Copyright © 2011 - 2017, Walker Thisted
no. 365, also known as Conscious and Eternal, is a novel currently in progress about the future of Syria, the Middle East, and their relationship with the United States centered around a terrorist attack and the family it affects.
Conscious and Eternal unfolds over 2 days and is divided into 3 parts. Part I begins with a chance encounter between two women waiting for their dining companions at a restaurant lounge in New York. One of the women, Ashley, recognizes the other, Raashida, as a well-known cultural and political figure from Syria who is in the United States on a retirement tour. Raashida is known for two things: having survived a terrorist attack that killed her parents, the former President and First Lady of Syria, and for the cultural institution that she built in the aftermath. Ashley approaches Raashida at the bar to express her admiration for Raashida’s work. They then have a conversation about the terrorist attack that occurred and the events that followed. Their respective companions join them and they continue the conversation over dinner. The conversation ends with the revelation of who carried out the attack. Raashida promises to finish the story the following evening during and after the talk that she is planning to give as part of her farewell tour. The following morning, Ashley spends time researching Raashida’s parents and considering how she might record the story that Raashida told her. The day leading up to Raashida’s talk in the evening – Part II – is used to tell the back-story of her family prior to the attack. During the evening talk – Part III – Raashida tells the story of the reaction to the revelation of who carried out the attack.
The narrative that Raashida shares with Ashley begins following three siblings – Raashida, Talal, and Lilah – as they cope with the aftermath of a terrorist attack that killed their parents in Damascus, Syria in 2077. Particular attention is paid to the house in which they live and what coping with this loss looks like from a domestic perspective. The house will play a significant role through the remaining of the narrative. The subsequent chapters of Part I explore their respective lives as a curator at the National Museum of Damascus, a chef, and an artist. During these chapters, the focus of the narrative shifts to Raashida, her curatorial work prior to the attack focused on documenting experiences of wonder, and the next steps that she will take to advance this work – in large part as a way to distract herself from and fill the void of the death of her parents. Raashida’s work takes her from Damascus to New York to collaborate with the Museum of Modern Art on building what will come to be called The Collection of Wonder (The Collection). While at a fundraiser for The Collection, Raashida meets John who tells Raashida that he was friends with her parents and that he has information about their death. He gives her a key to a PO Box in Port Fourchon, LA that contains this information – explaining that it was not safe for him to keep the information on his person and that the significance of Port Fourchon will become clear later. Unsure of whether to trust John, Raashida decides to continue with her plans to journey through the US to build The Collection and stop at Port Fourchon on the way. The following chapters trace this journey from New York to Port Fourchon and explore the state of the US in 2077. Part I ends with their arrival in Port Fourchon and the discovery of the information that John has left for Raashida. The information contains a set of documents that prove that the US government was involved in the terrorist attack and that her parents were the targets. It also reveals that John helped them escape and that they may still be alive.
Part II tells the story of Raashida, Talal, and Lilah’s parents – Basil and Nasrin. The first chapters focus on Basil and Nasrin’s parents – Basil’s fleeing the Syrian Civil War and attending business school in Chicago and Nasrin’s leaving Iran for Paris as the country become increasingly conservative. The subsequent chapters explore how Basil’s parents – Kiaan and Mariyan – decide to leave Chicago after Basil is born following the election of Donald Trump and an increasingly xenophobic atmosphere. They move to Paris where Kiaan joins the office of a wealth management company and Mariyan becomes a real estate broker. Mariyan shows Nasrin’s parents – Sara and Abbas – the home that they will eventually buy and renovate. Basil and Nasrin meet at the housewarming of the completed house and go out to dinner a few times. They are separated when they each go off to school, but then reconnect over the course of a summer vacation – ultimately dating. Following completing college at Oxford and Cambridge, they move to London where they work in community organizing and finance respectively. During this time, Basil becomes interested in Islam after having been largely secular up until that point. He returns to his father’s birthplace in Syria and meets a few radical Islamists. This leads to a rupture with Nasrin. Ultimately, they reconcile and marry. After spending time in London, Basil accepts a diplomatic position with the French Foreign Service in Damascus. After engaging in community development and helping companies finance new initiatives and infrastructure, Basil runs for Mayor of Damascus and wins. He spends time cultivating a network of mayors of cities throughout the region. This leads to a broader framework of cooperation. When Bashar Assad dies, his son decides not to fill the position and instead calls for open elections. Basil has built a unique coalition both in and beyond Syria that allows him to run for and win the presidency. During this period, an ongoing state of global war has existed. Following his election, he builds a new coalition that becomes known as the Middle East States. This coalition cuts across a number of historic divisions and creates new unity that shifts the balance of global power – with significant consequences for the United States. Under Basil’s leadership, a peace is reached that comes to be known as the Treaty of Damascus. Basil ends his third term as President and leaves the office as a national and regional hero. After leaving office, he sets out to build The Museum of Peace on the campus of the National Museum as a forum for regional peace and stability. It is at the opening of this building that the attack occurs. Several American and foreign diplomats and guests are killed. The attack serves as motivation for US troops to enter the region to find the attackers. Part II ends with this invasion and fear that the peace will not lasts and that the Middle East States will collapse and that the US influence in the region will return to the earlier state.
Part III returns to the motel in Port Fourchon where Raashida has received information alleging that the US was involved in the attack that killed her parents. She immediately is concerned that her life may be at risk and decides that she must flee. She calls upon her connections to the donors of The Collection to help her get out of the country – first via a boat that will take her to Havana and then via private plane to Paris. Once in Paris, she meets her siblings at the home of her now deceased grandparents Kiaan and Mariyan. They discuss how they are going to reveal the information and eventually settle on holding a press conference under the glass pyramid of the Louvre. This sets off an international crisis that leads to extreme pressure being placed on the US by the Middle East States that in turn leads to a split within the US between those states that support the embattled President and those supporting a full investigation. This leads to a civil war within the country. During this time, Basil and Nasrin are in hiding at a chateau on the shores of Lake Geneva. It takes them a few weeks for one of the staff to inform them of the press conference. They send a signal to Raashida, Talal, and Lilah by giving her a picture of an artifact that they have taken with them from Damascus to send to an auction house – certain that Raashida will be alerted and that she will then follow it to their location. The signal results in Raashida learning of their location in Geneva. Raashida alerts John who rushes to Geneva to help ensure Basil and Nasrin’s safety. Although John knew of their general location when he helped arrange their escape, he believed that he needed the children’s involvement and a broader media event to draw attention to the situation and ensure that none of the parties were intercepted before the information could be made public. When Raashida, Talal, and Lilah arrive, they lead the media, John, and intelligence organizations to the chateau in which Basil and Nasrine are hiding. After being reunited, Basil and Nasrin hold a press conference that confirms Raashida’s allegations. Following the press conference, Basil, Nasrin, Raashida, Talal, and Lilah are given safe passage back to Damascus. The night they arrive, a large party welcomes Basil and Nasrin home. After the party, Basil dies of a heart attack in bed. The funeral occurs two weeks later. Following the funeral, Raashida, Nasrin, Talal, and Lilah turn to completing The Collection of Wonder (The Collection). The narrative ends with The Collection opening and Raashida, Nasrin, Talal, and Lilah having a family dinner at their home in Damascus.
Key Themes Explored Throughout
The purpose of the book is to imagine, visualize, and narrate what peace in the Middle East would look like. How will peace come about and how will it be connected to the present situation? In particular, the book is concerned with the future of Syria and the future of the relationship between the US and the Middle East. By extension, it is concerned with the idea of terror as a reality and as a plot device that gets the reader into the story, but that is ultimately negated.
Part II is largely concerned with the threads that we might follow to get to this state of peace from the beginning of the 21st Century. Part III is a critique of how we might imagine such a peace as well as an overcoming of this objection and an exploration of what it then means to live in this overcome state – which might also be characterized as a state of wonder. In this sense, the broader subject of the book could be viewed as the relationship between wonder and peace and how we move beyond a reliance on the concept of peace to support global stability. In order to create a frame for this investigation of peace, the book explores the origin of American wealth via the protagonist’s journey between New York and New Orleans.
Finally, the book is about Raashida reckoning with truth, reality, and conspiracy after a tragedy. It does so through her desire to leave Damascus, her quest to collect images of wonder as the foundation of a global archive of how people perceive wonder known as The Collection and the role that doing so plays in helping her move beyond the image of the attack. In exploring this theme, the book offers the reader a set of characters deeply damaged by the attack who are transformed by their journey and are capable of building a new institution to replace the one lost in the attack that is better suited to true nature of the world revealed through the narrative than the institution that it replaced. A key component of this change is how generational transitions affect how the world is viewed and how it functions.
What other works does it resemble?
Conscious Of The Eternal is a blend of a family chronicle and political drama about how geopolitical relationships are affected by a terrorist attack. At the same time, it includes more philosophical passages that reflect on the meaning of wonder, the future of peace, and the nature of truth. The setting of the book in 2077 also allows the work to explore alternative futures, fantasy, and a certain level of surreality. In terms of specific works that it might resemble, it shares the desire to explore an alternative reality with 1Q84 and other of Murakami’s work. In terms of the family chronicle and the journey that it traces, it takes some inspiration from works such as Absalom, Absalom! or Ada or Ardor. At the same time, there is a desire to tell the story in such a way that the alternative future that the work explores is relatable to the present. In this sense, it might resemble a work such as Ben Lerner’s 10:04. In terms of exploring a larger geopolitical situation, it might aspire to resemble a work such as 2666.
Who is the audience?
The audience is intended to be relatively broad – albeit focused largely on US residents willing to indulge in my exploration of how the next hundred years might unfold. The work should be interesting to those who are concerned about the relationship between the United States and the Middle East as well as those compelled by stories of how monumental political events and grander narratives affect the lives of individuals. At the same time, those interested in how changing political situations and relationships between countries and regions affect culture and the cultural life of a family could be interested. Finally, I think that the work could be interesting to those who enjoy following a drama unfold and the solution to a mystery revealed. Some of the questions that pull the reader through the work include:
• What is “The Collection”? And how and why does it have power? How does The Collection keep the world of the novel alive?
• Who carried out the terrorist attack that killed Basil and Nasrin? Who are Basil and Nasrin and why are they so important?
• What is peace? And why is moving beyond a conception of peace so important?
• How and why does wonder have power over us and how is it represented in Conscious Of The Eternal?