For readers left feeling bereft after David Grossman’s portrayal of the relation between the life of a family and the tragic corrosiveness of Israeli militarism in “To the End of the Land,” here is an audaciously unorthodox work that may serve as an emotional sequel of sorts. If we assumed that Grossman could hardly delve deeper than that book’s wrenching portrait of individuals emerging from terrible suffering (only to confront more ominous horizons), our answer has arrived in the form of a thrilling lament.
Set in a strangely timeless land (that is pointedly not Israel), “Falling Out of Time” begins with the agonized declaration made by an individual identified only as “Walking Man.” In a brittle speech, he informs his wife that even the ordinary ritual of their dinner has become unbearable and sets off on a quest to find their son who has been dead for five years. Wandering disconsolately, Walking Man’s ever-widening gyres of private grief inexorably draw in other townspeople, each struggling with their own lonely loss. Gradually we become acquainted with a “Canterbury Tales”-like assemblage of others (the Town Chronicler, Cobbler, Midwife, Elderly Math Teacher, even a Duke), each a mourning parent. Though Grossman initially stresses the excruciatingly solitary nature of grief, his vulnerable townspeople gradually awaken and respond to the presence of the others; their losses engender a deeper sense of human community.
For years each has stoically suppressed both memory and language; now as they stumble haltingly forward into life and speech, Grossman’s numinous rendering of their language captures both the ineffability of melancholic depression and the peculiar cadences of its linguistic manifestations: stuttering rhythms, broken logical sequences, parataxis and hypotaxis. Grossman’s greatest achievement here is voicing the townspeople’s discordant rhythms in language so raw and immediate that they never feel less than achingly real on the page. Officially categorized by its publisher as “part play, part prose,” neither quite captures the poetic multidimensionality of the narrative’s shifting perspectives nor the startling effects of the interplay among characters coping with inimitable memories of those they have lost.
Grossman’s experimental collage of genres and styles might remind some of his friend Amos Oz’s foray into free-form verse in “The Same Sea.” In that work, Oz took a meditative sabbatical from his country’s derangements to examine a tapestry of unsettled characters, their yearnings and tenuous relationships to memory and geography. Yet if the experimentalism of “Falling” may be a partial homage, the stakes here feel far more consequential, perhaps because Grossman’s own anguish was the catalyst for probing whether art really can serve as a meaningful balm for unbearable loss and absence.
At one time or another, each character may serve as a surrogate for Grossman himself, none less than the Centaur (a hybrid like the mythological creature, he is half-man and half-desk rather than horse), an embittered artist whose caustic judgment against himself also seems to obliquely incriminate the naïve novelist who had once presumed to capture the painful inner lives of others without having experienced an iota of real tragedy himself. At first, this mythical figure seems to bear a double burden that sets him apart: He is not just a grieving father but also one tasked with redeeming the suffering of others through his art. Yet ultimately he shares the struggle of all the others, their violent fluctuations of feeling inflicted by the painfully insatiable demands of memory, heroic exertions to live on without forsaking the dead.