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In "Change," a story in Alice Mattison's all-too-overlooked 2005 collection In Case We're Separated, a teenage Bradley Kaplowitz visits his mother's married lover and initiates a series of events that culminates with the man leaving his wife. Perhaps. Bradley does visit Edwin Friend. Edwin Friend does leave his wife. But does one event lead to the other?
The change in Edwin's domestic circumstance is one of many changes highlighted in these connected stories, and like this one, most are blanketed in ambiguity. Changes happen, sure, but do they have a human source? Or are we mortals merely along for the ride?
Of course, even when things appear to change, they often don't change all that much at all. Though Edwin leaves his wife and continues his relationship with Bobbie Kaplowitz, the two never marry. In the collection's final story, "The Odds it Would be You," Bradley takes a cancer-stricken Bobbie on a short vacation. They're both older now, but after all these years, the lives of mother and son are still intricately intertwined. The title of the story comes from a quote proffered by a chef at the vacation spot. The chef accidentally drops an onion skin into the soup he's cooking, which subsequently gets caught in Bradley's throat.
"I saw the onion skin fall into the pot but I just couldn't find it," says the chef. "I was afraid somebody would get it. Now, what were the odds it would be you?" What were the odds, indeed? What were the odds that after all Bobbie and Bradley go through in their life, they'd be sharing a destiny in the end?
In Case We're Separated features 13 stories about Bradley and Bobbie's extended family of (mostly) secular Jews. Though I doubt we'll see Mattison's book atop any list of 2005's great Jewish-interest fiction, her characters' Jewish identities are a major theme in the work, and Mattison's writing rivals any produced by the Young Turks of Jewish American literature. Mattison is a veteran writer. In Case is her fourth story collection, and she's also published four novels and a volume of poetry. She has broad historical perspective. We meet both pious shtetl Jews and Americans putting together a vividly contemporary Pessah Seder.
Some figures in the story collection are featured more prominently than others, but there is no primary protagonist here. The book is anchored by the same thing that anchors the characters: family. Which doesn't mean that family is always a source of stability. In "Not Yet, Not Yet" Ruth (Bobbie's niece) visits her formerly suicidal sister Lillian, who no longer speaks to her parents. Ruth confronts her sister and asks her what her parents did to provoke her depression. To which Lillian responds: "They didn't do much of anything, but somehow I came out of their house thinking I was worthless."
But the book has another organizing principle. In Case We're Separated is loosely structured like a sestina (a poetic construct which features prominently in the story "Brooklyn Sestina"). The book's 13 pieces are meant to mirror the 13 stanzas of a double sestina, using repeated words or tropes in a rotating, but prescribed order. The items chosen seem somewhat random and mundane: a glass of water, a sharp point, a cord, a mouth, an exchange, a map that may be wrong. Add to this the fact that Mattison doesn't reveal this format until an author's note at the end of the book, and you wonder why Mattison developed this structure at all.
But in a certain way, the sestina structure, whether we're aware of it or not, is the perfect metaphor for this wonderful collection and the family it explores. Sestinas can be sprawling, even chaotic works, but they're anchored by words that reappear - somewhere, in some form or another - with reassuring familiarity. The words come and go in different orders and things change. But not really.
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