Fiction, Story Collections

The Delicate Prey

While reading the stories in the collection titled The Delicate Prey I often wondered how I might define these stories, and what sort of general introductory statement I could make regarding the work of Paul Bowles.


I’ve read all the novels Bowles wrote and this isn’t my first encounter with his short fiction.  Like the novels the short stories strike me as weird, so I look this word up and although the supernatural and uncanny do often play a part in Bowles’ stories it is the archaic use of the word as a noun in Scottish that might be perfect for my purposes:  “a person’s destiny.” 


Bowles work does have a fated quality to it, in which all of the characters are ultimately doomed.  Rarely do you see characters striving for something—positive and optimistic—that they want, or even need; more often Bowles’ characters respond badly—usually unluckily, and sometimes stupidly, stubbornly—to developments they could never have foreseen.  And yet once faced with these obstacles in their paths that fated quality asserts itself and everything that happens after that becomes more or less whatever was destined to be. 


But what is it that gives rise to these destinies? 


Bowles doesn’t usually present characters with some unique fatal flaw that leads them quite naturally to their own almost pre-determined end.  Instead he presents characters who barely distinguish themselves in any way, characters who are just one among the many and whom the spotlight of his narrative gaze just happened to fall upon, and these characters who are anything but extraordinary in any way just happen to get themselves into terrible fixes that they cannot get themselves out of with much dignity, and sometimes not even their health and lives intact. 


There is no redemption whatsoever in Paul Bowles’ work.  He treats his characters in a pitiless manner, almost akin perhaps to that of a zealous but absolutely indifferent lab technician conducting random experiments with living beings.  Very little sympathy, or empathy, is ever operating in the stories in The Delicate Prey.  And it’s not as if Bowles is subjecting his characters to trials that will reveal the strengths—or weaknesses—of their characters.  The degree to which Bowles doesn’t seem to give a damn about his characters at all, whether they be naïve North Americans abroad or impoverished South American Indians or descendants of the Spanish colonialization and Christianization of the Americas, or even poorer and more destitute North African Moslems, is remarkable.  Few writers are more pessimistic on the page, in the text, than Paul Bowles is.  His is a worldview that offers no real prospect of hope to anyone, neither characters nor readers.


In a letter written when Bowles was just barely nineteen years old he states, “I am too perverse.  If I find I am doing a pleasing thing and that people like it, I switch; it must be bad what I was doing.  I’ve got to displease them.”


He goes on to say:


There can never be any love, affection, even any satisfaction “in my life.”  Whatever is to please me must be a vice.  True, really.  Being beaten, for instance.  A vice.  But how enjoyable.  Burning woods.  How exquisite.  Biting myself for the pain.  All the more enjoyable than misbehaving with some girl or man…at least I am abnormal in a “different” way.  But it makes of Life a series of steps down into regions unspeakably foul and deep.  There is no other conception of my existence I can form.  Each day makes me meat-one-day-rottener.  Nothing physical.  The glow is in my cheeks, but…dans mon coeur, la flèche est fixée.


Mohamed Choukri, the Moroccan writer who knew Bowles and collaborated with him during the last twenty-seven years of Bowles’ life testifies—in his own book, In Tangier—to this extreme pessimism.


Towards the end of his life Bowles wrote:


Now that the prognosis [for immortality] is doubtful, the desire to leave a trace behind seems absurd.  Even if the human species manages to survive for another hundred years, it’s unlikely that a book written in 1990 will mean much to anyone happening to open it in 2090, if indeed he is capable of reading at all.


Bowles’ dismal view of both human nature and human prospects imbues each of the seventeen short stories in The Delicate Prey.  There is no relief or escape from this gloomy attitude.  And yet a writer like myself literally feeds off this work.  None of the stories in this collection are neatly tied up with a bow on top like so much of contemporary fiction, where you unwrap a story and see the shiny literary technique that was responsible for making that story, on display, glowing like neon.  I even wonder about Ecco’s decision to include these selected stories as part of its “The Art of the Story” series.  Not that there isn’t craftsmanship to appreciate in Bowles’ short fiction.  I’m just not sure how instructive his work is, except on the level of vision.


And that’s why I keep returning to Bowles, time and time again, and never tire of him and his writing.  I have always felt that vision is the single most important element of all the many elements that go into good writing.  And by vision I don’t mean some sort of mental image of the way things could be but merely and only the way any particular writer looks at things and sees.


It is that act and way of seeing that is so remarkable in the work of Paul Bowles.  You might not agree with his take on the world, you probably won’t feel entirely comfortable with the places he takes you and the situations he puts you in as a reader, but it is precisely the nature of that discomfort that is of interest to me as both a reader and a writer.  Few other writers are as truly disturbing as Paul Bowles, who doesn’t just make you think but makes you wonder instead, if things are really, deep down, the way he says they are.


Photo of Paul Bowles by Fair use,