Days after the release of novice novelist/producer/scriptwriter Essam Youssef’s debut novel “1/4 Gram, the book instantly became the unexpected success story of the year. A few months following the release of the 635-page book; “1/4 Gram managed to topple the bestseller lists of nearly every major bookstore in the country.
I waited for the past couple of months for the buzz to wane. Surprisingly, it didn’t. Instead it intensified, with Youssef landing a guest spot in nearly every local talk show, including “90 Minutes and “El-Beit Beitak.
Coupled with a warm critical reaction, “1/4 Gram would seem to the unguarded reader as a safe bet for an excellent read. However, and regardless of the grand critical and commercial reception thatI still find entirely baffling, the current bestselling Egyptian novel of the year is, at best an average novel; and a lousy manual on drug rehab.
Spanning nearly two decades, “1/4 Gram traces the life-long addiction of a group of up-town friends from early childhood to adult life.
The chief protagonist of the story is Salah (Saso), a rich spoilt brat born to a prominent architect father and an equally successful mother who is a university professor. At six, Salah shows the traits of smart, savvy swindlers, bribing his nanny to lie about him not getting on the school bus and replacing his father’s liquor with water.
His good-natured family is permissive, granting him virtually everything he wishes for. Salah is enthralled by the success of his ploys, a sordid source of amusement that will lead directly to his addiction.
Youssef traces the six’s escapades and the benign pranks they spend the larger part of their school days planning while cavorting with pretty girls and experimenting with every drug out there.
Throughout the following chapters, Salah continues to resist admitting the reality of his addiction, firmly believing he could stop consuming drugs if he wanted to. At times, he succeeds, but always comes back crawling to the old habit with a bigger appetite.
“1/4 Gram is entirely based on the true story of one of Youssef’s friends. It currently stands as the very first Egyptian novel that fully explores drug addiction in Egypt. Prior to Youssef’s debut novel, only Naguib Mahfouz’s “Adrift on the Nile (1966) approached the issue, albeit from a historical social context.
It’s not, however, the first international literary work to tackle the subject from such a thorough perspective. James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,
David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Meth and William S. Burroughs’ “Junky are some of the novels that immediately spring to mind.
The most remarkable aspect of the vast, sprawling and compelling segments of the novel are not only its insights but the details of the period Youssef captures.
Anyone who grew up in the 80s and early 90s will identify with the multifaceted ethical aura of the times, but also with the neighborhoods, music, car brands and several other memorable landmarks Youssef, seamlessly and vividly submits on paper.
The sassy antics of the bunch provide a supply of hysterical, endearing sequences, including one remarkable getaway attempt in school and a hilarious football match the group plays while they’re high.
Gradually, Salah, once an exceptionally smart and naturally talented young man, is transformed into a monster, stealing his family’s belongings, selling every item he owns, cheating his employers and betraying their trust, and, at one point, becoming a drug pusher.
What renders “1/4 Gram different from the dozens of dim-witted Egyptian films of the 80s and shallow, fear-provoking news reports and PSAs is the untainted, authentic picture Youssef draws of addiction and its repercussions; from the extensive depictions of drug types and the effect they induce, to the gripping string of events that chronicle Salah’s tragedy.
One particular part that sees Salah’s mother confronting her son after busting him while injecting his veins with heroin is utterly heartbreaking.
Another one portraying a shrinking, physically drained Salah lying powerlessly in a dark corner of an empty flat after losing everything he once enjoyed is very chilling.
Yet, these expansive bouts of raw honesty are drowned in an endless sea of irrelevant detail and a weak dramatic structure.
“1/4 Gram is a poorly edited book. Youssef, for example, persists in providing redundant descriptions of characters he already established early on. He follows Salah as he trots from one location to another, sometimes from one country to another, emphasizing nothing substantially different from previous parts.
He infuses his story with so much sappiness just to push the readers to sympathize with his characters. Youssef hardly judges his characters, but he’s rarely objective either, and he incessantly tries to manipulate the emotions of his readers, consequently resulting in parts with the same cheap sentiment of Egyptian soap operas.
The last 200 pages are perhaps the most agonizing. After Salah finally enters rehab, Youssef essentially offers an incredibly dreary manual of the 12-step program. Once again, redundancy rules and any interest stimulated in earlier parts is lost.
In order to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and to maintain this kind of subjective “realism, Youssef chose to write his novel in colloquial Egyptian interjected by prose of very loose classical Arabic. He didn’t include any curse words and shied away from overtly tackling sex as well.
Consequently, Youssef forfeited the integrity of his story.
The novel lacks the kind of graphic scenes required in a work of this nature.
At the end; “1/4 Gram feels incomplete, ignoring parts that could have had greater emotional impact. Instead, the novel is filled with infinite prose of pretty much nothing.
Youssef has stressed in his numerous interviews that the book is not supposed to entertain, but raise alarm and change perceptions regarding addiction and addicts who are often treated as criminals.
I honestly don’t buy this; not only because modern literature has almost never changed the world, but also because such an objective could have been substantial had the revenues of the book been allocated to establishing a rehabilitation center, for example, or starting credible campaigns that reach millions who can’t afford paying LE 50 for the book.
The purpose of literature has always been to entertain and, in case of great literature, provide an insight into the human soul. “1/4 Gram is, at best, a jumbled entertaining airplane, no different from cheap American bestsellers.