To Remain Nameless
(Rescue Press, 2020)
The narrative of the outside world in American writing is historically teleological in character, an attempt to answer thorny questions that might cast doubt on the American project: What is the non-American world for? Why should it exist? What does the rest of the world have that we do not, and does that mean that we are morally lacking in some way?
In nineteenth-century travel writing, the writing of the American abroad largely serves to emphasize the perfection of America itself. For Hawthorne and Mark Twain, Europe can be a helpful mirror for Americans, reminding the elect of the future of the preterition of the past. (Melville looks more deeply and sees not a mirror but a vertiginous abyss, the realization of how arbitrarily and shoddily constructed American assumptions were; the reading public was not pleased.) Another model might be found in Henry James, who found in Europe better subjects for himself: social complexity and aesthetic sensitivity lacking in America. He was more perceptive than anyone else and became European himself, followed by Gertrude Stein, who held on to her citizenship, thinking that she could remake Americans.
The most lasting book of the American abroad is one which goes entirely unread and unremembered except for its title, The Ugly American, which will never go away. Those who pick up Eugene Burdick & William J. Lederer’s book might be surprised to realize that the ugliness of the title is very literal: the hero of the novel is a rough-hewn American engineer living in an imaginary country in southeast Asia who — while the diplomatic corps are busy enjoying cocktails and servants and failing to understand anything at all — impresses the locals with his homespun ingenuity and common sense. We don’t have to be Communists, think the locals; we can live like this splendid ugly American man. And he can get rich! This book is why they started the Peace Corps.
The ugly Americans that followed were those of Eat, Pray, Love, My Crazy Year Abroad, seeing the rest of the world as objects for consumption for personal betterment, a way to self-definition. Then came Instagram, and then global travel ground to a halt. This comically oversimplifies the narrative, but the American narrative of the outside world has always been oversimplified. And now Brad Fox’s To Remain Nameless appears.
To Remain Nameless is a book that draws a period when the contours of twenty-first century geography had come firmly into view – cheap flights that went everywhere – but had not yet been fully subsumed by the Internet, the time before Google Maps on a phone promised to make the most exotic location immediately accessible – only a decade ago, but unreachable now. The time is soon after the Arab Spring, and there are presentiments of the world we live in now: Erdogan is consolidating power in Turkey, and Syria is heading towards collapse. Laura and Tess have been working with refugees and displaced people in the Balkans, Turkey, and Egypt, heirs to the mission of Lederer and Burdick, but working out their destinies for reasons entirely unrelated. They have been at their work to know that it can be hopeless, but they’re not quite jaded enough to give up. The novel is structured around Laura giving birth – back in New York to care for her dying mother, she unexpectedly becomes pregnant and asks her friend, based, at the moment, in Istanbul, to attend. Tess lets her mind wander over the long period of the birth, going over her history with Laura and the other lives that have intersected with theirs.
Laura’s giving birth is described in graphic detail and at length: while Tess’s attention wanders – perhaps 24 hours goes by in total – it returns, as it must, to her friend’s physical struggles in the delivery room. Tess thinks of other births that she has been present at; of her past with Laura; her own family, mostly her half-brother Max, her occasional companion in the Balkans before worryingly dropping out of touch at a monastery in Syria; and the people she has spent time with since leaving America. There is no climactic interaction between Laura and Tess: they are, at the moment, impossibly separated. But there is a shared experience: and shared experience is key to this book.
Shared experience is also a reflection of their work, repeated attempts to dive into the lives of those they are working with and living with – time spent laboriously learning the ins and outs of languages, and openness to cultural specificity, the overlap of cultures possible in the dawning years of the twenty-first century: a man born in Mexico of Syrian descent speaks words in Serbian over a computer in Beirut. The world they work in is full of pain, but also full of opportunities for those who open themselves up to it. Tess leaves the hospital looking for a meal and finds herself savoring terrible New York diner food, noting, while she waits for her takeout order, the young cook’s Greek, the story of travel across half the world that ends with her coffee, terrible in the way that only New York coffee can be. Back in America for a short visit, Tess can see more than she could before.
The individuals seen through Tess’s vision have an unintended dignity that’s not unlike what’s found in John Berger’s fiction. Or one might connect this book back to another nineteenth century American, Walt Whitman, who never managed to leave the country. Whitman’s ideas about democracy what America was or was not don’t come into play here. Rather, it’s his idea of adherence that comes into play: families make an anemic showing in this book (a dead mother, a half-brother), but there is a richness in elective affinities across cultures. The world of Laura and Tess is a social network of coworkers, friends, lovers before the dead hand of that idea reified brought the world we live in a decade later into being. Again this feels like a dispatch from a lost world where Facebook hadn’t yet abetted pogroms against the Rohingya.
Read now, To Remain Nameless is a book unexpectedly adrift in time, a book about Americans and their construction of identity through engagement with the wider world reaching readers at a time when an American passport is as close to useless as it has ever been. But a book structured around a birth – there are not so many – is inherently optimistic. Tess, in a moment of crisis:
To serve others, Tess thought. To live for others. To despise them, to have been disappointed, and still to work for them. To disbelieve in progress, in benefit, to think that everything backfires. So why do anything? (p. 23)
To Remain Nameless might be seen as a thinking through of this problem. Work as if you lived in the early days of a better country urged the late Alasdair Gray. Fox’s book might seem like a dispatch from an alternate history, one of better, more engaged people in a world less fraught than the one we live in now, a world dominated by ugly Americans who fail to understand anything for their gain and everyone else’s loss. But it is still our world.