August 2004

Adam Lipkin

fiction

Scream Queens of the Dead Sea by Gilad Elbom

Metafiction -- that nebulous self-referential supergenre that includes everything from the movie Adaptation to Aliasdair Gray's Lanark -- tends to bother me. Much as I truly loved both of the examples I just cited, most of the works that involve a meeting between an author and a character, or which are otherwise self-referential, end up as something of a muddled mess. They can still be interesting (Grant Morrison's Animal Man run was fun, even though he cribbed pretty heavily from Gray at times) or amusing (see Giffen and Fleming's Ambush Bug comics) but most of the works simply end up as fun diversions, at best.

Gilad Elbom's debut novel, Scream Queens of the Dead Sea, certainly starts out as a fun novel. The title is quite possibly the best one I've seen in years, and the narrator (named, of course, Gilad Elbom) has a perfect deadpan voice for describing some truly odd situations. Our "hero" is a layabout who is obsessed with literary analysis and heavy metal, and dispassionate about everything else.

Elbom lives in Israel, and works in a minimum-security insane asylum. His patients include a murderer who claims to believe in nothing (including nihilism, atheism, or any other denial-based philosophy), a woman who thinks she's dead, a horror movie fan who constantly writes love poems to B-movie actress Julie Strain, and a host of other folks with the sort of wacky derangements that only seem to be inflicted on fictional characters. For all their insanity, they're capable of rational arguments and interesting dialogue; defending his love of Strain, one patient points out, "She's good looking, but that doesn't make her a slut. Take Beatrice, for example. Or Laura. Or the Dark lady. Nobody every called them a bimbo."

Elbom treats them like dirt, ignoring and belittling their requests for aid. Outside of work, Elbom carries on an affair with his best friend, Carmel, who randomly calls him up on the phone to rant about the state of the Israeli government. Carmel got married to avoid serving in the Israeli army, and her husband is now dying of cancer while she carries on her affair. Their relationship is a balance of griping about the Israeli/Palestinian relationship, Carmel hoping her husband (whom we never meet) will finally die, and extremely graphic sex scenes.

The novel, filled with black humor, slowly adds touches of metafiction as Elbom's misanthropy and exposure to the daily life of the insane asylum eats at his own sanity. At first, we're just presented with small touches -- Elbom promises to explain a character's history by the end of chapter three, or he mentions that he's writing this book in his spare time at the asylum. Slowly, more of the characters seem to be aware of the nature of the book itself, and refer to their portrayal in the novel. As the novel becomes more self-aware, Elbom's link to reality continues to fade. The novel climaxes after a disastrous visit by Elbom and Carmel to an Arab casino (and to the slums into which many Palestinians have been forced), and Elbom's deteriorating mental state becomes the focus of the remainder of the book.

Elbom (the "real" one), as a first time novelist, doesn't aim for subtlety. Linking the deteriorating state of his fictional alter-ego's mind to the political and social chaos that envelopes Israel is a nice touch. Elbom (both the authorial and the fictional ones) is clearly conflicted about his feelings for his homeland, with Carmel's constant cynicism over Israel's actions weighed against the fictional Elbom's own paranoid fear of being killed by a Palastinian. There are digressions aplenty, including one extended sequence in which Elbom and his car are constantly drafted by soldiers who need to get to different army bases. It's a satirical sequence that, along with the some of the zanier moments in the asylum, makes it clear that Joseph Heller is one of Elbom's influences. Likewise, Elbom's attempts to have a "sane" conversation with some of his patients are priceless:

"Forget The Dharma Bums. Have you read Robinson Crusoe?"

"Sure. I like his poems."

"No, no. Listen to me: Have you ever read a book called Robinson Crusoe?"

"By Kerouac?"

"No, by DeFoe."

"By the what?"

"Defoe. Daniel DeFoe."

"Was he the one who wrote Moll Flanders?"

"Exactly. And Robinson Crusoe."

"The wrote it together?"

But the wacky stuff (which, aside from the satire, also includes constant digressions about heavy metal and movies like Blood and Wine and Chasing Amy), the political commentary, the rough sex, and the look at insanity, while all well written by themselves, fail to achieve true synergy. Instead of one truly solid novel focusing on one or two themes, Elbom spreads himself too thin, and the ending ends up more muddled than coherent at times (something metafiction has troubles with under the best of circumstances). Still, this is an extremely impressive debut novel, and if it doesn't cohere completely in the end, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read, and bodes well for Elbom's potential. With a little more restraint, he could well establish himself as a comic novelist or satirist on the level of Bill Fitzhugh or Christopher Moore.

Scream Queens of the Dead Sea by Gilad Elbom
Four Walls, Eight Windows
ISBN: 1568583222
288 Pages