And the point is…our man, just an ordinary man by the sounds of him, has got himself out on a very thin limb and…he really has no friends. Or rather, he does have friends, but only the kind that helpfully change the subject when it looks as though someone might actually say something revealing or personal. You know—the kind of friends that might offer you a job but might not be the kind you actually want to work for. Which he did. Take the job. In Dubai.
That is to say, he quit the job he had in the law firm he shared with his nine-year not-quite-wife, abandoned his rent-controlled one-bedroom in Gramercy Park, initially escaping to a luxury rental in New Jersey near the Lincoln Tunnel, and then he moved to Dubai. As X. himself writes,
“a person usually needs a special incentive to be here—or, perhaps more accurately, not to be elsewhere—and surely this is all the more true for the American who, rather than trying his luck in California or Texas or New York, chooses to come to this strange desert metropolis. Either way, fortune will play its expected role. I suppose I say all this from experience….One way to sum up the stupidity of this phase of my life, a phase I’m afraid is ongoing, would be to call it the phase of insights.”
There is something vaguely embarrassing yet deliciously sexy to witness this man’s emotional strip-tease. He is not a hard-edged corporate lawyer, the “I can handle anything” type of man, but one who is perplexed and bewildered to find himself living a life he doesn’t actually like nor want. He is clearly still a little in love with his longtime former lover, Jenn, and recognizes that he bears some blame for being emotionally blank and linguistically blocked when it came to expressing 1) his lack of interest in moving away from his rent-controlled one-bedroom to a larger apartment and 2) his lack of interest in starting a family at 36 years old.
Once he begins to see that, in fact, he is not enjoying himself at all despite living in an expensive apartment in an expensive city and outwardly living the life of Riley, lets down his normal reserve, and starts telling us about it…well…it is frankly hysterically funny. Because, yes, if one looks at it from a purely voyeuristic point of view, he simply has nothing at all despite the aforementioned apartment in the gleaming city by the sea…and the desert. (”It’s almost nauseating to see the sand wherever the efforts to cover it has not yet succeeded.”) When he begins to think aloud how liberating it is that he could actually hang himself at any time because he has no kids nor spouse to worry about in terms of timing, we can’t help but chuckle. Not a good reaction to have, but this guy is already eviscerated. We’d just witness the burial.
X.’s apartment in Dubai looks out on a city constantly under construction. The buildings are tall and spectacular, and one construction site catches X.’s imagination. He calls it Project X. After one day sending his “man”, Ali, out to find out what it will be, Ali comes back with the news that the building is a mock-up, a “scale representation” of another building. “Project X isn’t a project at all. It’s a dummy run…The action has moved somewhere else.” Sadly, our minds flit to X. himself, imagining his now-empty 36 years as a mock-up for a life of promise and fulfillment and honor. Later, when he faces legal action himself, his shocked outburst, “this is my good name we’re talking about!” prompts his employer to respond, “Your name? What name?”
If one ever wondered what, exactly, it would be like to live in Dubai, here you will have one answer. X. calmly and pointedly gives us Dubai’s “crimes of nature against man” and the “Dubaian counterattack on the natural,” as well as his increasingly distressed and alienated view of the expat scene. But when he returns to New York on a business trip and expresses horror at the lumpy streets and soot-blackened store fronts, with some regret we note his former home is home no more. Alas.
Modern man, as we wish we never saw him. O’Neill, our Scheherazade, unravelling his gossamer veils one by one. I wish it didn’t end.
The Random House Audio production of this book is beautifully, dolefully, read by Erik Davies. I found myself wanting to quote long sections of this novel for this review...but there was too much. Gorgeous language, and clear. Hideously clear.
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