(New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017)
It may be best to begin by noting that I am not the audience for this debut novel, a collection of stories inspired by author Bethany Ball’s experiences living with her husband’s extended family in an Israeli commune, or kibbutz. My only (in)direct contact with Israeli concerns was a brief encounter with a 20-something American Zionist in a Munich hostel bar, where the young man confided, over green-tinged pints of pilsner, his understandable fear regarding his upcoming (voluntary) military service. It was St. Patrick’s Day. There were many tourists from the UK in transitory residence. I wonder if the young man came to the same conclusion as one of this book’s secondary American characters and attempted to walk back his allegiance.
Communal, rather than national or religious, allegiance is at the core of What to Do About the Solomons. “The kibbutz was a raw factory of human survival.” This observation is offered toward the middle of the book, when we have already become acquainted with much of its cast of characters and their disparate yet interconnected problems. This line comes as we learn about patriarch Yakov’s early years in Israel as “the new Jews,” who “had come to Palestine after the pogrom at the turn of the last century with their communist ideas and little else.” By the time he has come into his own, Yakov will have shed these for the more lucrative ideology of capitalism and amassed a fortune by leveraging the formerly communal funds of the kibbutz to start a construction business. Tangentially, we are to understand that Yakov profits from the Israeli settlements. Yet he attempts to broker peace with the local sheikh, eager to smooth the path to profit. “Only through commerce can we wage peace,” he claims.
Guided by detached, matter-of-fact prose, we follow members of Yakov’s family forward and backwards through time, and in and out of countries from Algeria to America, as they attempt to make sense of themselves, one another, and their relationships to Israel. Commentary on the third rail of Israel’s politics and practices is largely confined to Yakov’s ambivalence about his role in the proliferation of settlements and critiques of the country’s conscripted military service’s lasting ill-effects on various characters. Some are called to serve, others do so out of familial obligation, and others were never meant to suffer through the brutal training. All are relieved that they did not serve in a time of war.
For obvious reasons, this book will be especially appealing to readers with ties to or interest in Israel. But its reach extends farther, as this is more a collection of connected character studies than a novel with a distinct political orientation. Through her characters, all of whom are hardened yet vulnerable, Ball presents various perspectives on the ongoing conflict that provide an otherwise unexamined backdrop to their intimate daily lives.
The incessant infidelity running through the book can trace its thematic roots to the kibbutz, where “marriage was an outdated concept.” Though these physical dalliances are quotidian, characters struggle to connect emotionally – with each other, with themselves. No one seems to enjoy a truly satisfying sexual encounter. The patriarch of the family (Yakov) is the only one who seems to live fully throughout his life, as he embraces the community influence his fortune has afforded him. The rest of the characters must make do with the snatches of contentment they’re afforded, or else create for themselves amid otherwise materially trying and emotionally damaged lives.
Ball guards the identities of some characters like state secrets, allowing the identity of one chapter’s narrator to remain ambiguous until the mid-point, thereby providing several perspectives on the characters therein. Unafraid to expose her characters’ flaws, Ball manages to build empathy for each of them. Her perfunctory style beautifully underlines the familial tensions among her characters. Readers can feel their emotional detachment. And unlike in other books where quotation-free dialogue is the stylistic affectation, Ball deploys this with exceptional skill. I rarely questioned who was speaking, or – more to the point – if anyone was speaking in the first place. This further serves to manifest the fluidity of the novel’s subject matter. It is harmonious cacophony.
Plot is doled out in unequal pieces by various characters, and there’s no discernible pattern to knit them neatly together. Rather, readers are presented with the interconnected lives of nearly a dozen characters in all their messy glory. Reality may not bite, but it often leaves you sweaty and in the bed of an unsavory character, or left to fend for yourself as a teenage boy whose driving impulses are insatiable hunger and a justified fear in going out at night in search of dinner. The plot’s fragmented nonlinearity heightens the futility of any attempt to pin down these characters’ motives or futures. They simply are. There to be accepted, or not, with no intention to apologize to one another or a reader who seeks something akin to closure. We’re allotted select slices of each character’s complicated life, and are allowed to draw our own conclusions or let the ambiguity remain.
It is the novel’s spare language and narrative neutrality that brings these characters and the situations in which they find themselves into stark relief. Though explicit and reflective, their feelings remain raw and often unexamined. Closure is a luxury most cannot access, much less afford. Lives are lived out in close proximity, yet unbridgeable emotional distance keeps them from truly knowing one another. Nearly every character we meet is discontent in their own way, and many can trace this to the kibbutz. No one is particularly sympathetic, which might be the point. Even ostensibly innocent characters (such as the children) are allowed their human failings.
As the endless web of revelations slowly unspools, threads begin to link characters to one another in ways both surprising and predictable. The few characters who emerge ahead of the game by the end of the narrative are the ones with whom we are least intimately acquainted. Tragedy plagues the lives of everyone else; the lingering effects are at once ephemeral and carve deep scars in their victims. One revelation in particular is telegraphed early on, and by the time the connection is made explicit, it’s almost too late. Perhaps the tardy addition of information is intentional – Ball may be questioning the power of such a revelation to change anything meaningful for her characters.
Preparing readers for the mosaic to come, the novel opens with a scene as surreal as it is grounded. We’re confronted with an artist who uses found objects as his medium and may be going crazy, yet he manages to thwart the suicide of a character whose significance to the Solomons will be revealed later. A few years and thousands of miles away, we meet a housewife who drowns her shock with prescriptions after her husband is accused of money laundering. The consequences are as vague as her ability to cope with daily life. As the time warps continue, we follow characters in and out of childhood and young adulthood and into old age, gaining access to their inner lives through brief scenes, juxtaposed to suggest shared histories. Thematic and genetic threads also connect the vignettes, and the overall effect is one of disquiet. Never mind what to do about the Solomons; what did their stories just do to the reader?
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Rachel Sona Reed is a social scientist by training and a writer by trial-and-error who applies these predilections to the social sector. She has published the blog “Contemporary Contempt” since 2011 and explores the lives of inanimate objects at tinyletter.com/lostisfound. Her work has been published in Coffee Lovers Magazine, Anthropology & Aging, Hello Giggles, and Angels Flight • literary west. Once upon a time, her research explored the intersections of consumer culture, gender, semiotics, and animal-human relationships. She is not as pretentious as she sounds. Peanut-butter-and-jelly remains her favorite sandwich.