Sunday, September 21, 2014

Rarity of the Century by Fawzy Zablah

Fawzy Zablah's debut novel, "Rarity of the Century," is a gem, available from Tiny TOE Press or as a Kindle version. "Rarity of the Century" is an apocalyptic sci-fi novel, but it is also, at it's heart, a love story. Despite the apocalypse-like setting, despite the science-fiction plot, there is love standing at the novel's thematic center. Zablah's novel is a love story because love is the driving force behind each character, which centers their stories, motivating their actions. And the novel itself is a labor of love for the science fiction genre. Consider the direct reference to Stephen King, via the Busboy's gay uncle's bookshelf. Stephen King, who wrote "The Tommyknockers" and "Dreamcatcher," which I read and loved in high school, are both sci-fi/UFO-driven novels, and "Rarity of the Century," I felt, comes out of that same tradition. Namely, Zablah's novel is deeply rooted within characters who must live with the reality of what is happening to them, a reality best informed and described by those who live lives within the context of UFO phenomenon. King's two aforementioned novels describe what it must be like to live every day experiencing UFO/alien activity and, likewise, "Rarity of the Century" does the same, but much more drastically--there is mystery, intrigue, and Zablah's personal thematic flare: love.

The novel opens with the first character, Chucho, proclaiming and addressing the novel's centric theme: "When the world ended I fell in love for the first time." This is the story of the Busboy, his perspective on some/most of the goings-on throughout the novel. Zablah's novel has, essentially, one main timeframe: The end of the world takes place and, we come to find out, there are precious few people left. As it should happen, the three people left on earth are in a menage a trois, albeit later learned. First, we learn what happens from Chucho. His approach to the end of the world is wonder in the guise of calm acceptance. Yet, what starts at first as acceptance quickly turns into struck thrill when he seemingly meets the only other person: Shiraz Zirel, a woman with whom he works and with whom he is in love. Chucho is an everyman, leading a boring, loser lifestyle, but he has an optimistic, scrappy dog-like personality. Always seemingly one step behind fully registering the full implications of what's going on, he is, for all that, endearing and loveable. He has charm and, when his dream come true is granted in meeting Shiraz post-"the end of the world," he uses their circumstances to win her heart. But Chucho--dog illusions aside--is not stupid. He has made observations and come to know some personal truths, mainly about how he stands in relation to women, particularly those who he finds to be very attractive. Chucho is no Alpha-Male, which he kind of knows, often desiring girls who he feels to be out of his league. So he views the end of the world as his opportunity to be with Shiraz, a woman he views as out of his league. Shiraz, seemingly, has no interest in him, but as the two remain together post-apocalypse, a bond forms and they soon come together. For Chucho, it is a literal dream come true.

For Shiraz, her relationship with Chucho is an acceptance of stability, as opposed to heartache and disappointment. As the novel unfolds, plot point by plot point, mystery by mystery, petal by petal, so too does our understanding of these characters as each is given his/her chance to share themselves with us: their histories, their interests, their selves. Shiraz, again given a slight nod to King's brand, seems to have precognitive dreams, which the reader is invited to interpret. For us, it is easy to make out what the dreams mean in relation to the happenings of the novel. But apart from her dreams, Shiraz gives us another, deeper level to the story Chucho has shared. Namely, her story doubles back in the plot to when Shiraz learns about everyone's disappearance, thus giving us a background story akin to Selena's background story from "28 Days Later." Although Selena's actual back story is withheld from the film, according to production notes, the reason Selena is tough as nails is because she had to kill her family at the outbreak of infection due to them becoming infected. Zablah's novel, giving nod to Selena's story, pays homage to the strong, tough-as-nails female character, which is a common motif in horror/sci-fi stories; but, in "Rarity of the Century," Zablah gives Shiraz the courtesy of revealing her back story, rather than withholding it. Albeit, Shiraz is not forced to kill her family, but must, in fact, do away with other neighborhood creatures, a fact that will surely tug on the heartstrings of both animal lovers and members of the internet-based "dogge" culture. Additionally, Shiraz's dealings with dogs, particularly Bebo, is a bit like commentary on the later relationship she forms with Chucho.

While Chucho's story is a slowly unfolding love story between himself and Shiraz, Shiraz's explanation of how she comes to love Chucho is both refreshing (for it gives us the woman's perspective) and also, thankfully, quick, since we already know what happens from Chucho. What is more interesting is the menage a trois fully revealed and confirmed that existed between herself and Chucho and, from before "the end of the world," Benito, a Cuban exile living in Miami. Shiraz's background story is well-handled and her menage a trois story is, seemingly, accurately represented, detailing the difficulties that exist when one must pick between two lovers. Something I first noticed while reading Shiraz's part is that the dialogue between the three main characters is ever so slightly off; that is, the dialogue is not "neat and clean" from one of the novel's three parts to the other two. However, rather than seeming like a flaw, Zablah's handling of this discrepancy is such that I believe it to have been done on purpose, which, then, functions as an interesting commentary regarding perception and memory of everyday life. The way Chucho perceives a conversation with Shiraz is different than how Shiraz perceives it; of course, we're told this via access to what each character is thinking, but to have the dialogue reflect that via slight discrepancies is, I think, very smart.

As Shiraz's storyline approaches the point where Chucho's storyline is cliff-hung, her background story jumps back even further, to her history with Benito. Zablah's use of cliffhangers from one part to the next is also well-handled, keeping the suspense and tension high, compelling the reader to keep reading. In this respect, Zablah's novel is again like a Stephen King novel: the suspense is sustained, turning the book into a real page-turner. And it's smart, too. To keep the mystery, I won't say too much else about Benito or his storyline (although we're given quite a view of what life was like for him in Cuba), but what I will say is that, given what Benito says and sees and shows us/Chucho-&-Shiraz, Zablah's grasp and understanding of UFO lore is surprisingly and refreshingly accurate. All too often a movie or a novel will try to do too much and explain too much and be too "weird" while handling such topics, but Zablah gives us just enough, just a taste, of such subjects, but he does not presume to provide too many answers or get too obnoxiously "weird." Perhaps most accurately depicted, I felt, was when Shiraz saw lights in the sky for the first time. During this incident, Shiraz wanted to leave to tell Chucho about the lights, but she was too mesmerized to actually take her eyes away from them, which resulted in "lost time," i.e. much more time had passed than she had realized; by the time she did look away and went to get him, the lights were gone.

Fawzy Zablah's "Rarity of the Century" is a fantastic sci-fi novel, which is informed and grounded in love; additionally, Zablah's novel demands a second reading. The carefully placed and appropriately timed revelations and cliffhangers keep the story going and the pages turning. But there also exists plenty for the reader to ponder, particularly regarding the fate of the characters and the entire world. Yet, if one reads "Rarity of the Century" carefully, and reads it twice, hints are given, but definite answers are withheld, which is another homage to Stephen King brand horror/sci-fi. These hints and suggestions can be easily missed if the novel is read through only once, so a second reading is, if for no other reason, necessary (although, truthfully, a second reading is warranted anyway because Zablah has written and crafted a beautiful novel). So be sure to buy this beautiful book, whether hand-pressed from Tiny TOE or digitally via Kindle. You will not regret it!

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