I guess you know you've made it as a novelist when a famous rock band writes a song based on your book. Killing an Arab by The Cure is definitely worth listening to, but reading Albert Camus's The Stranger is even more rewarding, though it's also a lot more disturbing. What's disturbing isn't Meursault's decline, but the fact that he doesn't actually have one.
The central moment of the novel is when Meursault shoots an Arab on an Algerian beach for no reason. The scene is particularly chilling because earlier in the story Meursault successfully dissuades the pimp Raymond from shooting the same man, who happens to be the brother of Raymond's abused mistress.
Up until this point Meursault's life has consisted of not caring about his mother's death, smoking cigarettes, having an affair with his coworker Marie, sleeping, and a casual emptiness. It's not a sharp emptiness, more just the lack of anything substantive. It is, as the Existential philosophers would have said, the absurd.
And Camus was certainly an Existentialist philosopher. Interestingly, he was a smiling one, and at the end of The Stranger he has Meursault open himself to "the gentle indifference of the world" while awaiting his execution. Yet with the final line he undercuts this reconciliation: "For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."
"Wow, Crossman," some of you are saying, "you like dark books." That's not quite right. I like truthful books, and The Stranger is among the most truthful books ever written. It puts modern man squarely in his actual predicament—alone, directionless, surrounded by and participating in senseless violence—and forces him to confront this predicament head on.
For Camus and Meursault, there are no alternatives except to bow to the meaninglessness of the universe. The magistrate in charge of Meursault's murder case, and later a priest, confront the criminal with the need to repent and believe, but he will not accept what he cannot believe. The magistrate nicknames him Monsieur Antichrist, which perfectly sums up the banality of his evil, even while pointing out its metaphysical implications.
But for all this conviction and honesty on Meursault's part, Camus in his honesty cannot help but point out the humanity of this man, and the deep human need for recognition and identity. Meursault, after all, cares how he dies. He doesn't want to die alone or quietly, but as the enemy of the people, people who do not realize the evil they hate is within them all.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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