Reorienting Between Worlds:
The Scrolls of Nef, by Gary Glickman, Hand to Hand Publishing
One of the powerful, pleasurable effects that The Scrolls of Nef had on me was to feel between worlds, not only while I was reading, but afterwards as well, expecting people to talk as they do in Nef, perhaps, or walking through the scenes of my daily life with a sharper lookout for beauty and magic. Really, Between Worlds could have been the working title for this epic that is also an intimate comedy of manners, a familiar landscape that is also fantastic, and one more seemingly orientalist fantasy of light-skinned Northerners sex-dreaming of the dark, effeminate south, that is also a critique of orientalism.
It's a split narrative: the story of two brothers, princes exiled and separated, and their separate paths to their soul-knowledge. They seem to be the white guys, from a castle sounding like somewhere in Medieval Europe. One of them stays on the Northern continent—the warrior with a lot to learn. The younger brother flees south with the girls—mother and sister—to the mother's people, whose decadent city and decadent ways (they smoke water pipes in Nef, and have eunuchs, harems, and gondolas) seem at times close to a 19th century European dream of Ottoman cities: one of Rossini's (delightful but) absurd stage sets, or French erotic paintings of harems, slave markets, and other sublimated S/M tableaux. Indeed, several images seem to come out of the same 19th century Euro-dream: a naked snake-charmer boy before the king; naked girls sold off publically for brides; languorous concubines flapping their veils, impatient for action.
And yet, the novel jumps into the post-card imagery to create an unsentimental, (to this reader) credible version of human interactions that might have transpired in such a dream place. The reader keeps getting sucked into the credible dilemmas of scene after scene, impatient to find out how one decision in life affects the next and the next, until the hero's journey becomes apparent. By then, the Orientalism has been turned on its head, revealed to be just one more "reality" that is shown to be sham: in this world, the heroes are the dark-skinned refugees, whereas the decadent locals are pale-skinned and blonde. It's no mere white-face switch, but the other side of the familiar Orientalism archetype that has the white man in the observer-consumer role, and the nubile dark-haired beauty as objectified slave.
What a liberation it is at last, to feel liberated, in this story, of the rigid binaries of male subject/ female object, and light-skin superiority/ dark-skin doubtfulness. Because The Scrolls of Nef continually undermines those common, tired binaries with its plot, its characters, and its voice, the reader's imagination stays awake to the present moment—the aim and effect of successful art. It is a good place for a novel to be centered, always in the unfolding present moment, which is, by definition, between worlds; that which has already passed away, and that which is about to be created.