The Task of This Translator
By Todd Hasak-Lowy
Harcourt, 272 pages, $13.
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Raymond and Hannah
By Stephen Marche
Harcourt, 216 pages, $14.
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By Tammar Stein
Knopf, 272 pages, $15.95.
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There was a time when you hardly ever picked up an American novel or story collection that focused much on Israel — Philip Roth notwithstanding. Today, even with the vast majority of American Jews claiming they don’t feel that mystical kinship in their kishkes, as Alexander Portnoy might say — a recent study claims that only one-quarter of American Jews still feel “very” attached to Israel — new writers are busy limning the complicated contours of the Holy Land as if a permanent peace depends on it.
And maybe it does. In growing up with rites of passage like Birthright Israel, Junior Year Abroad, the March of the Living — as well as with bicultural parents — many writers have charted everything from the polarizing effect of religion (Tova Mirvis, Naama Goldstein) to the unimaginable ways that violence changes and contorts (Rachel Kadish, Edeet Ravel, Jon Papernick).
So it’s not surprising to find that several recent debuts touch on themes that by now are familiar, with some mixed results. In Stephen Marche’s “Raymond and Hannah,” the long-distance romance between two young Canadians provides the foreground for an occasionally funny and nuanced look at North Americans in Israel seeking their authentic Jewish selves. Handsome and easygoing, Raymond chips away at an endless thesis on Robert Burton’s 17th-century opus, “Anatomy of Melancholy.” Equally adrift, but more interested in her heritage, Hannah hopes to overcome her quarterlife crisis through a nine-month immersion at an Orthodox yeshiva. The two meet the week before she is set to leave for Jerusalem. Much to their mutual surprise, a one-night stand blooms into an orgiastic week of food, sex and, finally, love.
Their inevitable separation takes up the bulk of this slim novel. Even as the pair vow to stay in touch — one side effect of the Internet revolution is how thoroughly e-mail has replaced letters as an epistolary device — the lack of physical unity takes its toll. Hannah grows increasingly enthralled with Jewish ritual, which makes her question any future with a goy like Raymond. Meanwhile, a sexy teenage violinist in a red dress tempts her erstwhile lover.
If this sounds like a racy version of “The O.C.,” it’s because we spend a lot of time in the confused, lonely heads of Hannah and Raymond — particularly Raymond’s. At times, this grows a tad suffocating. (Fans of David Grossman’s “Be My Knife”might enjoy the extended introspection, but I didn’t.) And none of this is helped particularly by the occasional strain in Marche’s lyrical writing. “Raymond and Hannah” is nothing if not ambitious, but it is dutifully experimental, the sort of first novel an English lit student like Raymond himself might have written. For example, there’s an elaborate play of brief scenes (most no longer than a paragraph), interspersed between e-mails, flashbacks and even Raymond’s whimsical glosses on Robert Burton. But choices like these have real consequences for the story; it slackens whatever narrative tension there is, and also inhibits some crucial character development. For example, what are we to make of Raymond’s affair with the violinist, which continues even after he confesses to Hannah? Is it simply biology or some deeper ambiguity about his feelings? It’s hard to tell, especially since he’s clearly in love with her by the time the two reunite in Israel.
Yet embedded in “Raymond and Hannah” are traces of a good satire, as Marche skewers the pretensions and insecurities of young Jews frumming out. At a Hanukkah party, none of Hannah’s new friends will touch the dreidels, which they all consider too childish for their new selves. The clincher comes when one guest, a Harvard MBA, deconstructs the reason that birthday parties strike him as particularly un-Jewish. “In Judaism we light candles. We don’t blow them out,” he notes humorlessly.
If Marche’s characters hope to find themselves through contact with Israel, then the young woman at the center of Tammar Stein’s “Light Years” reverses the formula. In the aftermath of a suicide bombing that claimed her boyfriend, Maya Laor flees her native country for a new start at the University of Virginia. Believing herself responsible for his death, she has grown judgmental and distant. Yet she is too attractive a personality to keep others away, and soon new friends fill out her lonely orbit: Payton, a true steel magnolia of a roommate, whose chirpy mannerisms hide a shrewd judge of character, and a new love interest, a graduate student with the rather unfortunate name of Justin Case.
Given the realities of publishing, and the fact that the story focuses almost exclusively on Maya’s adolescent sensibility, it makes sense that “Light Years” has been released under a Young Adult imprint. But it’s also a pity, since this self-assured and richly imagined novel deserves the same readership as any literary debut. Indeed, it is part of the novel’s charm to witness how burgeoning adulthood unsettles Maya’s easy cynicism. (Here she is, first sensing the power of her allure: “I felt very sexy but also slightly off-balance. I didn’t quite know this new person I’d become.”)
There are some missteps, to be sure. It seems unbelievable that a graduate student in history, like Justin, could mistake Maya’s accent. And near the end, Stein permits her characters to overstate the obvious, so that the nuance she manages elsewhere is lost. Mostly, however, Stein has created a winning protagonist in Maya, who is by turns fearless and angry, naive and vulnerable. She is also an all-too-rare window into the peculiar way that terrorism in Israel binds perpetrator to victim.
In many ways, Todd Hasak-Lowy’s story collection, “The Task of This Translator,” is the high-wire act of the bunch. Nearly each one of his seven lengthy stories blends a highly imaginative setup with the vocabulary of specialized fields such as finance or the cable news business to impressive, and often very funny, effect.
The stories turn on violent episodes of every scale. “The End of Larry’s Wallet” juxtaposes a character’s personal woes with TV coverage of a nuclear exchange. And in “Will Power, Inc.,” one of the collection’s best, a journalist investigates a peculiar new weight-reduction program in which every sort of threat — including physical harm — keeps clients from overeating. Meanwhile, “On the Grounds of the Complex Commemorating the Nazis’ Treatment of the Jews,” traces the private troubles that lead up to a brawl between an American tourist and an Israeli cashier.
Hasak-Lowy’s work blends the intellectual brio and textual playfulness reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover and especially Stanley Elkin. Yet for all their humor and inventiveness, all too often in these stories there’s a disconnect between literary effect and meaning. For example, “On the Grounds…” employs a kind of bureaucratic officialese that clearly strives for ironic effect, as in this description of the Israeli character: “He was single again after a three-year marriage to a woman taller than him, who doomed the marriage by formally announcing her reluctance to reproduce at any time with her husband despite the implications of their marriage contract, though they both agree now, not that they talk much, that it was for the best they never made another person.”
Even after the story’s conclusion, the reader is never certain about the targets of Hasak-Lowy’s satire. Does the tone intend to comment on the way such language is used by officials to distance us from the Holocaust (the story is pointedly set inside Yad Vashem)? Or how the bloated, neutral language of government masks private pain? It’s hard to tell, since the choice of tone is never clearly anchored to the actual events in the story.
Postmodernism and metafiction gave writers a way to reflect and magnify the experience of living in our fragmented, hyper-media-saturated world. Indeed, next to “The Task of This Translator”and “Raymond and Hannah,” a sustained, highly plotted story such as Stein’s “Light Years”feels old fashioned and out of place. Yet the comparison is instructive — not only because the latter is well written or because it sharply illuminates a corner of the globe that Americans don’t fully grasp, but also because it manages to convey its characters’ sense of dislocation so convincingly. This restores confidence in the potentially radical act of storytelling in which identification with another — sustained for the length of a novel — confers a special brand of empathy.
Perhaps it’s exactly this quality that many new writers have tapped into at a time when interest in Israel appears to be waning. I don’t advocate reading any of these writers as a social corrective. But we could do worse than open ourselves up, like Maya, to the potential for transformation.
Paul Zakrzewski, who edited the anthology “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge” (Perennial, 2003), is a writer and critic living in Boston.
This story "Generation Birthright Grows Up" was written by Paul Zakrzewski.