Back in January, I discovered that that The Feminist Press would be publishing Textile, an English translation of a novel by one of my favorite Israeli authors, Orly Castel-Bloom. The book was slated for release in the spring; I was thrilled to receive an assignment to review it and dug in eagerly to my review copy.
Publication of the book was delayed, so the deadline for my review was, too. Then it wasn’t until August that my editor asked for some revisions. I complied. When a Google alert let me know that the review was published just last week, I discovered that further cuts and other revisions had been made.
I’m always happy to have a byline in this particular publication (not to mention the paycheck). But I can’t deny that I’m disappointed that this piece ended up so very much shorter than (and otherwise different from) the original review that I worked so hard to craft. So I’m using today’s blog post to share that original version with you. I hope that you enjoy it.
Weaving Together Life’s Absurdities, in Israel and in Ithaca
by Erika Dreifus
By Orly Castel-Bloom, translated by Dalya Bilu
The Feminist Press, 160 pages, $15.95
Readers of David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” may recall that the mother-protagonist at that novel’s center embarks on a lengthy hike through Israel. If she is not home to receive bad tidings from the Israel Defense Forces, she reasons, no harm will befall her soldier son. In Orly Castel-Bloom’s “Textile,” now available in an English translation by Dalya Bilu, the fictional Amanda Gruber confronts a similar dilemma with another strategy—as the novel opens, Amanda is about to undergo her eighth cosmetic surgery, “in order not to know what was happening and not to worry uselessly about her combat soldier son.”
When she isn’t under anesthesia, the Rhodesian-born Amanda owns and operates a factory that manufactures pajamas sans impurities for the ultra-Orthodox population. Amanda and her family, however, are secular Israelis, ensconced in an upper economic stratum thanks mainly to the factory—which Amanda’s mother founded after immigrating to Israel in the 1960s—but also to the inventive talents of Amanda’s otherwise irritating husband, Irad Gruber. Awarded the famed Israel Prize for having devised a spiral escalator, Irad is now engaged in something more significant, something sponsored by Israel’s Defense Ministry, something that might even earn him a Nobel: the development, via the scientific stewardship of a spider species and its super-strong webs, of a fabric to be used in protective “terror suits.”
If spiral escalators and spider-sourced suits sound implausible, consider that Amanda’s latest surgery involves shoulder-blade implants. Knowing Castel-Bloom’s reputation for magical realism, I was suspicious, too—until I went online and discovered that all of these items do (or might) exist. In other words, Castel-Bloom doesn’t need to invent absurdity. Ample real-life examples abound.
Absurdity may suffuse the novel’s world, but time after time, Castel-Bloom renders it distinct through her characters’ idiosyncrasies and her extraordinary attention to detail. Amanda is able to keep her latest surgery (“insane,” in the view of the Grubers’ 22-year-old daughter, Lirit) a secret from her husband because Irad is away visiting an arthropod colleague based at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The success of Irad’s terror-suit project depends on the collaboration of this colleague, an ex-Israeli named Bahat McPhee, herself notable for a Rod Serling obsession and a midlife interest in becoming a Reform rabbi. (Here’s where plausibility strains too far, at least for this Reform reader: Bahat assists Irad because by performing this service—”a great, pure gesture…toward the state of Israel”—she will be exempted from the Reform movement’s requirement that its rabbis-in-training spend a full year in that country.)
The Grubers aside, the novel seems to be populated by ex-Israelis, who in most cases exhibit little love for their former home. For that matter, the Grubers aren’t particularly fond of their countryfolk or culture, either. Trapped in an airplane’s coach cabin, Irad finds that “rubbing shoulders with the loudmouthed masses of the people of Israel made him ill.” When a car radio plays Hebrew songs, Lirit “put[s] a stop to” it. And when Amanda decorates the family’s new home, she declares “that there be nothing in the apartment reminiscent of the Levant.”
This disconnection contributes to a larger, overall sense of unmooring. Essential news can’t be communicated because a cell phone is left on another continent, or because someone refuses to answer signals from “unknown” callers. Suburbs such as Tel Baruch North, where the Grubers now live, suffer from “an overdose of newness.” At the same time, more than one character acknowledges the burdens of history and a preference to be free of that weight.
In “Textile”‘s world, the primary connective fabric, such as it may be, comes from media. Whether through cable television or classic novels, words and stories somehow transcend temporal and international boundaries. Irad is at his happiest when he discovers an episode of “All in the Family,” “his favorite series of all time,” on television in Ithaca; back in Israel, his daughter devotes hours to the E! channel. When Lirit visits her mother post-op, Amanda derides her skimpy outfit and braids: “You look like a whore from the Little House on the Prairie.” And the Gruber’s son, Dael, distracts himself after each of his sniper assignments by reading classic literature: “After shooting someone, he felt the need to connect with something uplifting.” (Such as “Madame Bovary,” “Crime and Punishment,” or Primo Levi.)
As much as the novel lacerates certain strands of Israeli experience and incorporates both American history and popular culture—Irad’s Ithaca visit unfolds during a post-9/11 presidential campaign season that pits the incumbent Republican (“his face flushed and his expression resolute”) against a doomed Democrat (“his skin gray, his face long, his look beaten”)—I can’t help but suspect that readers who possess a detailed knowledge of Israeli life and culture will find within “Textile” some deeper resonances. For example, the novel tells us that Dael is assigned to the Givati Brigade; only by consulting the Israel Defense Forces website did I learn that the Givati Brigade—”one of the first infantry brigades created with the establishment of Israel”—is now “the main infantry brigade stationed near the Gaza Strip,” charged with “fighting terrorism in the area.” Is it any wonder, then, that Dael’s mother prefers unconsciousness?
One of Castel-Bloom’s earlier novels, translated as “Human Parts,” was hailed as the first fictional treatment of Israel during the Al-Aqsa Intifada. It is difficult to provide an analogous description of “Textile,” and yet the books are inextricably linked, identifiable by Castel-Bloom’s trademark satire—and empathy.
Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories,” an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. Follow her on Twitter: @ErikaDreifus.