Review: You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (Catapult Press 2020)

Reviewed by Isabella Scala-Natoli

In Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, You Exist Too Much—what some have called a bildungsroman, and a character study—an unnamed D.C. raised Palestinian-American narrator gets dumped by her girlfriend for her chronic infidelity and goes to rehab, then an MFA program. Across America, Europe, and The Middle East, she learns how to shape her life story into a love-story both shattering in impact and fractured in shape. Each place the narrator takes us to is tied to a person, and another manifestation of the same quest. That is, to find a mother—and in effect—a homeland. On this quest, as readers, we experience with the narrator what I can only describe as growing pains. What I got from reading YETM was the chance to bond with a character who by working out her own flaws, made me consequently realize my own. This sounds negative but it isn’t. It was a pleasant awakening. Like suddenly remembering where you know that person from, the one you saw on the bus earlier. You went to college together. Of course! Your dislike of others stems from your own insecurities. Of course!

After being told by her ex to face her problems, the narrator decides that her reckless obsession with unattainable women equates to a love addiction and thereafter seeks help. But at The Ledge, a treatment center in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the xenophobia, homophobia, and downright ignorance of the other patients and staff make healing twice as hard for the narrator than it would have been were she a straight white woman.  Members of the narrator’s Al-Anon therapy group make remarks like, “Alex says you’re so pissed off all the time because you think you’re entitled to the land, but that the Torah promised it to his people.” or “Wait, so where’s Palestine, again? Is it next to Afghanistan?”And just as the narrator’s heritage adds an additional hurdle to her struggles in love and mental health, so does her queerness. Her roommate, Molly, admits she “would have liked the option” to switch rooms when she discovers the narrator is a “homosexual.” Molly’s choice of words made the narrator cringe and reminded her of the way the Iranian president referred to folks like her when he denied their existence in his country, which fed the narrator’s presiding insecurity: that she exists too much. That she doesn’t have the right to exist. 

Before coming out to her group-mates, the narrator is forced to make the gender of her partners ambiguous when she’s talking about her relationships, a task that is challenging all on its own. She’s seeking help and yet all she receives is discrimination, not the thoughtful listening and advice that the other patients receive. For example, a straight patient with a love addiction in the same center, named Greg, receives thoughtful criticism when he admits his addiction to cheating on his “bitch wife” with other young females. Events like this confront the reader with the notion that LGBTQ+ justice is more than just “accepting” folks’ sexualities. Justice is in the act of affirming the complexity of queer love as being just as dynamic as hetero-love. Her access to the help that The Ledge promises is stymied by its bigotry, exposing the truth about who the mental health industry really serves. But at the same time, demonstrating Arafat’s writerly finesse, we become attached to the messed up characters at The Ledge. I sympathized with Greg at the same time that I abhorred him because Arafat showed him to us, as she often did with others, from all angles, making the point of how instrumental three-dimensionality in character development is in making biased judgments. I found this to be a commentary on the way Arab characters are often presented in popular culture, one-dimensional and easy to hate or fear.

In an interview with George Abraham, the author talked a bit about her process in shaping the unconventional form of the novel. She admitted it looked a little like a conspiracy theorist or detective’s den, involving pages taped to walls, arranged and rearranged repeatedly. Her efforts were not in vain. The narrator’s past present, and future selves build a poly-vocal narration, giving the book an organic shape. Organic in that the story is told using time authentically, with all its overlapping edges, folds, blank spaces and contradictions. In YETM, the narrator can’t tell us what’s going on in her present moment without telling us about her parent’s morning routine, for example. She can’t answer a question without first telling us the last time she was asked something similar. If not for it’s poetic significance, Arafat’s structural choices begin to make a lot of sense when the resident psychiatrist at The Ledge, Richard talks about pain from childhood manifesting into adulthood. Another word for this is codependency and it plays a big role in the narrator’s affliction.

The events in the story have so much to do with context. Arafat shows us how and why her character arrives where she arrives, makes the decisions she makes, and why what’s important to her is so important. One thing informing another. For example, when she checks in to The Ledge, she is unwilling to give up her electronics for “safekeeping” not because she’s addicted to her phone but because she’s traumatized from losing luggage at a checkpoint in Palestine. This reminded me of the fact that folks may have very valid reasons for their choices,  which seem odd or shocking on the exterior, and that they have no obligation to explain that reason to us. Everything comes from something. Arafat covers this seamlessly and it’s no small feat. Her transitions are the stuff of my dreams. Her abstractions of linear time vary from chapter long interruptions to section breaks marked by glyphs, to inter-paragraph timeline alternation and yet I’m never lost. Her control over the reader is clear throughout and it feels safe, it helps me sink into this story and never want to come out, no matter how rough the water gets, even when I get salt up my nose and in my throat.

The narrator was incredibly relatable in some pretty fun ways. Her judgmental tendencies, her sarcasm, the way she only eats after 8 o’clock. But there were also some moments of relatability that I wasn’t expecting; that I’d never faced in a book, like the way my mother and the narrator’s mother call their daughters, self-referentially, mommy or mamma. I’d always considered this term of endearment natural, affectionate. I talked about it with my mom and came to realize that it is a way of saying I am you. As in, we are so close that we are one. This makes a lot of sense when it comes to the narrator’s relationship with her mother and made me think that perhaps these kinds of intense ties with mothers are distinctly cultural.

Her epigraph really says it all. “Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.” This Søren Kierkegaard line seems to work in tandem with another that appears throughout the latter half of the novel: the definition of insanity according to Albert Einstein. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.” The narrator repeats the definition to herself at critical moments throughout what is meant to be her recovery process. It becomes a sort of mantra. And it’s fitting. She seeks pleasure repeatedly. It is at the center of her decision making. Whether that be who she sleeps with, where she moves, or what job she takes, she centers her own pleasure and stimulation above anything else. Some may interpret this as selfish but in truth it derives from her bearing a lot of pain. Her pleasure is not true pleasure because it is driven by fear, jealousy, and ultimately, the need for control, something she lacked as a child and continues to struggle with in her relationship with her mother. This is why the ending is so symbolically perfect. The narrator and her final partner of the book, Anouk are watching an old home video of her mother as a young woman, recently given birth, which catalyzes a realization in her that her mother was once a child and continues to suffer from her own traumas, one of which being life under occupation in Palestine. When the video ends she sees her and Anouk’s reflection in the TV, suggesting that her own life and experiences will always be a reflection of her mother’s. This is not far from the truth in her previous unhealthy affairs. But here is where the insanity stops. She turns off the TV, mattifying the reflective surface, “making room for the two of us.” At this point she lets what is be its own thing. Until then, it almost seemed as if she were consistently in a throuple: her, her partner, and her mother. In the last chapter she tries to let the relationship’s success or failure depend solely on herself and Anouk. 

How realistic is this? Does trauma really ever get “worked through”? I’m not quite sure. Especially since Arafat suggests that the narrator’s whole telling of her story was inspired by a final meeting with one of her obsessions from earlier in the book, a straight, married, pregnant, French professor. But the sentiment is there and it’s comforting. The place the narrator (who I wish had a name) reaches by the end of YETM is a realistic goal to set, something that I would look forward to reaching, just to see what it feels like.

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