Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Yume no Hon, Labyrinth, The Ritual Bath

After finishing The Orphan's Tales, I've been on a bit of a Cathrynne Valente kick.  I got her first and second books out of the library, Labyrinth and Yume no HonLabyrinth seems to me a very private book.  It's about a woman who's wandering through a labyrinth of some sort  where the doors are dangerous and in which there are many odd creatures wandering around with whom she converses.

The story (such as it is) is given to us in snapshots.  Here she talks to a lobster, there she evades a pack of doors, and so on.  There's no real sense of forward movement, or why she's in the labyrinth at all.  All in all, it was one of those books which feel like they mean much more to the author than to the reader.

Yume no Hon (the Book of Dreams) is likewise a dense thicket.  It's about Ayako, an old woman in Heian Japan (most likely) who lives in a deserted pagoda a little way from the nearest village.  Villagers (or ghosts?) bring her food, which she eats (or ignores, or she eats the villagers).  Ayako sometimes thinks (or dreams) she's Isis, sometimes the sphinx, sometimes a ghost.  Although this shifting web of meanings is too elusive to pin a story onto, I somehow found it compelling anyway.  Obviously, the simplest reading is that the whole book consists of Ayako's dreams, one after another.  But there's a sense of progression, as the same dreams return in different guises, and by the end she seems to have achieved some kind of contentment (but is it as illusory as everything else in the novel?)

The Ritual Bath, by Faye Kellerman, is a much more straight-forward proposition.  It's a mystery set in a kollel in L.A, and promises an interesting look at the customs of black-hatters.  It's hard to say what someone new to Orthodox Judaism would think of this book; the religion is so central to the novel that Kellerman must spend an inordinate amount of time talking about it.  To her credit, she does leave the reader with a bit of an ambiguous feeling toward the kollelniks, and to religion in general.  For example, at one point, Decker, the lead detective, is discussing his roots with the chief rabbi, and the rabbi tells him that "maybe God brought you here to discover these things," and Decker can only think that "no, it was a rape that brought me here."  It's as nice an encapsulation of the problem of the theodicy as I suspect you can have in 2 sentences.

Having said all that, for me there was a sense of been-there-done-that.  I don't need to have Shmulie explain the meaning of megillat Ester to me in a long paragraph, or to have Rina explain why she can't eat in restaurants.  Maybe all books set in specialized subcultures read like this and I just haven't noticed, because they strike me as new and fresh, but it seems to me to be a particular flaw of the Jewish ones.  (I'm not considering novels like The French Lieutenant's Woman here, in which anthropological exploration is a major theme)  It seems as if every so often the novel just stops dead for a while, while the author explains some minutiae of Jewish life.  I remember the same thing from the Rabbi Small books, and from some other book whose name I've forgotten about a Jewish girl who gets kidnapped.  Whereas I feel like the informational snippets are more scattered in, say, Donna Leon's books about Venice.

On a totally different note, one thing which I really liked was the way Kellerman jumps forward a few days and fills in the details with a deft line of dialog or two -- nothing as heavy-handed as "that was a great weekend; we went camping and hiking", but maybe just a quick allusion to something the character saw while hiking.  If only the Jewish pieces had been as deft, I would've been happier with the novel as a whole.

PS Another thing I liked was that, although the Rosh Yeshiva is depicted as being very wise, he makes a big blunder early on, compelling the police to use a local doctor to do the forensic analysis of a rape victim, rather than the official doctor.  (Because the victim would feel more comfortable with her).  I find that all to often the rabbi is superhumanly perspicacious but is ignored by the police (like the aforementioned Rabbi Small books); it was nice to see a more nuanced depiction.

No comments: