Recently in To the End of the Land Category

Threesomes

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I am now about to do something truly singular.  Nowhere else on the planet will you read a text that compares David Grossman's To the End of the Land with Noel Coward's Design for Living.  Google it if you don't believe me: only one text combines those two titles, and it's this blog post.  Prepare to experience the totally unique!

Now that you're prepared, allow me to share my thought process that led me to this surprising juxtaposition.  I found myself disturbed by several contrivances in To the End of the Land.  Of course, all literature depends on contrivances, but to operate effectively the contrivances have to find themselves in an accommodating context.  A poisoned glass of wine sipped by an unintended victim works fine in Elizabethan drama (e.g., Hamlet, Women Beware Women), but it's going to flop in a Jane Austen novel. 

By the same token, the threesome at the core of To the End of the Land struck me as an element of contrivance that defied assimilation into the novel's reality.  Ilan is rigid, unimaginative, unappreciative, emotionally choked - he's so much lesser than Avram or Ora, that he seems an implausible candidate as a beloved (platonic or otherwise) for either.

At bottom, I didn't believe it.  The following question kept surfacing: do two men and a woman really love each other and sleep with each other and have kids with each other and raise each other's kids - not as something that happened at a party, or over the course of a drug-addled summer during a transitional point in one's life - but over a thirty year period?  Does this kind of thing happen?

My reflexive answer to that question was, "It worked in Design for Living, but in To the End of the Land it's a contrivance."  Otto, Leo and Gilda are, after all, artists, aesthetes and, in certain significant instances, bisexual.  They're cosmopolitan and glib.  It's a comedy.

But my next thought was: what the hell am I talking about, Design for Living was totally contrived!  Otto's and Leo's competition for Gilda never makes sense because Gilda's such a blah nothing.  The whole set-up is an elaborate contraption through which Coward snuck homosexuality into the subtext of mainstream theater.  It's not a description of reality.  If Coward could have written openly about gay life, we'd never have heard a peep about Gilda.

The appeal to writers of threesomes is obvious, so it is with some sadness that I tentatively propose that threesomes are, as yet (to my awareness), a contrivance in search of a context that can handle them.  Greater work remains to be done realizing threesomes in life before writers can nail the phenomenon on the page.  Prepare yourselves.
 
(Image of Coward, Lunt and Fontanne in Design for Living from Wikipedia)

A homeopathic remedy for mortality

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I received David Grossman's To the End of the Land as a gift, which - for me - was a bit like receiving the present of having a neurologist attach electrodes to my skull and zap my brain. As a button pusher, the novel is like dropping an elephant on my control panel: all the indicators light up.

Nonetheless, among the many stimuli, one stood out.  In To the End of the Land, a young Israeli soldier, Ofer, is deployed in a campaign against Palestinians.  His mother, Ora, responds by becoming a "notification-refusenik": she goes on a long hike so that she will not be at home to receive - in the event that it comes - notification of her son's death.  But her protest is not mere evasion: taking refuge in magical thinking, she believes her act will protect Ofer and keep him safe.  As David Grossman explains in a recent New Yorker interview, "[S]omething else flickers in [Ora] . . . If [the notifiers] don't find her, if they can't find her, [Ofer] won't get hurt."   

Ofer's participation in the campaign is a crushing disappointment to Ora because Ofer was supposed to be released from the army.  Ora and Ofer had planned a week-long vacation in the Galilee to celebrate his completion of military service.  But instead of enjoying family time with her son, Ora must confront another month of fearful dread for Ofer's safety.  

In a tense scene, Ora extracts the truth about how Ofer, rather than being released, was reenlisted:

[Ofer] admitted that he had called them that morning, even before six he had called the battalion and begged them to take him, even though today, at nine-zero-zero, he was supposed to be at the induction center for his discharge, and from there to drive to the Galilee with her.  As he lowered his gaze and mumbled on, [Ora] discovered, to her horror, that the army hadn't even considered asking him to prolong his service.  As far as they were concerned he was a civilian, deep into his discharge leave.  It was he, Ofer admitted defiantly, his forehead turning red, who wasn't willing to give up.  "No way!  After eating shit for three years so that I'd be ready for exactly this kind of operation?"  Three years of checkpoints and patrols, little kids in Palestinian villages and settlements throwing stones at him, not to mention the fact that he hadn't even been within spitting distance of a tank for six months, and now, at last, with his lousy luck, this kind of kick-ass operation, three armored units together - there were tears in his eyes, and for a moment you might have thought he was haggling with her to be allowed to come back late from a class Purim party - how could he sit at home or go hiking in the Galilee when all his guys would be there?  In short, she discovered that he, on his own initiative, had convinced them to enlist him on a voluntary basis for another twenty-eight days.

(p. 65.)

The scene comes fairly early in the course of a 576-page book, and it contributed substantially to my sense that the following 510 pages were, in some sense, a burden.  I was so revolted by Ofer's behavior - by his combination of adrenaline joy at the prospect of military action with his disregard of his commitment to his mother and his inflicting pain on her - that I didn't care if he died.  The extraordinary energy that Ora invests, over the course of the remainder of the book, in willing Ofer's continued health and vitality drained and demoralized me.  Such effort for so loathsome a character (whose Jewish mother nonetheless thinks he's wonderful, what else is new?) struck me as futile.

I could easily view Ofer as a liability to the book: not likeable, causes readers to want to put the book down before the end.  And, yet, even as I was writing the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, I recognized that what I'd just described - a draining and demoralizing burden, exhausting expenditure of energy for a futile end - is the general parameters of life under conditions of mortality.  I thought back to Grossman's interview in The New Yorker, in which he related:

"We lost a son, Michal and I," Grossman said. "I see how much energy and how much it's an everlasting struggle to remain yourself after such a tragedy. My grandfather lost all his family [in the Holocaust] - all his town, all his friends, everything. . . . One has to work very hard on oneself to believe in mankind, in order to trust someone, in order to believe in having a future, in wanting to have children. What a superhuman achievement it is after the Shoah to bring children! It's an act of choosing life. . . . It's really heroism."
   
And I marveled that, in devising his novel as he did, Grossman has constructed a mini-version of that "everlasting struggle" - a sort of vaccine to provoke the development of anti-bodies with which I can deal with mortality.  

Reading those 510 pages following Ofer's revelation of his militaristic-mother treachery might have been a burden.  But the rest of my life will be a lesser burden - perhaps infinitesimally so, but lesser nonetheless - because I now have To the End of the Land to think back to when the need - as it inevitably will - arises.

(Image of David Grossman from The Star)

Real combat

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David Grossman's To the End of the Land might be a great book, but it's a mess.  It has tics, like its characters.  (And this is a book in which a boy rhymes incessantly for months, and then graduates into OCD hand-washing/lip-puffing/face-contorting, etc.).
 
Grossman's protagonist, Ora, is a little too emotional, and a little too unintelligent, to hold the book together.  It flies apart with her tantrums, her sudden impulses to cook, to flee, to write, to argue.
 
Like Ora, the story occillates.  The book begins powerfully, with evocative scenes in an isolation ward in a hospital during the 1967 war.  Fast-forwarding to 2000, the book continues strongly, with a devastating sub-plot involving Ora's Arab driver, Sami.  But - too soon - Sami disappears.  Ilan, Ora's husband, and Adam, her oldest son, have disappeared before we meet Ora in 2000, and her younger son, Ofer, vanishes into a military campaign shortly before Sami takes off.  All this fleeing leaves Ora alone with Avram, a man of severe incapacities, on a hike along the Israel Trail, from northen Israel back down to Jerusalem.  The narrative for the next four hundred pages or so must rise and fall with Ora, and she isn't up to the burden.
 
Grossman tries to help her out.  At one point, feral dogs menace Ora and Avram, with the upshot that Ora attracts - and functionally adopts - a dog who follows their meanderings for the remainder of the book.  At another point, Ora and Avram meet an elderly pediatrician, hiking alone, wearing two wedding rings and asking intimate questions.  The doctor finds a notebook Ora dropped, and Ora later retrieves it from him while he naps.  In my favorite of these tangents, Ora and Avram are picked up by a jester of sorts, a holy fool named Akiva, whose job is as a "gladdener of the dejected."  
 
But none of these narrative life-savers thrown by the author gets Ora to swim.  She swirls along with the currents and the breezes, and by the end of the book the narrative seems to expire from exhaustion.  The desperately important sub-plot with Sami is left hanging; the fate of Ofer in the military campaign limps to an ambiguous closure; the rupture in Ora's relations with her husband, Ilan, and her son, Adam, raises its head, but barely receives a pat. 
 
Instead, we get Ora's final tantrum, which occurs after she's invaded Avram's privacy by checking his voicemails without his knowledge and intercepted a sensitive message from his girlfriend in which she seems obliquely to be confessing to an abortion.  Ora - though the aggressor and the violator in this scenario - is hurt and acting out, and in the context of everything else with which she and Avram have been dealing over the course of the book (horrorific torture, war crimes, divorce, abandoment, helplessness to protect one's children), Ora's behavior rings a sour and petty note on which to conclude the book.  But the ending feels like Grossman simply couldn't go on: Ora wore him down.  He had to close the book on her. 
 
And yet the book has the ambition, the empathy and the sheer compulsion - the sense that it ripped itself from its author's guts and loins - that makes it great: "great" in the sense that the great Roberto Bolaño defines great books in his great and monumental novel 2666:

What a sad paradox . . . . Now even bookish [readers] are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.  They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.  Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
(p. 227.)
 
Bolaño has distilled the issue perfectly.  In To the End of the Land, Grossman struggles mightily against what terrifies us all, literally amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.  And he has produced an imperfect, torrential work that blazes into the unknown.  
 
For Grossman, for Bolaño, and most of all for ourselves, we mustn't fear to take it on.

(Image of David Grossman from The Guardian)

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