November 2013

Batya Ungar-Sargon

fiction

Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom

What is the texture of human feeling? Of a fictional character? How much of the first does one need in order to really feel the second? This is the question posited by Orly Castel-Bloom's latest offering, Textile.

The novel travels through the interconnections of a handful of people, coursing through these acquaintances as if their relationships were a map one could traverse. But these can hardly be called relationships. Castel-Bloom's characters occupy a detached and isolated postmodern world, literalized in the brand-new development neighborhood for the one percent, Tel Baruch North. This neighborhood, an object of envy for those who cannot afford to live there, is an entirely artificial creation, from the manufactured pink light that refracts across the marble to the coconut palm trees whose "rapid and imperious growth produced results of a cunning and historically helpful nature: it gave rise to the impression that the suburb of Tel Baruch North had not been established yesterday or the day before, but had been there for years. As the tall, flourishing coconut plants proved." But these palms, not native to the area, also denude the place of a natural ecosystem; as one character complains, "There are no butterflies, never mind honeysuckers. Or hedgehogs. There's no food chain." The ersatz reality of Telba N. is both symptom and cause of the rootless way characters live and treat each other. They feel as though they might simply slip away. And some, eventually, do.

The characters of the novel include Irad Gruber, winner of the Israel Prize for creating a spiral escalator; his daughter Lirit, a flower child in rebellion; and her mother, Amanda "Mandy" Greenholtz Gruber, the owner of the Nighty-Night factory, which produces organic cotton pajamas for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. One of the tenets of Orthodox Judaism includes a prohibition against Shatnetz: mixing two kinds of material in one garment. Nighty-Night's cotton is pure, unmixed, kosher, and protects the Orthodox bodies that wear it from the impurities of the flesh and of the fabric. A young woman gets roped into the pajama-factory business: "Is this it? she asked herself. Am I going to be buried in a pajama factory for the ultra-Orthodox from now on? Forever? Is this my life? Is this my vocation? Warp and woof for cold nights with no fear of impurities?"

With a cast of characters as self-obsessed and unattached to each other as these are, one would expect to find it difficult to invest in the narrative. How can we be expected to care about people who don't care about each other? And yet what Castel-Bloom proves is that sympathetic characters are not at all essential to the success of even a character-driven plot. For what happens to the reader while immersed in Textile is that the nature of one's encounter with the text -- one's ability to feel the texture of this story -- becomes an exercise in surface rather than depth. One meets these characters, presented meticulously through Castel-Bloom's gaze and precise pen, as though one were running one's hand along organic cotton, slowly absorbing the decadence of the surface, feeling its purity yet always moving on. The characters' alienation from themselves, each other, and the land they occupy, is mesmerizing; it reveals a post-modern subject unmoored from anything, past or present. These people aren't attached; the only true feelings expressed in the book are advertisements for pajamas.

I say that the relationship between feeling and character is posited rather than grappled with in Textile because Castel-Bloom is not an author who grapples. She is too sure-footed, too sleek. This is not to say that she has the answers, but rather, grappling is beneath her. The authorial voice has a purity to it. It is unmixed with judgment or emotion or analysis, and the translation is a work of art, somehow managing to convey flashes of the Israeli's contempt for the English language.

The one thing Castel-Bloom is incapable of withholding is her natural wit. The deadpan tone -- and this book, obsessed with surfaces, is all tone -- sparkles, even as it withholds more substantial things. When Mandy worries about her daughter, she thinks, "If Lirit got married, she wouldn't have to worry about her anymore. She thought of someone along the lines of a promising student of business administration, or even a young math teacher who wasn't a pedophile." Irad Gruber worries that if his business trip fails, "It would be Titanic three -- if Titanic one was the disaster of the Titanic itself, and Titanic two was the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio." A sniper's one ambition after his discharge from the army was to "fly straight to Hollywood and become a paparazzi to the stars. Judging by his success as a sharp shooter, the Hollywood stars were in for a big surprise."

Castel-Bloom is a true stylist. Nothing escapes her. The sniper awaits his target, a terrorist

busy planning five simultaneous attacks in different cities, including overseas targets. If the five bombs didn't explode at exactly the same minute, the attack wouldn't count as simultaneous. The number of casualties wasn't important, but the simultaneity was. The competition was over the control of time.

Who is the object of scorn here? The sniper or the terrorist, or the CO who didn't care where the attacks occurred? Between whom is the competition? Herein lies Castel-Bloom's genius: all of the above. The intimacy of the narcissistic culture is revealed, and the violence of intimacy, the way it binds people together.

Place and feeling are melded to the texture of language in Castel-Bloom's description of a pair of Israeli yogis responsible for developments in the language:

For example, the Segals were the first in the country to say, "I'm speaking from a place of..." They were the ones who invented the culture of "place" in the Hebrew language. All kinds of abstractions turned into places. There was a place of pain, a place of loneliness and frustration, a place of wanting to help, a place of compassion, and so on.

This is the Castel-Bloom special: from one side of her mouth, scathing mockery. From the other, a small homoncular voice murmuring "Respect." For Castel-Bloom's book agrees that places and feelings are codependent, even as she loathes the New Age culture that gestures to the empty center with its flaky prepositional phrases. One of the yogis falls for another yogi who was born in India, whose "parents had arrived there as colonialists in the framework of the expansion of the British Empire, and they had all returned to England in the framework of its contraction." This is Castel-Bloom schooling the yogis: this is how it's done, she seems to be saying. They didn't move to India "from a place of British expansion," but rather, in its framework. Post-colonialism, like postmodernism, is placeless; it is a web of surfaces from which no feeling is possible. And then, lest we sink too far into despair, Castel-Bloom consoles us: the abandoned yogi "sank into profound melancholy with fits of apathy, and spent the rest of her life watching television, which improved a lot over the years." Indeed.

Israel is not spared by Castel-Bloom's novel. A houseguest refuses to leave. At her wit's end, his hostess calls a friend for help. "I'm telling you," the friend sniggers, "Every Israeli is an occupier." The sniper's mother confesses to her daughter, "I don't even care about civilians anymore. Only about soldiers. You know? About children and babies I don't feel anything anymore." One of the characters, the daughter of the aforementioned yogis, moves to Ithaca and becomes obsessed with Rod Serling. She has exchanged one twilight zone for another, Castel-Bloom implies; a real one for an imaginary one, and indeed, imagination is that which is most absent from these characters who are all so caught up in themselves. What a revelation on Castel-Bloom's part, that imagination and generosity are linked so tightly, the two things that the postmodern residents of Telba N. and Ithaca, New York cannot muster, dependent as generosity and imagination are on that which lies beneath the warp and woof of everyday life.

Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom
The Feminist Press at CUNY
ISBN: 978-1558618251
160 pages