The book is eminently readable. Each story is short (often 3 to 5 pages) with both a narrative and thematic point. I quite enjoyed going back to read previous chapters as little elements of meaning made their way from the overall motif into reflections about my own life experiences, and my own worldview. There is no doubting that Alizadeh is both a thoughtful and clever observer of humanity; this is no glossy attempt to be innovative or fresh with literary techniques. The story titles are taken from the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana in a Tarot deck; for those not particularly familiar with their meanings, jump on to Wikipedia for a quick précis. This isn’t an attempt to create some sort of mystical Magi esotericism effect to impress a creative writing class teacher — it’s fun and effective. There are obvious links to these icons in each story such as: ‘The Fool’ (title of both the first and last chapters), ‘The Magician’, ‘The High Priestess’, ‘The Hierophant’, ‘The Chariot’, ‘The Hermit’, ‘Wheel of Fortune’, ‘The Hanged Man’, ‘The World’.
This author knows well that if your agenda is to take a real look at the deepest and potentially most dysfunctional places in the human soul, then you have to get dirty, miserable and lose yourself in the process. In trying to locate hopeful or reassuring meaning in apparently random and essential nastiness, you take the risk that you will either find none or, if found, it will not be enough to drag you from the existential maw. One character opines that, ‘I cannot say that what I saw intrigued me. I have seen many, many poor deprived people who commit acts of unspeakable horror out of immense poverty and terrifying deprivation’ (p 176). If we can’t save the poor from their lot (as Jesus Christ Superstar reminds Judas Iscariot in the musical) we can have pity for them, while not forgiving their moments of baser conduct as the product of depressing necessity. The moral assumption that there is anything to forgive is a product of privilege and comes from living in a cultural silo.
The physical and conceptual brevity of each story belies their depth. It would have been all too easy for Alizadeh to indulge himself by going for that elusive ‘narrative saturation point of fiction’ which Mitchell and a few others seem to be constantly searching. The fact that he does not is evidence of an honest and maturing writer. Some readers might find the prose a little abrupt and clipped, giving it the appearance of moral and political critique squeezed into a fictional narrative. Personally, I found that the economic and uncluttered prose style a bonus in a work like this. I don’t want to be subjected to a complex or academic treatise on the perils of cultural and political homogeneity when I read a book of short stories. There is certainly depth and complexity in Transactions, but that is largely the result of an organic relationship between reader and text. If you can’t be bothered doing a bit of research yourself as you read these vignettes, or flicking back to reread certain passages, then stick to the pathos and simplicity of journalism or social media for your ‘insights’.
The listless and endlessly indulged Emirati girl of wealth in the final chapter confesses that, ‘I write in English to show tutors … that I am a brilliant writer. Daddy will buy me a publishing house in England if I finish university’. I’m assuming that English is Alizadeh’s second language and that he has experienced the inevitable impostor syndrome which all decent writers (be they novelists or academics) know well from dark moments of introspection. He is telling us here that there is always the risk that in trying to be creative in the use of metaphor, by selecting an effective literary vehicle for the delivery of a particularly important tenor, the author will be seen as trying too hard. A few paragraphs later the same character says (in reference to her FIFO foreign maid), ‘Us Arabs have beautiful bronze golden complexation (sic), but Sri Lankan Indian women are dark monkeys and undesirable by men. Nobody looks at her when we go shopping and she carries my bag.’ This is a great conceptual capstone to the book and the author’s nod to the uncertainty that encumbers not only our confidence in the quality of our own observations, but of the veracity or worth of our own moral commentary.
I avoided reading anything about the author in engaging with this book or in preparing these thoughts. I would recommend that you do the same. It would be easy to make trite assumptions about his worldview or motivations from outside the pages of the book, but that would significantly detract from the experience. There is a deep and existential pessimism here which seems to me to come from somewhere other than the soul of a disillusioned poet. The narrative is just as much an exploration of the author’s view of his own value and purpose as he juxtaposes the perspectives and motivations of a range of iconic personalities onto a deceptively clear palette. You can’t help but ask uncomfortable questions about yourself when you read Transactions.
NIGEL STOBBS teaches law at the Queensland University of Technology.