Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley

Looking for something a little more lighthearted after having read The Flame Tree I decided a great contrast to that serious and emotional book would be the latest Christopher Buckley Satire Florence of Arabia. Sure it too deals with Islamic fundamentalism, this time in the Middle East, but it does it in a totally different way. Plus, it should be a quick read.

Florence of Arabia was a quick read, and it was lighthearted for the most part, but it wasn’t as simple as that. When I was thinking about how I might write a review I came up with the idea of writing a review by “reviewing the reviews.” In other words, I would look at some of the major reviews of the book and comment on what the reviewer got right and what they might have gotten wrong. The result is what follows:

Adam Woog in the Seattle Times gives us a pretty straightforward review. Adam’s review basically reads like this: introduce author and his previous work, segue into current work, outline plot, and quickly assess book. Here is Adam’s take:

It’s really pretty astonishing that Buckley has produced a comedy out of this stuff. After all, fanatically religious and controlling cultures of any stripe aren’t known to be capacious barrels of laughs. Not to mention violence against women or anyone else.

Nonetheless, Buckley manages to make consistently large-hearted, wickedly informed fun out of nearly everything going: not just the Arabs but the CIA, the State Department, snooty French diplomats, priapic Arab princes, you name it.

Pretty standard fare. Gives you enough information to decide if you might like it but doesn’t spoil anything. Short and sweet, but also not particularly insightful.

Robin Vidimos in the Denver Post takes a different tack by weaving in an author interview and social commentary. The review starts out with high praise:

Good satire – really good satire – is sharply funny stuff that swoops uncomfortably close to home. Christopher Buckley’s latest, “Florence of Arabia,” is really good satire.

But it goes on to discuss the more serious aspects the book touches on: the video taped decapitations we have seen in recent months, the unintended consequences of American foreign policy, and the real people who get caught up in it. It is interesting to get the author’s perspective but this review makes it hard to get a grasp on the book. Is it funny or serious or both? Why is it great satire beyond the fact that it “swoops uncomfortably close to home?” Vidimos leaves too much unsaid.

Charles Trueheart in the Washington Post focuses more on the controversial nature of the book’s subject, but then gives concrete examples of Buckley’s humor. I found this interesting because Trueheart – what a great name by the way – points to passages I too found particularly funny. Here is a classic Buckley rift describing what happens in Washington during a crisis:

Senators pounded their podia, demanding answers. The president declared that he, too, wanted answers. The CIA said that although it had no official comment, it, too, perhaps even more than the president and the senators, wanted answers. The secretary of state said that there might in fact be no answers, but if there were, he certainly would be interested in hearing them. The secretary general of the United Nations said that he was reasonably certain answers existed, but first the right questions must be asked, and then they would have to be translated, and this would take time.

In the end Trueheart finds Buckley’s satire ultimately of a generous nature:

Christopher Buckley is likely to make some people very angry with this book, but there will be no denying the elegance and, by my lights, the essential gentleness of his wit. Buckley can be offensive — sometimes uproariously so — but I don’t detect malice, or at least not much. Whether everyone else will read him this way is another question.

Sherryl Connelly in the New York Daily News agrees that Buckley is a great satirist, but feels like he has been falling off lately:

Christopher Buckley’s most divine book was 1994’s “Thank You for Smoking.” Since then, his satirical novels have been sketchy – and none more so than “Florence of Arabia,” which has to skirt the barbarity of its material. The comic relief in stoning women to death can be uneasy.

For Connelly Buckley lets “farce give[s] way to hysteria” as the plot gets jumbled up and he searches for a way to unravel it. He manages to do so, but in her mind not before “crossing the line from funny to not.”

This brings us to a more serious review by Stephan Metcalf in the New York Times. What I found fascinating about Metcalf’s review is that it did a few things that are not often found in book reviews: he took the work seriously, he balanced his criticisms with deserved praise, and he made both the subject and the work more interesting. For example, here Metcalf looks at satire and finds Buckley wanting in key aspects:

The paradox of satire is that, by distorting, it brings into focus; by flattening out, it heightens. By being unfair, in other words, it somehow gets at the truth. When weak, however, it’s just flat, distorted and unfair. In ”Florence of Arabia” the French are obstructionist snobs, in love with every casuistry; Americans are bungling idealists with one eye on the main chance; Arabs are medieval, honor-obsessed hypocrites. Its gays are queenie, its flacks lubricious. For her own part, Florence is bold, beautiful and very smart; and how we feel about her will guide how we feel about the novel. Early on we learn that as a recent Yale graduate, Florence ran off and married a Middle Eastern classmate who, she only later discovered, expected to take subsequent wives. Florence’s back story is silly to the point of being completely unbelievable — one wonders if Buckley has ever encountered an actual female Yale undergraduate — but it is in keeping with the book’s relationship to feminism, which is distant, to say the least. Feminism is a stool with many legs, but surely one of them belongs to Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir and Steinem. For Buckley, feminism seems to consist of shopping, and in its grandest moments, withholding sex.

I might not agree with Metcalf about the nature of feminism, but I think he is on to something here. To call Buckley a great satirist should mean more than just writing a few funny lines. Metcalf realizes that Buckley has talent:

The silly-sinister byways of government intrigue and power Buckley seems to know well, and the voyeuristic delight they yield is the one abiding pleasure of ”Florence of Arabia.”

But he is looking for more than a few laughs and I think in digging deeper he gets to the fundamental problem with this book. What is particularly skillfully, however, is that not only critiques the work but leave the reader thinking more deeply about the subject:

If I read his jokey fidgeting right, Buckley set out to bring the light, deft silliness of his New Yorker casuals to bear upon the blood-soaked reality of modern fundamentalist Islam, and found himself in a quagmire. The imperative to load each sentence with a punch line produces the inevitable clunker (”A single Israeli fighter pilot could shoot down the entire Royal Wasabi Air Force and still have one hand free to hold his bagel”), but the problem lies deeper: the technique is finally not up to the moral crisis it invokes. The cause of Arab women is a complicated one for American partisans, after all, as it forces the left to give up (or at least to modify) its multiculturalism, and it forces the right to finally think seriously about feminism. In short, the problem with beliefs in a hopelessly pluralistic universe is that they clash. Everyone holds onto his or her own dearly, sometimes to the point of violence, while everyone else’s seem wholly incredible. (What’s the big deal — bacon during Ramadan, shellfish in a cream sauce, Old Glory — or a copy of ”The Catcher in the Rye” — tossed onto the bonfire?) Buckley closes this Pandora’s box by picking targets of common antipathy — the French, the Saudis and the Carlyle Group — and by making almost every character equally grubbing and small. But the beliefs a satire challenges ought to be one’s cherished own. It should leave us feeling gored, not sated.

So what does all of the above mean? I guess I would say that Buckley is to be commended for attempting to squeeze humor out of so dark a subject; and that he does on occasion delightfully skewer a variety of self-important people and groups. But in the end the seriousness of the subject overwhelms the attempted satire. In the end I think Connelly and Metcalf are on to something.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).