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[224] Exiles in America – Christopher Bram


“You have to trust yourself and the other person. There are no guarantees here. The world is an unreal place. You want someone with you to make it feel less unreal. You want to keep them there, and you think you can do it with a few magic words, a marriage contract, a wedding. But it doesn’t work that way. Love is always difficult . . . There are a hundred trade-offs. A thousand possible mistakes.” [220]

Zachary Knowles and Daniel Wexler have been together for twenty-one years. Both in their late 40s, they adopt different views to their relationship. Zack is a psychiatrist who has withdrawn into an asexual state, knowing he doesn’t connect to his partner with sex alone. Daniel Wexler is an art teacher at a college whose fears of aging propels his continuation of pursuing flings.

Maybe I don’t miss lust. Maybe life is more peaceful without it. Duller maybe. But peaceful. [83]

I want meaning in my life. I want joy. I want to have something more to show for my time here than twenty-plus years of—friendship. [353]

When a new artist in residence, Abbas Rohani, arrives with his Russian wife, Elena, and their two children, the harmony of Zack and Daniel’s relationship is jeopardized. The Iranian painter has an open marriage with his wife with whom he stipulates a don’t ask-don’t tell pact on his sexual life. He embodies the swarthy, omnisexual, selfish, and uninhibited artist stereotype. Daniel’s initial artistic jealousy of Abbas quickly turns into an attraction that barrels consummation, which violates his pact with Zack that extramarital liaisons are acceptable as long as they are transient and purely sexual. But Daniel Falls in love with someone who lives on the fast track for sex. Abbas proves to be the most conceited, self-entitled, and capricious character. He constantly needs to be the center of attention. He wants everyone to love him—but he finds it difficult to reciprocate the love.

[Daniel] calls it love. He says it’s a love affair and asks me to bear wth him because, like all love affairs, it will have a beginning, middle, and end. [156]

[Abbas] was never in love with me. He tricked me. He told me he was in love only as I would fall in love with him. And now that he’s proved himself, he can move on to his other loves. [189]

Between Zack and Abbas, Daniel realizes he only plays at love, imagining what love would be like. What thrill with Abbas is no more than ego-driven sex. What Abbas denounces dull and safe love is what Zack means by the trade-offs that are conducive to a long-term happy relationship. A gamut of emotions run through these four people as Daniel and Abbas become enmeshed in the escalating American suspicion (xenophobia) of Middle Eastern potential terrorism on the verge of the Iraqi War in 2003. Political instabilities along with the relationship drama infuse new element of uncertainty in their entangled lives. But Cram’s ingenuity lays in the fact through their disparate perspectives in relationship and distrust of intimacy he is able to implement a metaphor for the isolation among people who are sentimentally, sexually, and ethnically exiled. Exiles in America explores how the personal becomes political, and how the private turns public as an affair binds two families together.

Only when you’re in love do you constantly ask yourself if you’re in love or not. You’re in love. You’re hooked. Now what? [185]

This book will stay with me for a long time because it addresses the very issue that occupies my mind, echoed from the previous read: what is a relationship without either love or sex? Which is more important, physical fidelity or emotional fidelity? Does gray area exist for monogamy?

369 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

13 Responses

  1. Holy cow, this sounds incredible. Why haven’t I heard this title before, now?

  2. Those are some heavy questions, Matt! In my mind, this plot would easily draw you in!

  3. This sounds like a really thought-provoking read that would cause any reader to reflect on the nature of relationships and all they way we can connect with others and have relationships. I’ve often heard that women tend to prize emotional fidelity higher than physical, whereas men are more interested in physical fidelity. I don’t know if this really true, but your book would certainly cast this in an interesting life given that it focuses on a same-sex couple. Yet another great choice, Matt!

  4. I love how you introduce me to these book that I swear I would have never heard of if it wasn’t for your amazing blog. This sounds like a wonderful book – full of questions and discussion for readers. I love books that take a look at love and relationships because that’s something that we all dabble in and need to question every now and then. Thanks for the great review – you are really good at placing us just far enough into the book to really entice us!

  5. Great review! This is a book I need to add to my TBR. Your questions are ones that many of us have but we don’t take the time to ponder them.

  6. Pam:
    I haven’t heard of Christopher Bram until my friend recommends the book to me. He wrote another book that was made into a picture called “Gods and Monsters.”

  7. Sandy:
    The book pulled me in on page 1! I feel very sympathetic to Zack, who is a great guy—smart, caring, loving, a perfect husband. I cannot bear his approving the partner to have flings. I was riveted at the reading and I couldn’t put it down. I resonate with the issues of what makes a relationship and the feasibility of monogamy. This book is up for re-read.

  8. Steph:
    I can only give you my thoughts in the gay world. From experience of myself and friends, physical exclusivity is what all the gay men want but sometimes they feel like they are not being satisfied by the partner. I have always had issue with open relationship, because I do not believe in it. I cannot accept that the partner is off with someone even if it’s just a fling.

  9. justicejenniferreads:
    I do too, that I love to read books that explore love and relationship in different angles, even if it is taken outside of the social norms. After all, literature is about humanity. Literature is fiction but fiction is based on real human experiences–unfiltered.

  10. Kathleen:
    This is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read for a while. It so hits home that people have to re-examine their perspectives on relationship.

  11. Interesting and thought provoking. I think the tests begin when relationships transit from the initial flattering, gratifying self-affirmational stage into something where mutuality and responsibility (however one might understand that) become important factors. We all have needs and yearnings, and our chosen primary relationships seldom satisfy all of them. How this all plays out is individual and unique to each pairing. And so many things — indeed ourselves — change over time, adding another layer of complication. That’s the stuff of literature and life.

  12. […] work for his later novels. The ideas of no-string-attached sex and emotional fidelity recur in Exiles in America. The novel captures beautifully the altering gamut of emotions, as well as the reversing cause and […]

  13. […] read author of the year, and number of books by that author? Christopher Bram, 5: Exiles in America, Gossip, Gods and Monsters, Surprising Myself, and Almost History. He explores the boundary between […]

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