Noted

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 -

The open­ing scenes from The Lebs could be mis­taken for spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, in which eth­nic mi­nori­ties are forced into guarded en­claves, sur­rounded by high fences and barbed wire, and mon­i­tored by sur­veil­lance cam­eras. But Michael Mo­hammed Ah­mad’s sec­ond novel is closer to so­cial re­al­ism: it is set within the sur­real ba­nal­ity of Punch­bowl Boys High School in Syd­ney’s west­ern sub­urbs and nar­rated by Bani Adam, a young Le­banese-Aus­tralian man strug­gling to find his place in the world. The year is 2001, as we learn from the fall of the twin tow­ers in the novel’s first pages (an event loaded with am­biva­lence for the boys of Punch­bowl). Bani spends most of his time with Omar, a boy who lives in the same street, and Shaky, who has a Le­banese fa­ther but whose mother is “Aussie as meat pie” – and who there­fore has the am­bigu­ous lux­ury of “pass­ing” as white when he wants to pick up girls or to avoid po­lice ha­rass­ment. Bani, Omar and Shaky are killing time, caught in the un­easy space be­tween cul­tures and be­tween child­hood and adult­hood. They are des­per­ate to get laid, but still want their fu­ture wives to be good Mus­lim vir­gins. They pre­fer McDon­ald’s and KFC to home-cooked food, but feel bad when this up­sets their moth­ers. Bani Adam is the quin­tes­sen­tial insider-out­sider fig­ure. As he is con­stantly re­mind­ing us, or per­haps him­self, he is dif­fer­ent, bet­ter: a dili­gent stu­dent who loves books, dreams of be­com­ing a writer, and fan­ta­sises about gaz­ing into his English teacher’s eyes and im­press­ing her with his knowl­edge of lit­er­a­ture. Bani’s first-per­son per­spec­tive is si­mul­ta­ne­ously the novel’s great­est strength and big­gest lim­i­ta­tion. He is po­ten­tially un­re­li­able as a nar­ra­tor, and the ob­vi­ous naivety of many of his views is freighted with dra­matic irony. Bani has read Lolita on the ad­vice of his adored teacher, and it func­tions as a kind of clue to how we might read his own nar­ra­tion. And yet, even when read iron­i­cally, Bani’s nar­ra­tion can feel tor­pid, par­tic­u­larly in the early parts of the novel. Lolita would, after all, be a very dif­fer­ent novel if it were nar­rated by “Lolita” her­self. What is gen­uinely mov­ing, how­ever, is Bani’s strug­gle be­tween the sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity and destiny he must main­tain in or­der to do any more than sur­vive his school days, and the shame and iso­la­tion that are its side ef­fects. When Bani grad­u­ates from high school, we see the be­gin­nings of a self-aware hu­mour that sig­nals he is grow­ing up. In its strong­est moments The Lebs thrums with what Bani de­scribes as “the power that comes not from be­ing on top of the evo­lu­tion­ary chain but rather from be­ing at the bot­tom”, and even in its weak­est it is an im­por­tant and af­fect­ing ac­count of the com­plex­i­ties in­her­ent in such a po­si­tion. Michael Mo­hammed Ah­mad seems set to be­come a ma­jor force in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.

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