Conscious of the Past

One of the most distinct motifs I picked up on when first reading Exit West were mentions of the past, usually meant to highlight a change that had taken place within the world of the story. Most of those changes are rather negative; lines like “The cinema they remembered so fondly had been replaced by a shopping arcade for computers and electronic peripherals,” “The Mars it showed was more detailed as well, though it was of course a Mars from another moment, a bygone Mars,” and “The family that used to run the place, after arriving in the city following the Second World War, and flourishing there for three generations, had recently sold up and emigrated to Canada,” all denote the loss of something (13, 16, 23). Sometimes the changed versions, the ones that had something missing, were more modern, which the rise of technology and increase in light pollution from the first two lines show.

Modernity is also a sort of motif in the novel, since Hamid often comments on aspects of modern city life within the novel: phone usage, drugs, commuting, emailing, going to Chinese restaurants, etc. While this was intended to push back against the Western perception of cities in underdeveloped nations, it also solidifies the book’s place in a contemporary era. But that only makes the parts where the past is mentioned stand out more.

When thinking over the purpose of these continual references to the past, I remember the quote from the very start of the book that details how “…one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put to a stop our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does” (4). I believe these references enhance the spontaneity of life and the finality of sudden changes that the quote talks about: the cinema is a cinema until it’s remodeled, and the family will run the same Chinese restaurant until they move away. There have been irreversible changes made before, and they will continue to occur, especially as Saeed and Nadia’s cities begin to fall to the militants, which is a very severe example of change, but nevertheless change is something we all expereience. We all have a past, things have changed for all of us, this will continue to be so; these ideas add to the novel’s focus on transience and the human experience.

Things Have Changed

The distinction between parts 1 and 2 of The Stranger is something to take note of, both from a regular writing standpoint and a broader thematic standpoint. The most basic change was to the setting, but the prison environment forced the writing to change as well. Because of Meursault’s lack of freedom, there are fewer instances of landscape description (this bleeds into the once ever-present sky motif–it doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much in part 2). Also, due to prison’s daily tedium, we don’t get descriptions of actions or events as much, which was kind of jarring after going through all of Part 1.

The gaps left by the change in scenery are filled in with monologuing and character interaction. This part has a lot more focus on people’s opinions rather than facts of a certain situation (compare the descriptions of Meursault meeting the funeral director to him meeting the magistrate–the latter scene goes a lot more in-depth into the thoughts of the characters than the former), whether they were Meursault’s own opinions (like those on his cell or desire for a woman) or someone else’s. Even though Meursault is just as detached as ever, I got the sense that he was engaging more with the people around him, since he just has to be there, has to listen to their positions.

This introduces the most striking aspect of part 2 in general: a lot more people are challenging Meursault on his way of life. Meursault can’t catch a break in this regard; throughout part 2, he has encounters with his lawyer, the magistrate, and the chaplain, and the entire trial is just one big example of this. In every interaction, Meursault is the one being put on the spot, since his lifestyle and logical processes are just incomprehensible to people. He goes through life having wants and needs like any other person, but he doesn’t make anything more out of what they are, doesn’t try to give them some sort of higher meaning.

It seems like the other people in the book–the “normal” people–cannot function without some obligatory sense of meaning, derived from their common experiences… like, say, crying at a loved one’s funeral. It’s viewed as unheard of because if someone were to go against it, that would force them to look at the situations in life they’ve created and question why they were made. Why does the idea of family carry so much societal weight? If we’re looking at it head-on, families are units of people that aid in each other’s survival; important, yes, but to a life-defining degree? Meursault surely doesn’t think so. In this way, if part 1 was an establishment of The Stranger‘s philosophy through Meursault’s apathetic lifestyle, then part 2 is where this philosophy is directly challenged and must be reasserted by Meursault (which does happen at the very end of the book).

“Forget it, Meursault, it’s Algiers”

When reading the first 3 chapters of The Stranger, I had a nagging sensation of familiarity. I had never read this book before, nor any of Camus’s work, but there was something about the way it was written that seemed familiar to me. Well, I’ve finally figured it out: The Stranger reminds me of film noir. Mr. Heidkamp has said that this book heavily influenced a lot of Western pop culture, and since this book came out in the 1940s, which was around when film noir was rising to prominence, so I think this book may have influenced the popularity of the genre.

I think the main reason this story gave me the same feelings a noir story would is the futility of it all. So far, the entire story has just been descriptions of events and characters in the protagonist’s daily life, nothing that’s particularly exciting, and this feeling doesn’t ever change even if things that are out of the ordinary do start happening (like when Raymond plans to get revenge on his girlfriend). This is a very big staple of noir films–there is a large focus on how life always goes on, even if tragic or otherwise important events occur, and it can be seen in the way Meursault reflects on his mother’s death: “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed” (24).

The character of Meursault represents this theme well. He doesn’t seems to have any severe opinions about anything, and prefers to spend his free time idling away, sleeping or people-watching. He has fully embraced the unchanging, unforgiving nature of time, and it manifests in an almost overwhelming sense of apathy, like when he says, “He told me that I’d have to act as a witness for him. It didn’t matter to me, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to say” (37). While most noir protagonists have to learn this way of thinking by the end of the story, he in introduced with it.

Another characteristic of noir is having the protagonist come face to face with extreme and tragic violence (sometimes they are just a witness to it, other times they’re committing the violent act themselves–Meurault is in this second category). I’ve only just finished chapter 6, but Meursault’s murder of the Arab man is definitely extreme. The entire passage is very intense, it feels unhinged and senseless, and that raw feeling is also present in a lot of film noir murder scenes. It will be interesting to see how Meursault’s apathetic nature might be affected by the aftermath of the murder, so I’m looking forward to reading more.