Early in the book, Jacob says, “I am your angel of history,” to a bartender who’s name he mistakenly reads as Walter Benjamin. Ironically, since Jacob is raised both Muslim and Catholic, Walter Benjamin is a Jewish Marxist philosopher who said: “this is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling up wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” In his battle against depression, Jacob confronts not only his personal past, but that of his namesake from the Koran, Torah and Old Testament. His recovery is dependent on unshackling himself from Satan and Death, with the help of a cohort of saints.
Rabih Alameddine brings to life an age old tale in an edgy contemporary setting. Jacob is informed by Jacob in the Bible, as well as black gay poet, Wayne Corbitt, who died of AIDS in 1997. Where Corbitt grew up in Indianapolis, Jacob grew up in Cairo whorehouse with his mother and “aunties” as well as in a Lebanese school run by French nuns, under his father’s orders. But both find their home in San Francisco. Corbitt dies, like all of Jacob’s friends. Jacob regrets is that he doesn’t. Having always been the sickly one, he endures caring for dying friends and lovers and Satan’s voice lodged in his ear. “Satan was my Iblis, a lonely one with mischievous, insanely blue eyes.” Satan and the saints want to enlist Jacob to help them fight a mythic battle but Jacob has his own war to fight with inanition. In the last chapter (not the end of the story), he returns from psychiatric treatment writing poems on street signs and door frames, writing his way into existence, victoriously betraying Satan as Ya’cub, not Jacob.
The story flits from past to present, chapter by chapter. Clues to our place in the chronology lie in the chapter titles. Satan’s Interviews are conducted in the present, in Jacob’s apartment. He enlists one or two co-conspirators at a time to talk about Jacob, always in the presence of Jacob’s beloved cat, Behemoth. Then there are Jacob’s Journals, written in the present and addressed to his deceased lover, Doc. They contain anecdotes about his childhood as well as more recent past. At the Clinic, Jacob takes a three day hiatus at a community treatment center shortly after Doc’s death. He’s not presently in that state again, twenty years later, but is almost worse – taciturn, low libido and ready, finally, to settle (or give up) instead of moving to the next town or the next boyfriend, as has been his pattern since his teens. Jacob also has Stories, not about himself, but fiction, drawing from his experiences. As a writer (poet and short story), these are as much a part of his narrative as reality. Writing, for Walter Benjamin, as well as for Jacob, becomes a way to make sense of the past as well as proceed into a better future. The book ends not in the present, but at a pivotal point at which Jacob decides for life instead of death, even if it means continued struggle.