Elizabeth Bryer reviews “Transactions” by Ali Alizadeh
By Ali Alizadeh
University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by ELIZABETH BRYER
Ali Alizadeh’s Transactions is a panoramic cycle of vignettes that depict characters in a globalised world on the margins of Western and, most particularly, capitalist society. A vast array of characters jostle within its pages: assassins, prostitutes, poets, protesters and Oz-Exploitation directors, to name a few. Indeed, much of the delight to be had on reading the collection is in unravelling exactly how these people, all from diverse corners of the globe, are connected within the world of the book. Transactions is also a scathing critique of a system that exploits the most vulnerable, carefully laying out for scrutiny, as it does, moments, decisions and interactions that demonstrate the insidiousness of rampant capitalism and the questionable morals that it champions.
Because of the nature of the vignettes, the particular stories they tell are not so much stories as disparate moments, separated from each other in space but not so much in time, and revolving around a single interaction or conundrum. They are necessarily focussed and partial. While occasionally this can mean that some plot developments feel hastily resolved, or that characters can come across as types, this same feature also creates an intricate, interweaving architecture, much as if one were to find oneself in a building with many rooms, and through exploring these might happen upon hidden passages leading to spaces of a particular character—chambers, inglenooks, boudoirs—and staircases and doorways opening onto others. Indeed, the most successful moments are when the plot stretches across and through vignettes, sometimes skipping some only to reappear in others, and it is in this steady accumulation of connections and layering of experiences that the tone of the work, as well as its entwined themes, is best appreciated.
The title of the collection operates on a number of levels, encompassing more than just the usual context of business and exchange: in the world of this book, most things, even relationships and interactions, even the concepts of familial duty and mutual obligation, boil down to an economic imperative, and each of the transactions depicted is an occasion on which, in one way or another, one person is likely to give and the other, to gain. That the transaction is between unequals, all of whom must engage in the exchange while equipped with different levels of freedom of choice and with more or less to lose, is almost always the case. What is not often apparent—what is cause for much of the tension—is who will, ultimately, benefit. One avenging angel sees it as her duty to give those who have consistently profited through swindling another, whether through cruelty and maltreatment, a lack of recognition of the other’s humanity or uncompassionate policies, their comeuppance, to put it mildly.
Nothing, it seems, is free of the market, or of the pressures and fissures that this market places on and between people. And on one point the narrator is very clear: the corruption that the global system breeds does not just lead to wealth disparity, but to individuals both becoming expendable commodities, as when mining protesters are massacred and poor Liberian women are trafficked to Europe, and treating others as if they were, as when a would-be-author asks his co-author to sleep with a publisher to ensure their book’s publication. Those doing the exploiting, then, dehumanise the exploited, but in doing so they necessarily dehumanise themselves. But the narrator is careful to point to the potential dangers of all hierarchical systems, not just the capitalist one: one of the vignettes, whose protagonists recurs throughout the collection, shadows its protagonist as she comes to terms with the truth of her scientist father’s actions, or lack thereof, at the Chernobyl disaster. ‘He wanted to please the party. He knew there was something wrong with the control rods, Mama. But he didn’t say anything’ (p. 92).
Perhaps inevitably, given the subject matter, a strong sense of moralising at times comes to the fore. The poor are trapped in the position of bearing the system, and others, having risen through its ranks by way of economic or social capital, become a kind of embodiment of evil: there is Samia, the disease of affluence incarnate, in whose figure boredom and entitlement foster cruelty and sadism; there are Danish missionaries in Libya who use their women’s shelter as a means of trafficking women for the European sex trade; and there is a British magnate who has built her empire ‘upon the misery of others’ and yet sees herself ‘as truly innocent’ (18). Hypocrisy and corruption are rampant among the upper echelons, and are portrayed as unforgivable.
It is no mean feat to present such a geographically and culturally broad vision of humanity without falling into stereotypes, but Transactions navigates this carefully. Sometimes the fictional world created stretches credulity, such as when a character who has been poisoned continues to punch out words into her computer, the sentences becoming more fragmented, the words, more spaced. At other times, there are moments of confusion in the narrative logic that can prove distracting, such as when a mentally ill man stabs himself to death then self-immolates. But there is great delight in language, which is wielded with verve, and a playfulness and dexterity with form: some vignettes are epistolary, others are dialogue, others are poems and yet others are confessional. There are almost as many voices and registers as there are vignettes, here, without the forms ever proving distracting or perfunctory.
After the prologue, each of the vignettes carries the title of a tarot card from the Marseille deck, with one, ‘The Fool’, repeated—this is the title of both the first and last stories. Interestingly, the character to whom the title refers in the first story reappears in the last, though not, in the latter case, as the titular character, but as the one who proves the protagonist to be deserving of the designation. The circularity that this creates is effective, as is the astute choice to title the stories like so. Through the titles, the narrator suggests not just that world is thus ordered, but also frames the stories as, like tarot cards, tools with which we can attempt to comprehend the confounding nature of the system we humans have created for ourselves. Transactions offers us an assortment of stories that don’t just order the world, but help us understand it.