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זה שמחכה by Yotam Tolub
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Jun 21, 09

bookshelves: hebrew, culturalidentity, jewish, scifi-fantasy-magicrealism
Recommended for: Hebrew readers who like postmodern fiction a la Jonathan Safran Foer/Nicole Krauss

Thinking Questions for Post-Modern Novelists:

Note: We deliberately refrained from using the word “guidelines” because that would constitute an arbitrary imposition of our reality on that of the author.

1. Why write a story with a beginning, middle, and end when you can write a story with 10,000 middles instead?

2. Why choose one viewpoint or switch viewpoints in a structured manner when you can randomly float out of one character’s head and into another’s and really confuse your reader about whose story this is?

3. Why organize the events in your story chronologically or logically when you can organize them thematically according to a structure that makes sense only to you?

4. Can there ever be too many coincidences? After all, reality is what we make it.

5. Since reality is what we make it, why tell the reader what’s really going on when you can keep them guessing instead about whether what they’re reading is the actual story or whether it’s just some character’s speculation/fantasy?

6. Why the heck would anyone want to read a book like this?

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh in taking all my postmodernism wrath out on this one poor book, which doesn't entirely deserve all of this. And in fact, some of the things that got on my nerves about the book weren’t even its postmodern qualities necessarily.

But first I’ll backtrack with a short summary.

Zizi (a really stupid nickname if you ask me; the kid’s actual name is Raz), a ten-year-old Israeli boy, is living in Boston for the year as his mother engages in some kind of postdoctoral law research at Harvard. With the obvious exception of Zizi’s self-involved mother, Shuli/Susie, who seems to wish she could just leave them all behind and pursue her academic dreams, none of them seems particularly happy to be there – not his long-suffering father, Yaaki, who continually tries to accommodate “Shuzi” (as he jokingly calls her in mockery of her pretenses) but can’t help being too much of a politically incorrect Israeli for her; not his little sister Shai, perpetually glued to the television in the absence of parents who might try to engage her or stimulate her; and certainly not Zizi himself, who cultivates an active fantasy life as a means of coping with his loneliness and his difficult adjustment.

In Zizi’s fantasy life, which comprises a great deal of the first half of the book, there’s actually a meaning and purpose to his being uprooted from all he knows and loves and having to adjust to freezing winters and “food that tastes like plastic” (if you’ve ever tasted spicy Israeli cuisine and the fresh produce here, I think you’ll have to admit that Zizi has a point) as his parents become increasingly estranged from each other and detached from their children. Zizi’s fantasy involves his upstairs neighbor, Mr. Freund, who remains closeted in his house. Several ambiguous clues suggest, at least to Zizi’s mind, that Mr. Freund is actually an Israeli spy and that Zizi has a secret mission to assist him – to the point where Zizi actually knocks on this eccentric neighbor’s door and offers his services.

Of course, Mr. Freund’s real secret eventually unfolds (after he slams the door on Zizi’s garbled attempt to express his knowledge of Mr. Freund’s hidden activities) and turns out to be rather different, though no less dramatic in its own way. Unfortunately, this gradual revelation is preceded by an extremely slow and only marginally interesting build-up. And as the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, the narrative becomes increasingly post-modern and disjointed which, in case you haven’t guessed, is really not my thing.

This book did have some good points, and was readable despite its being in Hebrew which is already saying something. I felt Zizi’s pain at both his own difficulty adjusting socially and his parents’ marital tension and benign neglect of their children; yet with all this pain there was some comic relief. I also give Tolub credit for getting the mind of a ten-year-old down pretty well, at least in terms of imagining oneself as part of a melodrama of grand proportions as opposed to simply an everyday kid. If I remember correctly, that’s very much the age where you’re convinced that you were switched at birth with some royal figure or, as in Zizi’s case, that your mysterious neighbor is really a spy. I also think, though, that even at ten, there’s a part of you that knows when your fantasies are really just fantasies no matter how badly you want to believe them. I’m not sure why that didn’t happen for Zizi, who is otherwise depicted as quite bright. It’s one thing to convince yourself that your neighbor is really a spy. It’s another thing to knock on his door and actually offer your services to him as an assistant spy when the entire body of evidence for his secret career exists inside your head, and surely some part of you knows that even if you’re dying to believe otherwise.

Then, there were some other things that got on my nerves.

First of all, this book used that same old postmodern device which is starting to become a cliché – a curious (and often bored and/or emotionally neglected) child uncovers what might be half-clues of some drama and totally misconstrues them, but eventually the pieces come together and what started out as a child trying to make mountains out of several random molehills proves to be a far-reaching, dramatic, and poignant story with a life of its own. Yeah, yeah. I read "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," I read "History of Love," didn’t love either of them and wasn’t interested in revisiting the theme.

And really, who wants to read about a ten-year-old anyway? Even though (or maybe because) Tolub did a better job than most of depicting a developmentally authentic ten-year-old, I’d still rather read a story written from an adult perspective (with a few notable exceptions like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye,” but this book wasn’t one of them). Of course, there were those times when Tolub suddenly shifted briefly to the perspective of one of Zizi’s parents. Rather than enhancing the book for me, though, those moments detracted by confusing me and making me feel less emotionally involved with Zizi. I’m really not into multiple perspectives as a rule.

I also got annoyed with the constant Hebrew transliteration of English/English transliteration of Hebrew shifting. I understood what Tolub was trying to do by showing us how the main character was hearing the Americans’ English as well as their attempts to speak Hebrew, and it was actually pretty clever and creative (when he used English transliteration to depict Americans speaking in Hebrew, for example, you could actually hear the accent in your head), but after a while it was overdone and irritating.

What’s more, I don’t need a pageturner necessarily, but I do need a more balanced contemplation:action ratio than this book offered. I really don’t like it when authors feel they need to have us follow every detail of every single train of thought in their characters’ heads, no matter how trivial. I honestly don’t think that every single one of anyone’s thoughts are interesting, even my own (my lengthy goodreads reviews notwithstanding!), and if someone were writing Khaya: The Novel, I hope they would be far more selective about including only the streams of consciousness served plot/characterization purposes and omitting those which were just plain boring.

Finally, I totally didn’t get the ending. How the heck did that happen? I actually e-mailed my Hebrew book club members to request an explanation, since I’ll be missing our meeting. Which, to tell the truth, does speak well for the book in spite of all my other complaints – the fact that I bothered to finish it even though I’ll be missing the meeting in the end, and my actual interest in understanding the ending as opposed to simply slamming the book shut and wishing it good riddance. Hence the two stars.
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Reading Progress

05/23/2009 page 76
30.65% "Kind of sad to read about an Israeli boy's struggle to adjust to America and his parents' marriage on the rocks. Hope it gets better."
06/06/2009 page 122
49.19% "A lot of things about this book are getting on my nerves. I'm not sure how much of it is the fact that I have to read it in Hebrew..."
06/14/2009 page 135
54.44% "Nothing tempting on my shelf right now (hint, hint, Marg) so I may as well focus on finishing this book." 2 comments
06/18/2009 page 191
77.02% "This is really getting a bit too postmodern for me, which would be bad enough if it were English but is really annoying in Hebrew."

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