“It is a bizarre and unsettling feeling, to exist in a liminal state between two realms, unable to attain full access to one or the other.”
Although I’d intended to read You Exist Too Much I nearly didn’t after reading a really negative review for it, one that was very critical of Zaina Arafat’s depiction of bisexuality. Luckily, my mother read this first and recommended it to me. While I believe that the gender and sexual orientation of a reviewer should not bias their opinion of a book, and I generally don’t refer to my own sexuality, in this case I’ll make an exception. For what is worth, when I read this I identified as bisexual and I was not in the least offended by the novel’s representation of bisexuality. When an author writes about a character—and even more so when they draw upon their own personal experiences to do so—they are presenting a unique point of view and they are not making generalisations for entire groups of people. The protagonist of this novel is a “love addict” not because of her bisexuality but because of her distorted relationship with her parents—in particular with her mother—and her belief that she’s not worthy of love. Arafat never implies that bisexual people can’t be faithful nor does she suggests that her protagonist’s “love addiction” is caused by her bisexuality (it seems to stem instead from her fraught relationship to her narcissistic mother).
Arafat portrayal of mental illness also struck me as incredibly realistic and deeply resonated with my own personal experiences (having had an eating disorder and having lived with a parent who struggled with their mental health and substance abuse issues).
All of this to say that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Arafat’s treatment of mental and physical health conditions struck me as both informed and believable (feel free to disagree).
I will say that while I found this to be a deeply compelling read, I’m aware that it may not appeal to readers who dislike reading about self-destructive characters. If you hated Madame Bovary for the selfish behaviour of its eponymous heroine, well, chances are you won’t like this one either (curiously enough Arafat’s protagonist thinks rather harshly of Emma Bovary for “her childish fantasies and for cheating on Charles”).
“All along I knew what I was doing was wrong, that I was dangerously close to a precipice. But still, I need to fall in order to stop.”
You Exist Too Much presents its readers with an intimate and in-depth character study. While there are many new novels featuring self-loathing protagonists whose alienation interferes with their ability to form—and sustain—meaningful connections with others, You Exist Too Much feels like a fresh take on this ‘genre’.
After yet another breakup the unnamed main character of You Exist Too Much tries to break free from this vicious cycle of self-sabotaging. She’s unable, and at times unwilling, to maintain healthy relationships with others and frequently becomes drawn to unattainable people, infatuation which soon morph into toxic obsessions. Arafat’s protagonist mistakes attention for affection and she repeatedly harms those who actually care for her in order to pursue her objet petit a (what can I say, Lacan comes in handy now and again).
When the main character’s girlfriend finds out about her latest “inappropriate emotional connection”, she breaks up with her, telling her to “sift through your issues and face them” so that “maybe one day you’ll learn you can’t treat people with such disregard. Even yourself”. Our narrator attempts to do just that.
The narrative moves between past and present, from the Middle East to New York City and from Italy and Egypt. Readers are given a glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood—her emotionally distant father, her overbearing narcissistic mother—where we see the way these early years skew her self-perception. Her mother tells her she’s unlovable and that she “exists too much”. The narrator is aware that her attraction towards women is a problem for her mother, yet, even if she knows that she would be more accepted if she were to become exclusively romantically involved with men, she pursues relationships with women. So, while our protagonist clearly seeks her mother’s approval, she’s unwilling to deny her sexuality.
Throughout the course of the novel readers will realise that the narrator is perpetuating the same self-destructive behaviour. Regardless of how her relationships start, they always seem to come to disastrous ends because of her unfaithfulness (emotional and physical) and her “love addiction”, her solipsism and self-loathing, and her underlining unresolved issues with herself and her mother.
Now, I know that I’m making this novel sound rather depressing. And, to be fair, it has quite a few bleak moments. The protagonist makes a lot of awful choices, and she does some really terrible things. She’s also pretty much aware that her actions are wrong, and she does try to improve (for example she goes to rehab her “love addiction”).
There are more downs than ups as time and again we witness her repeating the same damaging behaviour (becoming attached to unavailable or toxic people). It certainly isn’t easy to unlearn habits, especially ones that are instilled in us during our upbringing. Our narrator messes up a lot, she hurts people who genuinely love her—breaking their trust, keeping them at arm’s length—and readers will probably want to shake her quite a few times. Still, I found myself growing attached to her. I really liked her cutting sense of humour, which also lightens the overall tone, and her introspectiveness. Her longing for happiness, for love, for acceptance, are rendered with clarity. Regardless of when or where she is—New York or the West Bank—the narrator is deeply aware of her own ‘otherness’. Although she grew up outside of the Middle East she remains strongly attached to her Arab roots, yet, she notes that “it’s the idiosyncrasies of culture that keep me an outsider, and leave me with a persistent and pervasive sense of otherness, of non-belonging”. In the U. S. too she’s “just as much of an outsider” and she’s made “starkly aware of [her] nonconformity”.
Arafat introduces her readers to flawed, yet ultimately compelling, characters. Regardless of their role in the narrator’s story, these characters—who are all contending with their own issues and desires— felt incredibly nuanced.
While this novel focuses a lot on the narrator failing to connect to others, there are moments of genuine understanding and love between the protagonist and her acquaintances/friends/partners. The narrator’s quest for love isn’t a happy one and her self-divide—between family obligation and desire, between her homelands, between the kind of person she is and the person she wants to be—don’t make for easy reading material. Still, the directness of Arafat’s narrator can at times make her into a rather charming individual.
You Exist Too Much is an impressive debut novel, one that is poignant, thoughtful, and bold and will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay.
My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)