Delving Into the Alienation of Life in Paradise

By Saul Austerlitz

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Little Edens

By Barbara Klein Moss

W.W. Norton & Company,

288 pages, $23.95.

* * *

Having spent my formative years in Southern California, I have long been familiar with the sometimes astonishing discrepancy between the paradisiacal environment — in which the burnished sunlight, mild weather and ocean breezes transmit a sensation of unending gloriousness — and the often bitter disappointments, major and minor, of life by the Pacific. That said, astute readers not residing on the left coast will also be familiar with the trope of California’s false paradise from the work of Nathanael West, John Fante, Joan Didion, Charles Bukowski, James Ellroy… hell, practically every book ever written on California. A new writer tackling the idea of Southern California as Eden had better have a unique take on the shopworn material, and in that department, Barbara Klein Moss, author of a new collection of stories, “Little Edens,” is partially successful.

The stories that make up “Little Edens” can, at first look, be divided into two categories: Jewish and otherwise. The latter mostly have the stale patina of that dreaded construct, the graduate-school creative writing program. Reading some of the lesser stories in Moss’s collection, one can almost visualize the instructor’s red-penciled remarks on her first drafts about clearer narrative arcs and tighter conclusions. These cookie-cutter efforts are guilty of all the effete, precious effects that so many contemporary practitioners of the short-story form presume are the stuff of high art. Bleached of all specificity (which, after all, is the lifeblood of even the most universal works of art), stories like “Villaclaudia,” about a young girl on vacation with a friend’s extended family, and “Interpreters,” concerning a troubled couple who live and work in a replica colonial village, exude the passive blandness of mediocrity.

It is only when her stories rest on more solidly Jewish ground that Moss is in better form. In the contrast between Jewish practice and Southern California life, between the remembrance of collective history and the birthplace of fresh starts, Moss locates a fascinating and complex friction that she carefully studies in the collection’s best stories, “Rug Weaver” and the novella “The Palm Tree of Dilys Cathcart.” Differing widely in style and execution, both “Rug Weaver” and “Palm Tree” share the same narrative subject: the nuances of an ambiguous relationship between a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman. In “Rug Weaver,” Ebrahim Nahavendi, an Iranian refugee who had spent time in the Ayatollah’s prisons, has moved to California to join his son Yousef and his family. Yousef’s wife extends every effort to provide her father-in-law with a taste of “the old country,” as she gauchely puts it to him. Ebrahim spends most of his days in his darkened room, thinking back to the wife he lost in Iran and the rug he imagined himself weaving while in prison. Not a particularly religious man, he does not seem to mind his son’s marriage to a gentile, and yet he partakes of their family life as an onlooker, a blood relative in name only. Their names are stumbling blocks for him, the primary indicator of the overwhelming distance between his life and theirs. When Yousef’s wife asks Ebrahim how he is enjoying the fruit she has purchased for him, the pause in his response is crucial, his tongue’s lack of facility with the foreign coming to the forefront: “Very nice… Kimberly.” Likewise his description of his granddaughters, Morgan and Sydney, as possessing “English gentlemen’s names.” While getting to know Kimberly, Ebrahim finds himself attracted to her, but he is more attracted to the family’s life together than anything else. Ebrahim comes to understand that, while California may be the place where those who have lost elsewhere come to be rebaptized in sunshine, he is not to be one of them. The Adam and Eve he had mentally stitched as the centerpiece of his prison rug would be the last such couple he would make, whether with thread or blood. Seeing the tranquility and alienness of life in California, Ebrahim’s foremost desire is to communicate to his deceased wife how this new world is simultaneously a great victory and a catastrophic loss: “He would like to send a photograph of them to Mina in the afterlife, where, he imagines, she still tosses restlessly. Be still, be at peace, all our struggles have come to this.”

“The Palm Tree of Dilys Cathcart” revolves around an aging English rose named Dilys who encounters one of her Orthodox Jewish neighbors in her lower-middle-class housing development. Dilys is asked by Mendel Krakauer, a kosher butcher, to help him transcribe the music he hears in his head, a song of the heavenly spheres. As the work progresses, she grows more attached to the project, and finds herself attracted to Mendel’s brusque masculinity. Dilys, much like Ebrahim of “Rug Weaver,” is drawn to what she does not understand, entranced by a vision of a life other than the lonely existence, mired in the past, that she currently leads. While the story has some technical faults (it is highly doubtful that Mendel, observant enough to ask Dilys to keep the door ajar during their meetings, would feel comfortable violating the rabbinic law of kol isha, barring men from listening to a woman’s singing), “Palm Tree” sharply evokes the temptation of forbidden fruit, and the pull of the lonely toward any form of companionship. In Dilys and Mendel, Moss overcomes the clichéd shiksappeal narrative, and delves into the alienation of life in paradise, and the efforts of culture and religion to simultaneously enrich and divide.

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