Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
(New York: Other Press, 2019)
America’s Got Talent winning sleight-of-hand magician Shin Lim sits across from Ellen and signs a playing card, folds it up, then clenches it between his teeth, as Ellen had earlier. When Ellen inevitably unfolds the card in her mouth and reveals his scrawl, vice-versa for him, the audience reflexively cheers, proving the real Keyser Soze twist here is that we, at least partially, don’t actually want to know how the performer takes advantage of the limits of our human senses. We are coconspirators, wanting to exist for a moment in a willful and simple-minded state of awe. This is common practice. Most of us escape in performance every day, through the clothes we don, through the fictions we consume, where we don’t mind the tricks, even when they are on full postmodern display, as long as there is some artful plot development and compelling characters, which means we don’t get hung up evaluating their psychology in relation to our impression of as-lived reality. In novels this is brutally hard to achieve, and so usually the reader has to help the writer out here and there and just go with it when the illusion is thin, which is what I found myself often struggling to do with Eitan, a critical secondary character in Zeruya Shalev’s new novel, Pain.
Eitan happens to be the grown up version of a boy who shattered the heart of the main character, Iris, twenty-eight years prior, and who happens to run a palliative care clinic Iris had just been brought to by her husband. The doctor seems to be both a man prone to mild psychopathic tendencies and a boy lost in time, like Iris, long-suffering from a dearth of intimacy, and so potentially not entirely to blame for his two divorces and relative estrangement from his daughter (with his first ex-wife) and his oppositional and defiant troubled son (second ex-wife). Iris finds out this last detail too late, almost in the postscript; as an elementary school principal Iris would know these conditions are, to a degree, heritable.
Fortunately, Iris is richly rendered, throughout the novel her thoughts seamlessly swirling from the world-historical to the poignantly personal to the mundane, like in the moment in the opening pages where we see her standing in a corridor looking from the plaque honoring her father’s death in one of Israel’s wars to another celebrating Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man who is credited with reviving the Hebrew language. “Is it for the sake of the Hebrew language that we die?” she asks herself in a moment of introspection, before her mind, unbidden, delivers up the image of her draft-age son’s name on one of these plaques, which inspires a subsequent burst of disgust at one of her current initiatives, an archeological display she has labelled with a sign that reads, “The Past Creates the Future.” After such a premonition, it is understandable this glib phrase hits her ear as wrong, especially considering she still suffers from the physical and emotional trauma of a terrible pelvic injury suffered as a consequence of driving past a bus as it is blown up by a suicide bomber ten years before.
Given the state of her current family disfunction — a sexless marriage, her own anti-authority son about to enter the military for his mandatory service, a daughter terribly confused by early adult life — we buy Iris’s motivation to resurrect the romantic ideal of her youth, even though it is clear she knows in her middle-aged mind that her desire would lead to something other than the sort of ego-death love evoked by the compelling cover art: a painting of a woman and man’s featureless faces, the impasto more disturbed where her nose would be, the carved lines moving into a man’s neck, her black hair melding into his, the color rising up and blending into the rectangular color block at the top of the page where the title, Pain, pops in capital white letters. Iris intuits, “What is the point of appearing before him with her scarred pelvis, with the pain caused by nerves that hadn’t healed properly?” Regardless, how can she avoid the attempt, à la Gatsby, to recreate the past? The novel is at its best when we contemplate through Iris how we perform on ourselves these existential card tricks and appreciate both the truth and the lie in the pretty notion that we can separate mind from body — two distinct energies, thoughts and sensations, but one affects the other — the body registering physical causality, what gives pleasure, what causes pain — the mind capable of rising above experience and drifting in a state of irreducible ambiguity, which is often that feeling the exists between love and loss.
Still, we wonder at Eitan’s manic opportunistic willingness, largely because Shalev’s impressionistic mechanisms that take us across the arc of the affair often tripped me up — especially the series of awkward kissing scenes that range from cliché to cloying to flat-out yucky. This one during their initial meeting, after all those years: “He pulls her to him, raises her chin and presses her mouth to his, her lips trembling breathlessly, as if they have never been kissed.” This one during their first reconsummation: “‘Like this’ he whispers, his lips on hers, and she feels as if, with the long ardent kiss, he is pouring into her the essence of the life he has led until now, without her, even lonelier than she …And for the entire time, he is making love to her, speaking to her with every part of his body,” the dénouement captured through Iris recalling the final lines of the final Yom Kippur prayer, “let us come into your gates.” (I am assuming this sexual pun also exists in the original Hebrew.) And this one during the inevitable moment of disillusion: “I’ll kiss you until you forgive me,” he says when she reminds him that it was he who originally left her, and then when he forcibly kisses her and presses a piece of chewed meat into her mouth, filling it with the “repulsive taste of roasted blood” she has not experienced in twenty years. We can’t imagine any way that they will now be married, as Eitan earlier suggests, at his mother’s grave.
At the end of the second chapter Iris poignantly meditates on the unique vibe of the stretch of the school year between Memorial Day and The Festival of Weeks, which is “more crucial than it seems, because if something can still change, that’s when it will, in the tension between memory and renewal.” Iris again comes to a version of this understanding at the end of the novel. Her father and her dizzying first love cannot be brought back to life. But she has a son and a daughter who still very much need her, and a magnanimous husband willing to allow her the space to experience for herself the limits of a physical affair correcting for unresolved trauma. “It’s not a mistake,” Iris says in the novel’s closing line, “it’s an old story.” And the universe moves on, we suspect largely as it always has, Iris having proved to herself she has the strength of mind to carry her share of the pain as she moves along with it.
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Trevor Payne teaches English at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia.