The emotional disenfranchisement that takes center stage in Aatif Rashid’s Portrait of Sebastian Khan resembles early Bret Easton Ellis. The protagonist’s escapades and inability to think outside of his own head also hearken to some of Ellis’ more intriguing early characters. Yet it moves beyond the emptiness of those milieus, and, for better or worse, imagines a world where coming of age leads to hope instead of nihilism. However, it is that same hopefulness that feels at odds with what exactly the protagonist has perpetrated by novel’s end that leaves me feeling unsettled.
Sex-Drive Satire Billed as Bildungsroman
Sebastian, the novel’s epicenter, is cast as a Muslim American Don Draper and, through the multiple trips his Model UN team makes to rival universities around the country and into Canada, proves himself every bit the man’s amorous match. The framing device for each new temptation is consolidated in Sebastian’s study of art history and his penchant for the Pre-Raphaelites.
Each section takes a famous piece of art as its title and Sebastian visits multiple museums through the book’s chapters, using his love of these artists as a lens through which to view the world and, more precisely, the women he encounters. He lives with aesthetics as his highest calling and his aesthetics are most fulfilled through sexual encounters. His one long-term relationship in the novel is characterized by its lack of sex and defined by his pursuit of it elsewhere. To love and appreciate beauty is, for Sebastian, a calling that must end in carnality and he engages in such at an alarming clip for someone in a relationship his girlfriend would definitely label monogamous. All the while his best friend encourages it, his roommate has no heart for anything beyond a judgmental silence, and everyone else is absorbed in their own doings so that Sebastian’s worst qualities go unchecked for the better part of 250 pages.
It is easy to read his exploits as satire of an uninhibited college life. It would also be easy to read them as a critique of toxic male objectification of the female body, amplified through Sebastian’s art history viewing of the girls he meets. And it is those things, at least somewhat. Yet it is also a coming of age tale where the main character is suave, flawed, and utterly unlikable throughout his character arc. That said, the writing is compulsively readable and well-paced though perhaps predictable in the way Sebastian’s relationships eventually fall apart through his duplicity.
Thus I spent the majority of the novel internally debating whether there’s an illuminating message cutting through the abject morality of the main character. Every woman he’s damaged is off-screen by the end, and there are only hints at how one character might not be alright anymore. But that is hardly Sebastian’s concern as he skates into the summer, takes a job as a waiter, and saves up to travel. He’s become an adult, referenced not only in how he has become independent from his father by saving his own money to travel, but also by how he chooses not to pursue the cute brunette at the end-of-year party hosted at his apartment. Sebastian, in leaving behind a pure aesthetics, seems to have advanced, though I leave the book not entirely convinced and all the more confused about what, if any, stance the book desires I take regarding its protagonist. I don’t need authorial moralistic opining and perhaps the lack of damage Sebastian carries into the sunset-end is the big moral finger point at a society that tolerates and even encourages men to be like Sebastian, but I’m unsure and wish I weren’t.
Rashid is a talented writer, there’s no doubt. Yet for all that Sebastian’s story might fascinate, it is a cold tale, one whose rosy ending should not make us forget the road that led there. Perhaps it is Rashid’s best piece of satire to remind us how easy it is to forget the things attractive men might do to discover themselves, how enchanting they remain if they but refine themselves a little in their individualistic pursuits. Then again, it’s an awfully gift-wrapped ending to remain cutting satire. For once, I find myself wishing a 21st century writer had stayed in Ellis’ footsteps a little more.
Portrait of Sebastian Khan will be published by 7.13 Books in March 2019.