and function on his own. As an odd after-effect of his brain injury, he can now express himself fully, by his own account, only in ‘a perfectly fluent but excessively formal and florid English,’ and only in writing. He refuses to see most of his friends and family members for reasons vacillating between suspicion and guilt, and he provides convoluted and contradictory clues concerning the real cause of his brain injury. The Offering opens with Tariq’s friend Sami Mamlouk’s presentation of his role in the publishing of Tariq’s typescript after Tariq’s suicide and ends with a letter supposedly written by Tariq’s mother ‘ but these framing devices, traditionally used to add clarity to an unreliable protagonist-narrator’s account, in fact render the narrative more disquieting and perplexing. Sami describes the letter as a ‘self-addressed email’ appended to the typescript, and throughout the introduction, his general attitude and writing style are at odds with his portrayal in Tariq’s text. Moreover, subtle clues in Tariq’s typescript frame the letter as the product of Tariq’s therapeutic appropriation of the voice of the imaginary motherinfinitely loving and fully capable of expressing that love. Nonetheless, Sami did mediate between Tariq and the publishers, so he might have altered (parts of) the typescript, in spite of his claims to authenticity, in which case Sami’s approach of Tariq’s tragedy would have to be read as deeply self-involved and self-serving.

The mystery novel structure suggested by these details (many of which emerge fairly early in the novel) is complicated in the most enticing manner by Salah el Moncef’s skillfully deceptive writing style. The typescript presumably left behind by Tariq is difficult to elucidate not just because Tariq’s recovery of his writing ‘voice’ is a painful and meandering process, but also because Tariq seems to be struggling to hide (from) the reality of his past about as much as he claims to be struggling to uncover it. At first, he appears childishly self-centered, naive, and confusedboth in the way he is patching together veiled memories, photos, and journal entries and in the way he comments on past events. In a cringe-worthy episode, as he recounts the events following his wife’s departure with his sons, he expresses gratitude for the kindness and encouragement received from a deputy mayor (a client of his restaurant) while failing to notice the man’s crassly sexist remarks (an attitude that resonates with his initial inability to acknowledge the reasons for his wife’s decision to leave him). Later in the novel, as the writing style parallels Tariq’s recovery in displaying increasing stylistic and structural sophistication, the narrative becomes both more thrilling and more elusive. Even the stunningly beautiful evocations of beloved places and people in Tunisia and France are dominated by an undercurrent of mystery and dread, as the protagonist-narrator always appears to be withholding something. It remains difficult to ascertain if what Tariq continues to defer is mere factual information or something to do with his ever-morphing perception and evaluation of events. A dizzying film of authentic pain mixed with rather repulsive righteousness and self-pity stretches over Tariq’s prose. At times, the narrative invites the reader to connect with the protagonist, only to circumvent the very possibility of a connection seconds later with a swift reminder that representation is always, for multiple reasons and at multiple levels, little more than deceit.

Both the truth of representation and that of perception are subjected to scrutiny in this fascinating excursion into the depths of the mind. According to Lacan, in order to truly understand repetition compulsion, one needs to acknowledge that patients often lie about the facts as a way to tell the truth about trauma. Tariq’s (re)constructed recollection and vivid re-living of the death of his sons at the hands of heinous conspirators may appear hideously implausible and egomaniacal from an objective viewpoint but constitutes an authentic approximation of Tariq’s real pain and crushing inability to tackle his feelings of guilt. The pages leading to the closing letter offer several clues that Tariq is no longer able or willing to fuel his confabulation. The letter recreates the protagonist as an infinitely resourceful son capable of overcoming his ordeal and ready to start a new, more creative and rewarding lifea mother’s loving projection, and a more consistent and autonomous human being than the writing protagonist had ever been or could ever become. Perhaps this very realization drove Tariq to suicide. Perhaps, on the contrary, it determined him to run away from prosecution for negligent homicide, and Sami is lying to protect him. Or perhaps Tariq does not even existhe is entirely Sami’s invention.

From Amazon Review

The intellect is practical by definition and likes to appear in control: classifying and categorizing; distinguishing between truth and falsehood, reality and illusion; putting clear ideas and demonstrations first. However, the rational mind is ill at ease when confronted with ambiguity, ambivalence, and all the shades of grey that disrupt its truths. And yet isn’t illusion the heart of existence itself? That is precisely what we discover with rapture in /The Offering/: the subtle distinctions of life, of every human experience expressed beyond the restrictive boundaries of logic. Like Job, Tariq Abbassi has lost everything; and yet for all his desolation, he tries to find an escape within himself—in the words that bring meaning and structure to his life. The quest for beauty becomes Tariq’s only guide in his distress and we find ourselves drawn into his mind, fascinated, mesmerized. When describing the style of Salah el Moncef, one adjective comes to mind: dazzling. His poetic prose makes us experience the world in all its sensual beauty…

From The Library Thing

“The Offering,” by Salah el Moncef, is primarily a detailed character study about a brilliant poet with an unhinged mind due to traumatic brain injury. The book also contains a suspenseful, complex, and challenging psychological mystery. But most importantly, it is a novel of enormous literary beauty.

The story is told as a first-person narrative. It covers approximately a year and a half in the life of Tariq, an ambitious scholarly poet and philosopher of Tunisian descent living in France. The book is a collection of his recovered memories during this significant time period before the brain injury. We learn that in the months preceding the injury, Tariq suffers two catastrophic psychological events: first, his German wife abandons him without any warning whatsoever, emptying their home, and removing his children. Then later, the boys are killed in a harrowing catastrophe while on summer holiday with their father. What happens in Tariq’s life during this period, how and why the two boys are killed, and the detailed events in the last critical week prior to the catastrophe—all these form the baffling psychological puzzle underpinning this formidable tale of psychiatric dissociation and amnesia.

The first three-quarters of the novel are deeply introspective…sometimes to the point of psychological claustrophobia. But, in the last quarter of the book, it morphs into a page-turning psychological suspense thriller. The ending is so shocking it left me disoriented. It’s the type of ending that makes readers climb back into the body of the text to try to figure out what was missed. Frankly, it took me a while to work my way through the disorientation, but when I did, I was greatly impressed with what the author had achieved and how he had accomplished it.

This is one of those novels where it is very important to not give away too many of the plot points. The book must be read very carefully. Here is some information that may be helpful. All of this is clearly stated in the beginning of the book, yet it is easy to gloss over these important beginning words (thinking, perhaps, that they will certainly be repeated later) and then find yourself forgetting it all by the time you are well into the body of the text.

• The book begins with a long introduction (actually a detailed academic book review) by Mari Ruti. She is Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Toronto, where she teaches contemporary theory, psychoanalysis, continental philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, and popular culture. I assume what she writes is very close to how the author would like his book to be understood and appreciated. It may help to read this both before and again after finishing the book. You can trust that it does not give away any significant plot points.

• The book also begins with a foreword. It is by a man named Sami Mamlouk and dated March 2017. Obviously, given this date, Sami is a fictional character. We find out in the first section that he is Tariq’s chief assistant in the high-end Tunisian restaurant that the two operate in Bordeaux. Sami is an important character. Remember what he reveals in this introduction and track him carefully once he enters the plot. Remember that we are told in this foreword that the main character, Tarig, has committed suicide (sometime before 2017; the book ends in 2008) and his multimedia computer files were posthumously edited, translated, and reworked into the novel we are reading.

• The events that make up the body of the novel take place in France and Tunisia between mid 2006 and mid 2008.

• The novel has seven sections. The first and last sections have no designations. Section 2 is headed “Southwest ’06” and refers to events in Bordeaux in 2006; section 3 is “South ’07” and refers to events in Tunisia in 2007; sections 4 and 6 are both “North ’07” and refer to Paris in 2007; and section 5 is “West ’08” and refers to events taking place at the holistic medicine psychiatric facility in Brittany in 2008.

I hope these seemingly insignificant points help orient you within the context of the novel, particularly in the beginning. That’s where I found myself quite confused about who, where, and when.

Did I enjoy the novel? Definitely, but not always. It was certainly very difficult and slow to read, but I took great pleasure in experiencing the carefully crafted prose, poetic metaphors, and penetrating philosophical insights. I tend to seek out dark dramatic novels with strong literary overtones, so this aspect of the book held me enthrall. I also very much enjoy elaborate character studies—even those about characters that I don’t particularly like…and to tell you the truth, I did not like Tariq. In fact, I had a hard time feeling sympathetic toward him. He reminded me all too much of significant men in my youth who I had the foresight to abandon before they caused me more psychological harm.

Throughout the novel, I recognized him for all the qualities that he detests in his former self after his personality is transformed by the brain injury. At that point in the novel, he remembers who he used to be (i.e., the man we’ve invested over 300 pages getting to know) as “infinitely selfish and self-centered.” Yes, exactly; that’s what I’d been thinking about Tariq all along! The character’s prose is so introspective that it leaves no room for considering what other people are feeling. It is always, all about him. He is a poet and he feels his whole world profoundly through all his senses. He has keen insight into what he is feeling. His emotions are intense. But he is almost blind to the feelings and needs of the other significant people who share his life. That aspect of the book I found exceedingly difficult to bear.

Despite the book’s complexity and laser-sharp focus on the inner psychological landscape of the main character, the story kept me spellbound. The novel is like a large linked collection of fascinating everyday human interest “stories,” all told with enormous attention to sensory detail and literary perfection, and, naturally, all told from the same person’s impassioned and disturbingly intense point of view. The “stories” cover a complex web of subjects and emotions.

I could go on writing about this outstanding and most unusual novel for many pages, but I won’t and I shouldn’t. If my review has piqued your interest, by all means read this novel. I envy you the unique experience you are about ready to embark on.

Read more on The Library Thing

Kirkus review

El Moncef (Sleepwalking, 2012, etc.) offers a psychological thriller in which one man must solve the terrible secrets of his own past.

Tariq Abbassi, frustrated poet and restaurateur, is desperately attempting to reconstruct his memory following a terrible accident. Hospitalized at a remote care center in rainy Brittany, Tariq struggles to sort the true facts of his life from those he has merely imagined: the “monstrous” death of his children; a traumatic brain injury; the ambiguous role of a police commissaire; his work with a holistic psychiatrist and a hypnotherapy team; “The redeeming role of my mother’s letter—for all its unspoken terrors, its deliberately naïve swiftness and platitudinous illusions of closure”; and his close friend Zoé Selma Brahmi—“the terrible things that will happen to and through her.” From the Tunisia of his childhood to the Paris of his student days, from his difficult family to his failed loves and lost sons, Tariq must confront the nature of guilt and determine what exactly he is guilty of—and why. El Moncef’s prose startles with quiet brilliance: “Even in my Sorbonne days I used to find the narrow lanes behind the Panthéon sad and strange at the end of a summer day: there was always a resigned and melancholy feeling about those moments, when the buildings east of the Place took on the last flush of sunset—a short-lived miracle of enchantment on the facades of pale stone, too fickle and passing to be true.” The nature of truth and deception (willing and otherwise) is ever at the forefront, and the way el Moncef weaves his story, subtly accruing suspense through the accumulation of Tariq’s memories, creates a reading experience that is simultaneously weighty and invigorating. El Moncef seeks to explore what it is that we may construct with our pain and what it is we may have buried beneath it. The result is a literary enigma of the highly satisfying variety.

An immersive, finely wrought mystery of tragedy, loss, and recovery.

http://bit.ly/1dYf4cb

Mari Ruti’s introduction

I was reading the second half of The Offering on the plane from Los Angeles to Boston and, for the first time in my life, I wished there would be a delay in landing so that I could find out “who done it.” The novel that had started as a painful story about love gone wrong—and about a father trying to find a way of relating to his two estranged sons—had suddenly turned into a gripping detective story of murder, mayhem, and mental illness. When we approached Boston, my wish was granted: the captain announced that bad weather in the city was placing us in a holding pattern for an hour. Great! I thought, as I settled back into my reading, aware that the circling of the plane above the storm clouds mirrored the spiraling rhythm of the novel’s ever-darkening plot: layer by layer, the story brought me closer to the (terrifying) landing zone. It’s just that when I finally landed, I discovered that I was not where I expected to be but had, instead, landed in Carthage, Tunisia, where the story both begins and ends. The novel, in short, culminates in a plot twist that changes everything, leaving the reader breathless and disoriented even as it offers the satisfaction of revelation (and therefore closure).

I am up against a challenge here: how am I to discuss this novel without giving away the plot elements that make it such a rewarding reading experience? The obvious answer is that I cannot talk about the narrative—about what “happens”—but must stick to the story’s emotional and existential resonances. There is much to choose from in this regard: love and its loss; the bitterness of finding oneself betrayed by those one has trusted; the tenuous, ever-threatened bond between parents and children; the insane (but sometimes wonderful) things that happen between siblings; the fierce loyalties of friendship; the sensual details of cooking; as well as the harsh realities of immigration, displacement, and racism. This last topic alone could fill the pages of a scholarly tome, for the novel’s protagonist, Tariq Abbassi, has left Tunisia to study philosophy at the Sorbonne but ends up, after completing his doctorate (and by the time the reader catches up with him), running a high-class Middle Eastern restaurant in Bordeaux while aspiring to be a poet. Tariq’s highly cerebral nature, along with his literary ambitions, war against the stereotype of the Arab immigrant to France, and for the most part he seems to experience French society as enabling—a respite from the traumas of his family history and the political struggles of Tunisia—rather than oppressive. This, however, does not prevent this society from wounding him. Some of the most startling moments of the novel arise when Tariq—who sees himself primarily as a mild-mannered poet-intellectual—comes in contact with a racist culture that by definition bars an Arab man (the angry, raving fanatic) from this self-definition.

Most fundamentally, however, The Offering is a contemplation on the relationship between loss and creativity, trauma and rebirth. The novel’s enigmatic title functions on multiple levels, the most philosophical of which is arguably the question of what one has to “offer”—to sacrifice, as it were—in order to conjure something truly worthwhile into existence. Everything, Salah el Moncef seems to suggest. In the course of the novel, Tariq loses more and more, to the point that there really is nothing left to lose, yet each loss seems to replenish his creative powers so that, at the end, in a state of unimaginable suffering, he finally attains what he has been after all his life: a perfect poem of pristine formal beauty. The poem is called Night Owl and I reproduce it here:

 

Oh, you know: that hour.
The smeared rim of heaven
has turned to cold crystal;
it is the last champagne blush
in the opalescent sky:
The light-dregs of day
at the bottom of a lonely glass.

But the owl has descended,
preening on his perch;
a few last touches before the night hour—
his time of glory,
when all the rest of creation
will be floundering, floundering
in formless mud and murk.

Oh, you know, you know:
When his gaze begins to brim up
with a thousand sparks of amber,
crackling with the memory of a million noons—
the encapsulated sparkle of eons
at his command,
lighting up his voyage into the night.

This poem, which arrives with incongruous gentility in the novel’s final pages, when the reader is galloping toward the finale, is worth waiting for. And the novel’s narrative makes it clear that it is born of pure loss. This is not to say that the novel fetishizes loss as the ultimate kernel of creativity. It manages to convey the stark brutality of loss so effectively, so relentlessly, that it forces the reader to wonder whether, in the final analysis, there is anything that could ever compensate for the pain undergone. That is, it is not at all clear that the creative impulse that arises from the wreckage of Tariq’s life can even begin to make up for what he has had to give up—to “offer.” Yet there is also a strong sense that something unfathomably precious does emerge from the debris. Interestingly, the fledgling Phoenix rising from the ashes is ultimately not (or at least not only) the poem I have cited but—and here I cannot help but give away a bit of plot—rather an unexpected connection to a mother whom Tariq has long experienced as a forbidding fortress of silent suffering but who is mercifully revealed as a kindred-spirit in possession of an immense imaginative capacity and an equally immense reservoir of emotional generosity that has been carefully tucked away from the prying eyes of those capable of causing devastation. If trauma—the agony of loss, betrayal, solitude, and suffering—has been passed intergenerationally from mother to son, the reader discovers that something more affirmative has also made the passage, something that was in danger of getting lost in translation (between generations, between genders, between cultures, between languages), and this is the gift of being able to touch the other, reach the other, comfort the other, and even caress the other, through the written word (a poem, a letter, a novel).

The Offering illustrates what French thinkers—Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva, among others—have been particularly good at expressing, namely that at the core of human “being” resides nothingness, and that in order to continue to “be,” one must find a way to translate this nothingness into something: a word, an image, an affect, an attachment. The melancholy message of French thought has repeatedly been that there is no meaning without non-meaning, no sense without nonsense, no creativity without despair, and no love without loss. Simply put: if human beings were completely devoid of lack, they would also be completely devoid of desire, with the result that the world would have nothing to offer them; their arrogant self-sufficiency would generate a debilitating, soul-stifling boredom. From this perspective, the nothingness at the heart of being, while certainly a source of a great deal of misery, is an existential opportunity: what forces us to venture into the world in search of things—objects, lovers, friends, passions, ambitions, and so on—that might (however temporarily, however tentatively) make up for our gnawing sense that something is missing from our lives. Sadness, in this sense, is the somber lining of everything that is meaningful about human life. As Kristeva explains in Black Sun, the ability to “remake nothingness”—say, to pluck a poem out of a confused, feverish stream of consciousness, as Tariq manages to do—is “the royal way through which humanity transcends the grief of being apart.”

On the one hand, Tariq’s trials exceed the limits of “ordinary” human suffering: his losses are irredeemable, his anguish incurable, and his grief irrepressible (“uncompromisingly rigid and willful,” as he himself puts it). On the other, poetry—and the written word, more generally speaking—functions in his life as a means to manage misfortune, to create a barrier against utter abjection. This barrier is terribly flimsy; it is always on the verge of collapsing under the weight of the pain pressing on it. But against all odds—miraculously—it holds, for the novel repeatedly foregrounds the manner in which writing, for Tariq, serves as a lifeline to meaning in a world that seems hell-bent on depriving him of it.

Besides writing poetry, Tariq keeps a journal where he jots down not merely the events of his life but also the minutest movements of his interiority. The journal in fact functions as a site of an almost obsessive cathexis, the place where Tariq records everything from his anger, resentment, and disillusionment to the trusting sweetness of his sons and the electrifying jolt of fresh romance. Regardless of how the day ends—in hopeless desolation, drunken revelry, passionate love-making, or banal weariness—the journal is where Tariq stops before sleeping (or, as is often the case, instead of sleeping). The reader quickly realizes that the journal serves as a collection of scraps of thought, emotion, and impression that Tariq hopes will one day become a novel. In this sense, the journal is a metaphor for the (actual) novel that the reader is in the process of devouring. Indeed, through the rambling journal entries of his protagonist, el Moncef offers the reader a torrent of observations about the demanding craft of writing, such as the following: “You have to keep your eyes on that something you want to net—hard as it is to do that. Setting up the right conditions to create that fragile something out of nothing—the first embryonic seed that will keep you going. The initial doubts of writing are what’s most exhilarating about writing in the first place: it’s a gamble most of the time. You start something even while you’re in the dark about what it’s doing and where it’s going.”

Noteworthy here is the theme of creating something out of nothing that I have sought to tease out. But equally noteworthy is the fact that one of the many pleasures of reading The Offering is the sense that el Moncef has indeed managed to “net” something that is exceedingly difficult to net: the very scraps of thought, emotion, and impression that Tariq is so desperate to trap between the covers of his journal. Beyond this, what el Moncef captures with unusual dexterity and deftness are—and I again quote his own metacommentary on the process of writing—“even the most commonplace scenes and sounds—especially the most commonplace scenes and sounds.” Perhaps the most exquisite parts of the novel are the intricate evocations of place—of the streets and parks of Paris, the houses and beaches of Tunisia, the fine drizzle and furtive fog of Brittany—that form the backdrop of the story’s unfolding. The author manages to bring the Left Bank of Paris, particularly the narrow lanes, cafés, and restaurants of the rue Mouffetard neighborhood, alive in such vivid detail that the reader has the uncanny sense of stepping right into the scenes that the characters inhabit. Likewise, the depictions of the ever-shifting hues, shapes, and tonalities of the ocean—both in Tunisia and Brittany—are painted with such a delicate but controlled touch that the reader experiences them in all their sensuous richness. The textures of Tunisia—its sights, sounds, scents, and other sensory qualities—leap off the page with agile but robust intensity. Brittany, in turn, is shrouded in muffled mystery, as in the passage below:

 

On a blazing summer day, coming out of the water:

The gentle curves and the shadowy hollows of the Breton country east of the gray-ribbon coastal road—pulsating ever so quietly in the shimmer of the afternoon heat, sprawled like the soft forms of a sleeping woman;

the salt-and-fern fragrance of a land baked and burnished in all the hues of gold, copper, and bronze;

and those wind-braving lone pines—still now, in the scorched stillness.

 

El Moncef’s prose, in short, achieves the quality of poetry, which is fitting for a novel about an aspiring poet. Consider, for instance, the following depiction, this time from Tunisia: “To our right, the craggy mountainous country was a pinkish pale green in the afterglow—the smoky green of sparse Mediterranean brush; and to the left, there was the massive sheer cliff that formed the eastern face of the Korbous Cape with the darkening ink-blue of the bay at its bottom, gathered into a ruffled strip of snow-white froth shimmering on the puckered hem of the shoreline.” The Offering is filled with such mesmerizing sentences—sentences where the reader can lose herself in rapt contemplation of the sheer elegance of expression. In this context, I cannot keep myself from fixating on a seemingly insignificant aspect of the narrative: the fact that, in his most traumatized state, Tariq discovers that English is the language that allows him to best communicate his emotional turmoil. English in fact becomes, for Tariq, a sanctuary of sorts, a way to gain some much-needed distance from the traumatic events he is navigating.

As an immigrant who many moons ago deliberately adopted English as an armor against trauma (albeit not trauma of the same acuteness as what Tariq experiences), I find this narrative detail fascinating, particularly as it counters the expected story: the story of a foreign language as a desolate place of alienation and dislocation. Tariq exchanges Arabic and French for English because there is something about English that brings him solace. The fact that the language is English may be unimportant—or it may be immensely important. There is no way to know from the story. But the larger point is worth lingering upon: speaking a foreign tongue is not always the forlorn, tragic experience of inner erosion that it is frequently assumed to be, particularly for immigrants. Though it is certainly true that, for those who have been violently displaced, the alien land with its alien language may feel inhospitable, for others—particularly those who have moved voluntarily—it can be a way of finally forging a life that feels livable. In a narrative about loss yielding to creativity, trauma yielding to rebirth, Tariq’s embrace of English as a means to go on in the aftermath of unspeakable pain may not be an insignificant detail after all. And it must surely hold a special meaning for el Moncef, who chose to write The Offering in English even though he had other languages—languages, moreover, that are illustrious for their literary achievements—at his fingertips.

On one level, The Offering is a story about the struggles and hard-earned joys of everyday life: lazy, meandering days at the park, on the beach, and in the maze of city streets; family reunions, family recipes, and family squabbles; the anxieties and rewards of fatherhood; and the promises and betrayals of love. On another level, it is a story about—to once again borrow Tariq’s words—“the pyrotechnics of fate,” about sudden events that change absolutely everything so that there is no going back, no return to how things once were. But perhaps most poignantly, it is also a story about “the fickle place of convergence where the miracle of beautiful creation is born,” as well as about the sinking realization that “every miracle comes with a price tag.” It is hard to come out of this story feeling hopeful. But it is also hard to come out of it feeling completely hopeless. This, I would say, is one reason this novel is so riveting. At the end, one is left with a profound sense of perplexed ambiguity—just as is often the case in “real” life.

Mari Ruti

Stephen Watt

What a great novel! The Offering is alternatively painful and exalting, inferno-like and redemptive, traumatic and sublime; but it is consistently beautiful. In this stunning and, finally, shocking novel, El Moncef’s prose rivals that of today’s most poetic wordsmiths. For me, The Offering reaches that horizon of stylistic excellence we find in a writer like John Banville. One is dazzled by the sheer virtuosity of the language, the structure, and the poetic rhythm as the reading experience evolves into a feeling so intense and delectable that one simply must pause to take it all in.

Stefan Mattesich

This book is quite simply excellent! It ends with admirable purpose and finality. All questions resolved in one fell swoop. And yet the ambiguity lingers till the last word and beyond. A brilliantly layered and nuanced story that develops the way any great novel should.

Gerard Greenway

A highly compelling novel. The Offering is remarkable in the sustained intensity of its poetic sensibility. One is haunted by its capacity to plumb the abyss of loneliness, anguish and horror; enchanted by its power to evoke the magic of love and “the mysterious alchemy of people and places.” A must-read.

Mari Ruti

This is a book about the power of beauty as a healing source that allows us to go on in the aftermath of unspeakable pain. The streets and parks of Paris, the Moorish houses and sun-drenched beaches of Tunisia, the fine drizzle and furtive fog of Brittany, the ever-shifting shades, shapes, and tonalities of the ocean. El Moncef is endowed with the gift of making the finest, most elusive sensory experiences leap off the page with so much vividness that the reader has the uncanny sense of stepping right into the world of The Offering.

Khaled Mattawa

True to Gustave Flaubert’s words on the importance of being “violent and original in art,” this book is a mesmerizing tale of tales, inscribed from one pen to another, growing with the intentions of its voices into a singular piercing work of art. A tough, uncompromisingly ambiguous novel. And the sheer beauty of it—loads and loads of breathtaking beauty. This is a magnificent opus by an author whose glorious time has come!

Willis Barnstone

Here we have a young novelist amazing the world with a mystery novel he should not have reasonably achieved. But genius does not heed reason. The Offering drops us into the lower depths of destitution and a Camus-like loss of self before the world. At the same time, there is the possibility of salvation dangled before us like a redeeming but elusive oasis of escape. That promised haven is beauty—esthetic elegance of the highest order. Read this ravishing book and learn how to survive in the face of trying pain and loss. The breadth and depth and poetic power of The Offering will enchant you.

Cary Wolfe: His Reflections on Salah el Moncef’s Atopian Limits

Total Systems and Dense Instances

By Cary Wolfe

Self. Complexity. Contingency…. Do these terms not point us in op­posite directions, toward very different sorts of theoretical frames, vo­cabularies, and debts? The first would seem to reach back beyond even the concept of the “subject”—about which first structuralism and then post-structuralism warned us (as in Michel Foucault’s famous ad­mo­nition that the critical concept of “ideology” had to be abandoned because it “presupposes something on the order of the subject”). “Com­plexity” and “contingency,” on the other hand, would appear to gesture toward a quite different theoretical apparatus, one centered not so much on the concept of structure, but that far more dynamic and con­tem­porary thing, systematicity (as in theories of second-order cy­ber­netics, autopoiesis, and the like). There, it is safe to say that the concept of “subject” (much less the “self”) has typically been of little or no moment; indeed, it has been subjected to radical decomposition, as in the theory of “exclusion” in the work of systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, whereby the concrete individual can participate in any so­cial system—as voter, as pupil, as litigant—only by virtue of the fact that she is excluded from being a constitutive element of society “as such” or “as a whole.” She may be provisionally included in a particu­lar system only because she is fundamentally excluded from all of them.

Place alongside this first tension (or whatever we wish to call it; it is not entirely sufficient any longer, for reasons this book makes clear, to use dialectical language and call it a “contradiction”) a sec­ond one, and you have some inkling of the scope and ambition of this study. I have in mind what is perhaps the fundamental metatheoretical problem of postmodern theory, and indeed, perhaps (this is another ar­guments) of modernity itself since Kant: what is often characterized as the dilemma of transcendence versus immanence (though it has re­cently gone by other names, such as the problem of “postmodern rela­tivism”). Here, we are offered two opposing and equally untenable options: either step outside the system (upon pain of indulging episte­mological idealism) and mount a critique from the vantage of some pre­sumed (untainted) alternative, or remain with the system and its logic (the only thing you can do in epistemological good conscience) and admit that all such spaces, even imaginary ones, are fatefully con­stituted by the system itself—in which case (so the story goes) we sur­render any claim to truly critical intervention.

For more than three decades, this problem had slowly been de­composing and reordering the fundamental terms of the (post)Marxist problematic which certainly forms part of the theoretical and meth­odo­logical backdrop of this study—most notably, perhaps, in the work of Louis Althusser on “structural causality,” on ideology as a “second-order relation,” and the final and fateful chapter Althusser contributed to Marxist attempts to secure its “science” from ideology (Marxism’s own most well-known version of the transcendence versus immanence problem). Those failures, if one wants to put it that way, cleared a space for the sort of study we have before us now, and I mention them be­cause in Atopian Limits, there is, to be sure, a commitment to “sci­ence” of a sort. We find here, to be sure, an insistence that there is a “to­tal system” of late, multinational capitalism and that it is consti­tuted by certain actually existing logics, dynamics, and processes to which correspond certain narrative practices and forms in the larger emer­gence of the novel as a genre. This is, after all, what it means to talk about “postmodern American narrative” and “the capitalist ‘order’ and its totalizing logic” in the same breath.

Having said all that, however, we must understand immediately that if there is something like a “science” of late capitalism and its narrative manifestations at work here, it is science of a very different sort that this study deploys, one not at all unlike the “paralogy” fa­mously invoked by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, one that radicalizes and follows to its logical conclusions the dynamics of com­plexity and non-linearity only hinted at in Althusser’s ground-break­ing work. This is a science not of homeostasis but catastrophe, not of negative feedback but the vicious cycle and runaway, not of linear re­lations of homology and mediation, but non-linear ones of hypercom­plexity. Not the reduction of complexity through linear series but the increase of complexity through accelerated bifurcations. Not either/or but both/and. Not Althusser but Deleuze. Atopia, not Utopia.

As the author deftly demonstrates, the total system of late, mul­tinational capitalism may want homeostasis, management, and ad­justment, but since it depends upon expansion and the ever-accelerat­ing generation of what Marx once called “new needs,” it cannot help but increase its own internal complexity—which is to say, the total pos­sible number of relations between each element in the system and all the other elements. At that point, the system passes a threshold of hy­percomplexity—call it “modernity,” with Luhmann and Foucault, “post­modernity,” with Lyotard—beyond which it becomes opaque to itself, incapable of responding to and managing the ever-increasing ac­cretion, concentration, and concatenation of differences—the noise that the system wants to colonize and turn into signal—into dense points of accumulated differences. These “singularities,” as Deleuze and the sometimes Foucault called them, are every bit of the system (be­cause they are produced by and indeed only cognizable by the sys­tem, for the system) but at the same time they are not reducible to it.

So much for the immanence versus transcendence problem. And so much, too, for “relativism,” which is now opposed to. . .what? Empiricism? For as the author notes in his discussion of Kathy Ack­er’s Empire of the Senseless, empiricism taken seriously, as Deleuze had perhaps most compellingly argued in recent years, erupts into an un­map­pable universe of complexity and plurality—an understanding bodied forth very powerfully not only in American fiction but also in American poetry during the period studied here, most systematically (shall we say) in the work of A. R. Ammons. (Whether one would then want to indulge the additional Deleuzean—and Ammonsian—de­sire that “pluralism equals monism” is another question, and one, I be­lieve, of considerable moment in both postmodern philosophy and literature.)

What this means, in ethico-political rather than epistemological terms, is that resistance is not outside the system—as in some imag­ined utopian, ruptural alternative, “come the revolution”—but inside it, like a virus or (to use Serres’s well-known figure) a parasite that the system can’t live with and can’t live without. In contrast to the ultra-logic of the system itself that drives the unforgiving consumerism of Buffalo Bill or the fetishism of Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs—in which the principles of late capitalist consumption are simply taken far more seriously than we were prepared for—resistance becomes not so much an-other logic as an infra-logic, a limit at which the logic of the system itself runs aground on the paradoxes of its own constitutive differences—as in (to use a Derridean formulation) the difference be­tween law (historically contingent social institutions of justice) and Law (the non-contingent justice that those institutions supposedly up­hold), across which we can map the ethical stand of a Clarice Starling and her attempt to remove her “sisters under the skin” from the rav­ages of the general equivalence and the machine of seriality, a re­moval more profound and more consuming than the institutions and directives of the FBI can imagine.

Here too we may return to that curious term with which we be­gan—the “self”—and understand it now in terms of the theoretical off­spring of the absolute unavoidability of contingency. The “self” con­ceived in this light must now be thought of in terms of the density of its singularity, the “verticality” of its difference, the fact that for each subject the specific, contingent, accretion of instances (of class, race, gender, geography, education, and the like) are at bottom abso­lutely different, in different combinations—a fact which the modern polis promptly represses as its constitutive principle. But—and this is why the language of “subject position” is not entirely satisfactory—this concatenation of differences is itself temporalized in at least two different ways that generate even more complexity. First, for any sub­ject, that combination changes over time; some instances drop out and others enter, in a process of condensation and decomposition—a “whirl­ing proliferation of ‘they,’ ” to use the Kristevan formulation brought to bear in the analysis of Paul Auster’s Moon Palace. And sec­ond, that combination itself changes over time vis-a-vis its posi­tion­ality in relation to the historical movement of the social totality, how­ever that totality is conceived; the same combination of differ­ences does not signify or function in the same way at different histori­cal junctures.

All of this is very abstract, of course, which is why it is so im­portant that the author attends to the density and particularity of each instance, rather than simply putting in place a theoretical machine and then setting it running to churn out its results. He is everywhere care­ful to work through the limits of a particular theoretical approach (I think here of the use of psychoanalysis in the chapters on The Silence of the Lambs and Acker’s Empire of the Senseless, but the same could be said of the deployment of Marxism—in the book’s invocation and elabo­ration of Adornian “negative dialectics” at key moments, for ex­ample, or in the use of Castoriadis’ extension and modification of the Al­thusserian notion of “structural causality” in the analysis of Vidal’s Duluth).

A similar attention to difference and detail is brought to bear in the readings themselves, which elaborate what amounts to a theory of late capitalist culture across an extraordinary range of postmodern Ameri­can novels. Here, we could scarcely do better than to consult the careful articulation of the difference between Bromden and McMur­phy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the fact that the former’s position as “dumb Indian” in relation to the total system establishes him in a position of “negative other”—“minor” in Deleuze and Guat­tari’s sense—for which McMurphy, the carnivalesque Irishman, only partly qualifies. Crucial here too is the “eco-logic” carried by Brom­den’s Native American position in relation to “the land” (versus the to­talizing “Combine” and the Foucaultian psychiatric ward-as-factory) which the author does not essentialize but instead historicizes in all its multiple determinations (as the discussion of Bromden’s father, the “little” Chief, makes clear). All of which may be set in instructive con­trast with the psychosomatic economy of straight, white, upper-mid­dle class Harry Angstrom in Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, which em­bodies on the most capillary level the workings of a political economy that makes Harry’s Florida—perhaps one should say “Florida”—the very Pink Flamingo-ized antithesis of Bromden’s “land.”

Indeed, the general equivalence of political and psychosomatic economies in Rabbit at Rest provides perhaps the book’s most graphic ex­ample of how the “total system” under investigation here paradoxi­cally increases and accelerates its own complexity as a means to proc­ess the ever-growing and ever-destabilizing complexity that it itself nec­essarily generates as the very form of its existence. The world of Up­dike’s Rabbit finds its antithesis, no doubt, in Kathy Acker’s Em­pire of the Senseless and its warp-speed imagination of “an alternative public sphere founded in the cross-fertilization between autonomous mi­norities”—as if the density of differential instances that marks Brom­den has now been unfurled and fast-forwarded to a future not more “tolerant” of margins (as in the liberal assimilationist paradigm) but one where there is nothing but margins.

This in turn raises the question, of course, of whether the con­cept of “public sphere” is any longer adequate to thinking a pluralism that would seem everywhere to unmask the notion of “the public” for the Enlightenment fantasy that it always was. Is this good news? Is that where we are? Who are “we,” anyway? The fact that this book re­fuses to offer an easy answer to these questions is just one of its many virtues.