A Hodgepodge of Fiction

Warning of caveat hoopla, the reviewer finds works that are off-putting, exasperating, and deserving of respect Among his compatriots Meir Shalev has firmly established himself in the front rank of Israeli novelists. He has not, however, earned quite such a position in English translation. In his three previous novels ("The Blue Mountain," "Esau" and "The Loves of Judith"), I've found much that was admirable but also much that put me off. So it is yet again with "A Pigeon and a Boy." This fourth novel (rendered by Shalev's third translator) has a lot to recommend it: love in both its happy and unhappy forms; battle scenes evoked with exciting clarity and precision; Israeli history, and landscape and cityscape painted with rich and often lyrical detail. Yet the novel also has some embarrassingly grotty sex scenes, jarring transitions from realism to fantasy (including some talking pigeons) and characters who seem to exist chiefly to animate myths of Shalev's personal manufacture. The novel tracks two apparently separate narratives linked mainly by the theme of finding a home. One story, set in the present, deals with an unhappily married tour guide named Yair. He seeks to make a new life for himself by renovating an old house in a remote village and living there with an old flame. The other tale takes place on the eve of Israel's independence and focuses on a youngster, known only as the Baby. This young man trains carrier pigeons on a kibbutz as a communications medium for the, no pun intended, fledgling Israel Defense Forces. The Baby is also engaged in constant communications via pigeongram with his heartthrob counterpart in Tel Aviv, a girl known only as the Girl. In a book where every other character is properly named, Shalev's concealment of the identities of the Baby and the Girl is a particularly clumsy device that gives the game away long before these two characters are abruptly unmasked at book's end. This misstep is emblematic of the major problem with the book, and indeed with all of Shalev's fiction, that milk-and-meat melding of realism and fantasy. Magic realism has been all the rage at least since Garcia Marquez, but for me none of it comes off as either magic or realism. "A Pigeon and a Boy," moreover, put me in mind of the young lad sadly returning a book to the library with the explanation: "This book tells me more about pirates than I ever wanted to know." "A Pigeon and a Boy" certainly told me more about those winged rats than I ever wanted to know. This essentially humorless novel does however have one delightful joke. It occurs when some soldiers issue the Girl "a long shinel woolen army coat" and a pistol: "'I really don't know how to use this,' she said. "'It's really easy,' the large one told her. 'You put your arms in the sleeves and button the buttons all the way up to the top.'" Ehud Havazelet's "Bearing the Body" is among the most exasperating novels I've read in years. Havazelet, born in Jerusalem 52 years ago but taken as a toddler to the U.S. where he continues to live, is the author of two justly praised short story collections ("Like Never Before" and "What Is It Then Between Us") and this first novel exhibits the same carefully weighed and lovingly crafted prose so notable in the short fiction. But right there, that's the end of the good news. At the same time I was reading "Bearing the Body" I was also reading - don't ask why - "Anna Karenina," and I swear to you, compared to Havazelet's utter slog, Tolstoy's 807 pages absolutely scampered by. "Bearing" is the sort of dithering novel in which the central character, Nathan Mirsky, travels from Boston to San Francisco to seek out a woman named Abby to learn about his brother Daniel's murder, only to have Abby say they should meet in a restaurant later that evening. When Nathan meets her at the restaurant, they really can't talk (too crowded, too distracting) and they agree to meet the next day. They do, but they really can't get down to it and maybe they'll meet some other time. And so on. That not exasperating enough for you? How about a detailed but ultimately meaningless description of random people on a city street? How about getting such descriptions at least a half-dozen times? You're still patient? How about nearly half of this inert narrative being interrupted by whole chapters of fragmented flashbacks - in italics no less. (It is amazing how irritating page after page of italic type can become.) Then there's the book's all too familiar McGuffin, a young man's attempt to make peace with a sainted, dead older brother; see Thomas Wolfe, J.D. Salinger and any number of other authors who played variations on the theme. Only in this variation, the older brother is a clich? - a flamboyant student radical from the 'burbs who soon enough abandoned his Sixties idealism in favor of booze and drugs. As for the long schlep with the box of ashes - been there, done that, too. None of the novel's numerous italicized excursions - Daniel's flower-powered letters, Nathan's non-conversations with his psychiatrist, Abby's young son's ruminations about trouble in kindergarten - engages or convinces. The only compelling background belongs to Nathan's tight-lipped father, Sol, who bears the weight of the concentration camps (which are evoked in very brief but very startling effects). Yet the point of this strand of the story is that a Holocaust survivor may not be able to communicate easily with his suburban American children. Which is not exactly a revelation. Nor is "Bearing the Body" exactly a success. In fact: it's pretty unbearable. In marked contrast, Travis Holland's first novel, "The Archivist's Story," deserves profound respect. This is only tangentially a "Jewish" novel, but it is so good it deserves our attention. Pavel Dubrov, the eponymous archivist, works in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, where (it is 1939) the great Jewish writer Isaac Babel is being held. Early in the story, the archivist interviews Babel regarding the writer's files. Shortly thereafter (Babel will not appear again in the book for a long stretch), Dubrov, a former literature teacher, dares risk all to safeguard a Babel short story from the Lubyanka incinerators. This summary sounds like cloak-and-dagger stuff, but Travis, an American who has evidently done his homework, writes an extremely moving and evocative tale about a decent man caught up in a most indecent time and place. Here for example, is Holland's description of the Archivist doing his dirty work: "As Pavel hurriedly throws one of the folders into the incinerator the pink ribbon binding it flies loose, spilling out paper, page after page - poems, Pavel sees, hundreds of them. On one of the pages, a sheet of onionskin through which the fire shows, sketches of tiny beautifully rendered birds crowd the margin. Pavel imagines the birds must have perched on a ledge outside the poet's window. The sheets curl, the fire races through them. In a moment everything - poet, poems, birds - is gone. Afterward on the rattling service elevator going up, Pavel's hands shake. "'You smell like kerosene,' Kutyrev tells him." And next day, as Pavel returns to work: "On the bus later, passing Gorky Park, Pavel catches sight of the tall white parachute drop towering like a monument among the trees. Then down the long steep stairway of the metro, where the trains howl, where the hot air blowing in the high window vents smells sharply of ashes, old fires; then up again and out onto Dzerzhinsky Square. Another morning." "The Archivist's Story" sings, and the song is profoundly sad. Amid much hoopla - a lengthy interview in "The New Yorker," a profile with huge photo in The New York Times, a career retrospective in London's Sunday Times, an interview with The Observer and (highly mixed) reviews by such top-line critics as Christopher Hitchens, James Wood and Clive James - Philip Roth recently published his 28th book, "Exit Ghost." Well, caveat hoopla. In the new novel Roth revisits old characters, always a dubious proposition. But even more dubiously, Roth revisits yet again a theme that has occupied him at least since 1969 and the hoopla that surrounded "Portnoy's Complaint." That theme is the phenomenon of readers reading autobiography into a novelist's fiction. In more than a dozen books Roth has tongued and toyed with this subject like a loose tooth, which has always astonished me. First, it seems a subject vastly of more interest to writers than to readers; second, it seems a crabby complaint from a writer who has openly and repeatedly dressed his alter-ego characters like Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh and yes, Philip Roth, in his own autobiographical garments; and third, we don't need Jacques Derrida to tell us that readers are going to make of fiction what they will, and there's nothing novelists can do about that except to write as best they can. In this latest variation on a tired theme, we have the renowned but reclusive novelist Nathan Zuckerman at age 71, impotent and incontinent from a prostatectomy and with the onset of memory loss. (Roth sure can be unforgiving to an alter ego.) Zuckerman is engaged in a campaign to persuade a younger writer from publishing a biography of E.I. Lonoff. Lonoff, it will be recalled, was the writer the young Zuckerman idolized back in Roth's cunning 1979 novel, "The Ghost Writer." (Roth visits equal cruelty on the other chief character in "The Ghost Writer," giving Amy Bellette brain cancer and unnecessarily clearing up the intriguing mystery of her past.) In the new novel Lonoff is long dead and the would-be biographer claims he aspires to revive Lonoff's literary reputation, albeit at the cost of revealing the writer's deep, dark secret, his teenaged incest with his sister. (Henry Roth, anyone?) "I'm going to do everything I can to sabotage you," Zuckerman rages at the younger writer. "I can prevent your being published, and whatever the expense, whatever the effort, I will." What is behind this patently ridiculous rant is admitted only at the very end of the book, when Zuckerman cries, "Once I was dead, who would protect the story of my life?" The answer of course, is, nobody - and why should Lonoff, Zuckerman, Roth or any of their readers care about raising a question about which nothing can be done and which doesn't amount to much anyway. Don't any of these folks know that no amount of unfriendly biography can supplant the original art? (Kingsley Amis's "The Biographer's Moustache" anyone?) Doesn't anyone recall that the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on? This yapping dog for one was as bored by "Exit Ghost" as he was charmed by "The Ghost Writer," made glassy-eyed as much by its main premise as by its unaccountable excursions. The tangents include the eight-page essay on George Plimpton and the several sections presented in dramatic dialogue. The latter is a device Roth used to better effect in "Deception," a novel widely dismissed as something tossed off to satisfy a contract with Roth's one-time publisher. No less disturbing is that the biographical note at the end of the book is just a list of Roth's awards and achievements - a catalogue that reads as nothing so much as an application letter for the Nobel Prize. Roth has been short listed many times for the Nobel but was bypassed yet again this year. Maybe someone leaked an early copy of "Exit Ghost" to the committee?