Contemporary Literature

You Exist Too Much

I saw this recent release in a couple book stacks on #bookstagram over the past month or two, but haven’t seen many, if any, full reviews of it. I have to be honest, the title is what really pulled me in an made me want to see what it was about. Those four words, You Exist Too Much, hold a lot of feeling in them. It’s a compelling title, full of force and suggestive that the book will be a difficult, but powerful sort of read. I’ve rarely seen (read?) a title that had that much movement and…command, maybe?…so I quickly added this to my TBR and jumped on the library waitlist for it.

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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“It is a bizarre and unsettling feeling, to exist in a liminal state between two realms, unable to attain full access to one or the other.”

Our narrator is a Palestinian-American, young (in her 20s and 30s) and bisexual. Her upbringing and identity have left her struggling to find a place where she belongs, physically and emotionally and in regards to love. The judgements of her mother, the turmoil of her homeland, her fraught interpersonal relationships have resulted in mental and emotional strain and various chronic issues, like eating disorders and love addictions. Moving in time, place (the US to the Middle East) and mental state (both in and out of rehab), our MC takes us on a journey with her as she explores and attempts to address her internal traumas and destructive impulses.

This novel is sinking further and further into my marrow the longer I think about it and with the more distance I get from the story itself. As I sit here thinking about what I want to say about it, my reactions to the story, the themes and topics it wove together, I am falling ever more into its depths and I am just so impressed by this debut. The writing and themes had philosophical (yet blunt) and irreverent (yet open/non-judgmental) vibes that reminded me of The Pisces and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (both of which were polarizing, though I enjoyed them). But there was something just a little more profound and interconnected about this narrative that really made it a stronger novel for me, and whereas I liked those two that I mentioned, I loved this one. There’s a pointed, purposeful intensity to the vulnerability in Arafat’s writing that I just couldn’t look away from. And the author’s stylistic power with words is so exact and, you’ll see with how many quotes I included at the end of this review, I loved her perfect and precise turns of phrase that so succinctly communicated complex emotions and feelings. As is, or at least should be, clear from the way the title alone grabbed me, that concise lingual exactness is a skill that Arafat wields with considerable prowess. There were short sections/chapters with even shorter interludes that skipped the story through time and place without an exact pattern, but that staccato style really worked for me, under the circumstances, because the connections between the moments had a sort of flow that made it really feel like we were in the MC’s mind with her, as she makes her own associations and discoveries and remembrances.

In addition to the intelligent and stunning writing, there was an intense, and ambitious, combination of themes addressed in this book. I think it easily could have gotten too forced or heavy handed, but, at least for me, I feel like it worked to perfection. I have seen the two central themes, need for love and conflicts of country, explored many times separately and even in parallel, but Arafat took it a step further and the confluence of the two for our MC, both related to a search for validation, is a presentation like nothing I’ve read before. The convergence of the two, and the way they played with/against each other to create something even larger (more ominous and difficult to pin down) was original and so well executed. Relatedly, Arafat explores the idea of being “stuck between” in a variety of ways, from national belonging (or the lack thereof, for those raised between countries/worlds/languages) to familial expectation versus self-fulfillment to the erasure of bisexuality as a lie or trial (not being “correctly” truly gay or truly straight). This is all, in the case of our MC, exacerbated by a turbulent relationship with her own mother whose own foiled life expectations and cultural norms cause quite a few unhealthy patterns and boundaries to form in the interactions between the two. And this all foments into a cycle of relationships and sexual interactions that become (mostly unsuccessful) escapism, self-desecration/sacrilege, and attempts to find validation and belonging, on the part of our MC. All these individual issues are brought together in such a natural way, exactly the way I would expect of a “real-life” person dealing with it all, and never feels contrived or overdone, despite how easily that could have happened.

*Small Side Note: There is some concern, that I’ve seen, over the negative stereotyping of sexually promiscuous bisexuality in this novel. I cannot speak for anyone other than myself but, as I identify as bisexual, I wanted to throw in my thoughts here. Honestly, I thought it was very clearly shown how the issues related to the MC’s sexual interactions/obsessions related directly back to her relationship with her mother and search for real intimacy, not just because “bi people sleep with anyone/everyone.” So, I felt comfortable with the portrayal. Also, other recent reads for me, like The Pisces and How We Fight for Our Lives portray similar types of…promiscuous? unhealthy?…sexual interactions and obsessions for straight and gay, respectively, MCs or authors (in the case of the memoir). I recognize that that is not quite the same, as there is a history of misrepresentation of bisexuality in this way, but I didn’t see as many reviews criticizing those books on this front. I’m not sure what my point is, other than to introduce the perspective. Feel free to take it or leave it, but that’s my perspective.*

There is quite a bit to warn readers about, the topics and mental health concerns in these pages are not easy to read, but there is a tenderness and desire and a small spot of dark humor, that makes it necessary, worth it and bearable. Arafat looks a plethora of suppressions – external/internal, nationality, sexuality, an adult/individual person versus a daughter, and more – right in the face, and creates a deeply human and enthralling novel. It’s subtle, slow-build sort of reaction, but by the end, I was completely taken in by this book.


The many sections I highlighted while reading:

“In acquiring my gender, I had become offensive.”

“Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space.”

“Without the security of a relationship, longing felt less safe. It felt lonely.”

“I needed her to care. Worse than anger was indifference: her approval was my compass, even when that meant resisting it.”

“We watched at a cool remote while enjoying the comforts of our American suburb, seemingly untouched, oblivious to the underlying trauma.” (This line resonated with me as something so insightful and more widespread that just this specific instance.)

“Nationality is partly a matter of convenience.”

“I was loved from a distance, the safest way to be loved.”

“If my mother was Hamas – unpredictable, impulsive, and frustrated at being stifled – my father was Israel. He’d refuse to meet her most basic needs until she exploded. Then he would point at her and cry, ‘Look what a monster she is, what a terror!’ But never once did he consider why she had resorted to such extreme tactics, or his role in the matter.” (This entire comparison has so many levels, and in such a succinct way. I read it like four times. Wow.)

“But did it count as deception if it was done in the name of self-protection? Withholding vulnerable information was a habit born of survival.”

“Worse than receiving rage was the ability to detect its remnants.”

“I’d been clinging to her I-love-yous like a refugee clings to a threatened nationality. They were the homeland that validated my existence.”

“Being limited was surprisingly nice. I took comfort in unambiguous priorities, in having no choice in the matter; certainty by default.”

“When you don’t want to lose someone, it’s so tempting to deceive them.”

“I’ve crystallized an illusion of […] that’s composed of an initial fantasy and the filter of distance.”

“Appetite is embarrassing enough; visibly trying to satiate it, utterly mortifying.”

“I sent her another essay a month later, about unattainable love as a quest for the familiar, a quest for home, for a homeland that may not exist. A quest for a mother.”

“how many stories have been penned for unrequited love? How many must I write to earn my existence?”

4 thoughts on “You Exist Too Much

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