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Rescue Distance

Distancia de Rescate is the Spanish title for Argentinian Samanta Scweblin’s novel, a current nominee for the Booker International Prize. I don’t know why Megan McDowell thought Fever Dream would be better as the title for her English translation of this novel or why she prefers rescue distance when she uses the repetitive phrase distance of rescue throughout the novel. These are translator decisions, and we have grown to accept them as part of the convention of translating. It’s fitting, I think, that the Booker International Prize is divided between author and translator, a tacit acknowledgment that translation makes a novel accessible, and that it is an art form in and of itself. It does leave an indelible stamp on the novel in ways the English reader cannot know. Things are lost in translation. That’s one of the limitations that non-linguists simply accept.

Certainly, Scweblin’s novel feels like a fever dream. From beginning to end, the reader fights to punch through the fog of fever, to separate the threads of reality from the illusions of dream. Because the reader is firmly grounded in reality beyond the page, she is freed to weigh the clues, to give herself to the understanding of alien experience. The magical realism of the novel provides its own artistic pleasure just as a good mystery rewards the reader with the would-be skills of detection.

Rescue distance is a concept from reality that sums up the invisible bond a mother always wants with her child. She always wants to be close enough to protect a child from harm. At the same time the term figures the ambiguity of distance, that wavering line that resists control. Try as she might, the protagonist is as powerless to protect the daughter within her own reach. The irony is the danger within reach.

While there is the perceived danger of chemically induced eco-imbalance in the novel, the desire to protect the child is the major focus. The varying manifestations of imbalance function metaphorically to embody danger. The death of ducks, dogs, horses, and the disfiguration of children is not nearly as damaging as the dehumanizing rupture of the soul, the fissure that renders everyone less than what he or she can be.

That the entire novel is told in an eerie conversation between two unlikely patients at the point of death is the device that gives this adventure of the mind its hold on the reader’s sensibilities. The newly afflicted adult is led by the prescient child whose understanding has been magnified in dissolution

Gospel Message?

The fascination of reading the Booker International shortlist is the experience of entertaining alternate ideas, dissimilar cultures. That Amos Oz names his book in Hebrew The Gospel of Judas rather than the simple Judas of the English translation speaks on several levels. Oz would have us believe that his decision came out of his understanding of the ordinary nature of the name of Judas, a name wrenched from meaning by the same overuse of John Smith on the English-speaking tongue.

Toward the end of the novel, an intertextual chapter documents a theory of Judas that has evolved from Shmuel’s study. In this portrayal, Judas is alone in his understanding and love for Jesus. He urges Jesus to go to the Jerusalem that the man resists, and he orchestrates motive and function of the crucifixion despite the lack of interest on the part of religious and political authorities. Judas is so certain of the divinity of Jesus that he believes that the occasion of the crucifixion will be the occasion of a grand political coup. He wholeheartedly believes that another miracle is in the offing, that Jesus will heal his own cross wounds, break the timbers as though they were little more than kindling for an evening fire. Betrayal came not in the denial of Judas but in the denial of political promise. Judas hanged himself in grief that he murdered the man he loved. Reality betrayed Judas.

This prescient chapter, while it seemed to disrupt the narrative flow, nevertheless provided
context for the reader to understand the coalescing of the major threads of the novel: loss of a former lover, family reversal of fortunes and subsequent loss off student tuition, isolation with an old man whose writing has no readers, the ghost of a leader of the unrealized two state theory of political settlement, the patronization of the 40-ish matron Atalia. Life has betrayed Shmuel. His only hope is to pack his kit bag and flee the house of shadows with its seductive death masks. He alone can take the rope from around his neck.


Reading the International Prize

Reading David Grossman’s novel did not require a locational leap. The venue for standup comedy easily seemed more universal than regional. Even the content of the jokes seemed  highly universal. Vocabulary was largely devoid of localized references, and ethnic considerations were mostly neutralized. Even the military camp that becomes the focus as Grossman shifts his narrative to the interior memories of Dovaleh could have been a summer camp for adolescents anywhere in the world. The reader is aware that the place names of the novel ground the novel in Israel, but the novel remains a novel of the ego-centric mind, a novel that veers strangely toward bildungsroman as it develops.

The Amos Oz novel, Judas, a classic bildungsroman, on the other hand, is highly regional. Oz asks his reader for an intellectual response rather than an emotional response. He builds a novel that is read best out of a consciousness of Isreali history. He asks his reader to struggle with the birth of the nation as the backdrop for his protagonist’s self understanding.

When the student Shmuel Ash drops out of university, he takes a job as companion to the elderly Gershom Wald. Walt is father-in-law to widowed Atalia Abravanel, the daughter of  the late Shealtiel Abravanel who opposed David Ben-Gurion favoring the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs. This is heady stuff for the reader uninitiated to the tensions of mid-twentieth century Israel.

The reader can follow the struggles of a young man to find himself after being rejected by his lover and having lost his purpose as a budding academic even if that reader knows little of the history and culture of Israel. Shmuel seems like the classic contemporary millennial who has difficulty sustaining himself apart from parental patronage. His characterization is engaging, and the carefully layered plot of the novel is compelling in and of itself. Still Shmuel is a young man of ideas, and full understanding of his struggles rides on tapping into the depth of those ideas. Oz has said of the novel that he is surprised that readers have appreciated the novel, realizing that a novel of ideas is out of fashion. Oz underestimates his own skill as storyteller, a raconteur who can pull a reader past his own limitations of facts and understanding.

Perhaps it is the honest self-acceptance of Shmuel that compels the reader. He sees himself realistically without the self-pitying indulgence of Grossman’s middle-aged Dovaleh. He neither blames his parents nor the girl who betrayed him. He knows he is struggling for his own soul., but he is content with the crumbs from the kitchen, the leftovers from Wald’s nightly porridge. He’s the suffering servant who accepts that he must knit together the threads of denial if he is to regain purpose and move on.

The reader empathizes with the young man, relives his own struggle for meaning, but he also finds himself introduced to a foreign culture, alternate ways of defining self. He experiences life in the context of politics, religion, and culture from which he has had little access from reading his own national literature. And that’s one of the values to following the Booker International.


Impact of Vocation

David Grossman’s novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, uses standup comedy as a rhetorical technique, but at the same time it poses interesting questions about the interplay of man and vocation. How does a man’s personality and experience shape the way he works out his vocation? On the flip side, how does the practice of vocation shape the nature of the man?

As Dovaleh reveals the boy that he was, the reader sees his path to standup. Walking on his hands honed the performer in him and caused him to see life from his own unique slant. The reader ponders his attacks on his audience and sees a darker side emerge. The control of the microphone gives Dovaleh a platform to vent all those pent-up emotions for the crimes of childhood he endured. From the bullied boy, the man-bully emerges in a wholly acceptable venue. Victimization morphs into a style of humor, a mode of artistry.

While the fit between man and vocation seems obvious to the reader, the way that the comic was shaped by his vocational choice is more difficult to discern. Did he, in fact, become more sardonic as the years passed or more deeply paranoic as he reveled in his own life suffering? When life is turned into comedy, does the purveyor of the narrative buy into his own product? Does the probing of the wound increase the infection?

Entertainment or Therapy?

Like choosing to walk upright or on one’s hands, everything has a flip side, a counter opposite. It is the play between these opposites that David Grossman explores in A Horse Walks into a Bar. The genesis of humor is embedded in the polarity of the unexpected opposite. The punchline of the joke in the novel’s title is never rendered in the novel, but the reader knows the joke rides on its unexpected premise. By the same token, the page-turning response of the reader is a direct result of the rhetorical technique of the novel, the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious.

The comic and the tragic are worked out in a single set of the comedian, a single performance in time. Grossman has said that the nucleus of his tale–a young boy not knowing which parent’s funeral he is about to attend–had rattled around in his head for years while he sought the vehicle for its artistic realization. The choice of a comic’s voice could have rendered the dismissal of slapstick or the sentimentality of the confessional, but the genius of the writing, carefully modulated between farce and pathos, realized the poignancy of tragic depth. The reader watches the performance of an artist unravel with the same morbid fascination that causes us to pick at a scab.

Time spins backward as shtick morphs into confessional memoir, sub-levels of consciousness exposed. The artistry of the narrative rides on much more than the single dramatic elements of performance and audience. That these are realized through the lens of one member of the audience adds depth and consequence. The judge, a long-ago friend of the comedian, views the performance from both present and past, objectivity and subjectivity. He is the arm of justice twisted into its moral ambiguity as he struggles to accommodate a moment of adolescent betrayal. As focal intelligence, he represents a polar opposite to another intent listener, the dwarfed medium befriended in a web of childhood persecution. She plays agape to his legality. Both are the shadows teased into the comic Dovelah’s matriarchal/patriarchal light on the road to Jerusalem. They are players in the final resurrection.


The Problem with Naming

The title of Elizabeth Strout’s novel suggests that her protagonist is obsessed with naming. In fact, naming has been central to her experience  since she was a child. Her early years in school were defined by her struggle to name the words she discovered and the actions she observed in others. She was victimized by the names her classmate called her, directly or by inference.1419039988836

Lucy and her mother name her nurses, preferring their own pet names to the given names of these persons who come in and out the sanctuary of the sickroom. Together they struggle to name persons whose lives somehow fill out and enlarge their shared experience. Lucy would like to name the emotion that hangs between the two women, but her mother closes her eyes and refuses to cross that line. Her pet name “Wizzle” is sufficient for all that is unsayable.

There are things that Lucy is reluctant to name. She can’t say the word “snake,” and she shies away from the “Thing” that involves her father and penetrates every page of the novel. She knows that as a writer, she has assumed the obligation of naming, and she worries about the injunction to be “ruthless.” She puzzles over the  reluctance of the writer Sarah Payne to give her name when the two first met in the New York clothing shop, but she comes to understand what it means to own words published in black and white.

Lucy came of age with parents who found it difficult to name their past as well as the present. Her father’s denial of the two young German civilians he killed in WWII when he was barely older than a boy is a failure of naming that overshadows his life and figures in his rejection of the German heritage of the man Lucy marries. That family horror lingers , leaving Lucy with an unnamed conflict over her husband’s inheritance of money from an ancestor whose profits had come from the war. Her nightmares related fears that a Nazi would imprison her and take her children.

Much is left unnamed in this novel–the breakup of Lucy’s first marriage, the relationships of her daughters with their stepmother, her rise to fame as a novelist, her choice of second partner. It is far easier for Lucy to name the cornfields of her youth and the skyline of her adulthood than it is to name her conflicted emotions over her own role as mother. She is after all her mother’s daughter.



The Chrysler Building is featured in the cover design for both the British and the American printings of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, but the designs suggest subtle differences. The British cover features the stylized window and the empty chair of the mother’s ever-illusive presence in the daughter’s life, while the American cover slices the building with the author’s name and the book’s title. The two designs reflect lucy barton (1)the tensions that exist in the protagonist’s life. Struggling to be heard or even be noticed as a child is partly resolved in the older professional who makes her mark on the publishing world. It’s another novel that studies the power of limitation to motivate success. The charm comes in the dramatic irony; the narrator never quite understands what she clearly reveals to her audience.

The bulk of the novel is set in five days during the protagonist’s nine-week stay in the hospital to overcome the mysterious aftermath of an appendectomy. The period of hospitalization is peculiarly redemptive. It becomes the occasion for the narrator to climb back into the womb and listen to the murmur of the mother’s voice. She revisits the life she knew as a child but without the isolation and silence. It’s an exercise in the revision of family history.

Hospitalization offers as much psychic healing as it offers physical healing. It’s a place of secure warmth as opposed to the cold of the garage where the family once lived, a place where her physical needs are met as opposed to the meager bread and molasses of her childhood. Visited regularly by a doctor she adores, a sort of high priest of the medical world, the patient is blessed by the rituals of caring.

While the security of the extended hospital stay allows Lucy Barton time to process the deprivations and hardships of her childhood, it also reenacts the same dissatisfactions that are woven into her past. The mother’s voice is at the same time comforting and distant. The nurses are caring but unable sit down and talk. The doctor disappears from her life when her illness ends. The depths of her neediness can never be filled by others. There will always be a psychic disconnect in her life. She is left with the task of declaring her own name.


The Structure of the Sayable

The eponymous title sets the parameters for Elizabeth Strout’s deeply introspective novel. Like a child in first grade or a beginning language student, the protagonist, Lucy Barton, proclaims from every page her rage to be seen against a shifting landscape in which alienation is the ever-present danger. The reader meets her in the anonymity of a prolonged hospital stay. The clinical sterility of her room is illuminated at night by the lights of the kskgswqylc-1469801907Chrysler Building. That building hovers over her experience as a strangely personal image of a secular god. Its suggestion of order, beauty, and strength reaches toward the sky beyond, a silent correlative of the hidden element in her own soul that is both salve and desire.

The building acts as recurring motif throughout the novel. It’s an image of identity in an otherwise blur of buildings. It aspires to having its artistic design recognized and thus becomes a model for Lucy’s ambition to have her own fiction recognized.

The building is linguistically connected to the near-mystical presence of Lucy’s mother in the hospital room. Both mother and building seem to have mystical night powers as they intersect with the daughter’s  silence. The mother’s dreams connect with the daughter’s life providing knowledge of a birth, certainty of recovery, and a troubled marriage to come. The illumination of the building at night enables mother and daughter to transcend their habitual patterns of silence and talk of acquaintances from the past in a new freedom of conversation. The mother’s speech becomes for the daughter an engendering presence that rivals the steadfastness of the building’s image. “Maybe it was the darkness with only the pale crack of light that came through the door, the constellations of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us, that allowed us to speak in ways we never had.”

The Chrysler Building “shone like the beacon it was, the largest and best hopes of mankind and its aspirations and desire for beauty” in the night for Lucy. She wanted to tell her mother how she felt about the building, but the years of shielding emotions prevented this disclosure. Yet, her intuitive mother wrote after returning home using a picture postcard of the building, a silent affirmation of the power of the building in their abbreviated five-day experience. Perhaps, though she would deny it, she caught a glimpse of what the building meant to the daughter. Uncomfortably, she saw through that shared window and knew what the carefully dressed women walking on the streets of New York meant to her youngest daughter.

Stroud’s novel is a good place to start a read through the Booker longest. It’s a short novel that can be read in a weekend or a long night. It is technically fresh while delivering philosophical depth. It probes the way culture shapes perception, personality, and the process of societal adaptation. It never whines but explores the shaping influence of economic and class differentiation.