Paul Bowles seemed to experience just about everything in his life. Before becoming a novelist, he was a successful composer for Broadway plays. He collaborated with Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles in New York, befriended Christopher Isherwood in Berlin and was an initiate of Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris.
On Stein’s advice, Bowles settled in Tangier’s international zone in 1947, and especially as a result of his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, attracted generations of visiting cultural icons to Morocco (the Beats, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger) until his death in 1999 at the age of 88.
It was Bowles who inspired William S. Burroughs to move to what Burroughs called ‘Interzone’ in the 1950s where he would write the bulk of Naked Lunch.
Burroughs described The Sheltering Sky as “almost a perfect novel,” and it is generally regarded as Bowles’s best. But I believe his second full length work, Let it Come Down (a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), is a superior work.
The story begins with the protagonist, Nelson Dyar, arriving in Tangier where he hopes to break free of the ennui of his old life working as a bank teller in New York.
Dyar is averse to nothing and amenable to everything, and this lack of discrimination and his status as a Westerner opens up the full spectrum of the international zone to him.
From the stately homes of the expatriate noblesse to the bazaars and brothels run by the local Muslim population, to Dyar all doors are open, and he appears ready to walk through any that he chances upon.
The Tangier represented in the book has a surreal, dreamlike quality, but one suspects this is due its true nature rather than any embellishment by the author. For Bowles was no surrealist. Nor was he a modernist or a Beat, despite being the unlikely conduit between these two, perhaps most significant, movements of 20th Century American letters.
Let it Come Down has dark themes and an exotic backdrop, but like all of Bowles’s prose it is classical in style.
Indeed the only unconventional aspect of the book is how little there is to remark of its protagonist. Like Bowles himself, Dyar moves to North Africa out of a sense of dissatisfaction with his life in America. But unlike Bowles, Dyar is no writer, nor is he an artist of any other kind.
In fact he has no identifiable interests or hobbies, and is so stripped of anything identifiably human that he seems to lack even free will.
It is as though Dyar is on a treadmill or in a virtual reality — moving, but stationary somehow — the world running towards him rather than the other way around.
He sniffed the wet air, and said to himself that at last he was living, that whatever the reason for his doubt a moment ago, the spasm which had shaken him had been only an instant’s return of his old state of mind, when he had been anonymous, a victim.
— Paul Bowles, Let it Come Down.
Dyar’s passive disposition makes his trajectory towards disaster seem not only plausible but indeed inevitable.
This sense of predestination, the way the protagonist gives in to his base instincts, and the cold, detached narration, are all features of literary naturalism, which is sometimes defined as extreme realism. Dyar’s ultimate actions are certainly extreme.
But the great merit of Let it Come Down, and the feature which makes it so unsettling, is the ease with which Dyar’s life falls off the rails, how seemingly benign his choices are but which, when made in the particular world he inhabits lead logically and ineluctably to one horrifying end point.
As with most good fiction, Let it Come Down contains no overt or conscious message. But when asked for an explanation about his protagonist’s actions, Bowles responded that “whatever is intolerable must produce violence.”
Dyar’s life in New York was intolerable. And when he does not find whatever he came to Tangier in search of he is ultimately moved to embrace yet more extreme paths.
The novel’s zenith is at its end, but the earlier stages of Dyar’s journey resonate much more with me. Dyar encounters duplicity at every turn in Tangier. And yet whenever he pictures himself back in New York he sees only an anonymous drone, a ‘victim’ as Bowles puts it.
Dyar was Bowles’s only character not modelled on a real person, but there is no question he drew inspiration for this essential premise of the novel from his own life. Both Bowles and Dyar went from a comfortable prison to a precarious freedom, but a freedom nonetheless.
Perhaps because of this, there is no hint of nostalgia or regret in Dyar’s final, grisly action. One is left to wonder: if he could erase everything and return to his bank teller’s cage as though nothing happened, would he?
One hopes the answer is yes. But one also has the sense that in losing his mind in the desert Dyar draws closer to that for which he was willing to risk everything in consigning America to his past.
Let it Come Down is both a portent and a parable of the savage alienation and monotony of life for those unable to discover a passion or realise their potential.
While it contains no overt message, the book’s hidden message is clear: write a story, climb a mountain. Do something — anything — to infuse your life with meaning. If not you just don’t know what you are capable of.