An Explosive Stasis
By BEZALEL STERN
THE PALE OF SETTLEMENT
By Margot Singer
216 pages. University of Georgia Press. $24.95.
The Pale of Settlement,
a new book of nine interconnected short stories by Margot Singer, begins and
ends with a bang. I am not speaking in metaphors. The book begins, as it ends,
with a literal explosion. What happens in between the bookended bombs sets
Singer’s book apart from anything I have yet read of the Israeli experience as
seen through American eyes.
Here are the book’s opening words:
“The bomb went off downtown, near the entrance to the Haifa Carmelit subway, at
5:27 on a Friday morning in late June. It blew up a white Fiat and shattered
the plate glass windows of the Bank Hapoalim branch across the intersection. It
exploded a streetlight, two signposts, and part of the stone wall bordering the
sidewalk…The pavement was covered with bits of twisted metal and broken stone.”
Vivid, evocative writing. The reader, at least this reader, waits to hear the
number of casualties, readies himself to be pulled in to a world of pain. But
the death toll never comes. “The Voice of Israel reported in its nine o’clock
broadcast,” this on page two of the book, “that no one had been injured in the
blast. Other than a disruption to traffic, everything was functioning as
normal. Only a few commuters, stepping out of the Carmelit station into the
daylight, noticed the smell of burned rubber.”
Singer’s book, she makes immediately clear, focuses on the often unnoticed
tragedies of living in a perpetual war zone—the emotional explosions that rock
the world of the men and women who live in Israel and the distance-suffering of
those who care about them. (The subtle and marked allusions in the quoted
passage to Wallace Steven’s poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” will remain
unmentioned here, excepting to say that they do, in fact, exist.)
Singer, in the pages following that first explosion, highlights the fact that
the most tragic events in life are often those that occur when nothing happens.
It is a theme she follows throughout the book, giving her stories their most
poignant moments, while, at times, often at the same time, causing some
frustration on the part of the reader. In a world of uncertainty, people strive
to feel each other, sometimes erotically, sometimes passionately, but no one
seems to be able to truly know anyone
else in these stories. Nothing can progress beyond a certain point. One begins
to realize, after a while, that nothing really happens.
The book’s chief protagonist, Susan, is a vaguely Israeli American Jew (her
parents moved to America before she was born) who returns again and
again—physically as well as mentally—to the tarnished promised land that
continually haunts her. A journalist, Susan tells other people’s stories
without having a cogent story of her own. She lives, it seems, solely through
the stories of other people. The tragedy of her grandparent’s lost innocence
when they were forced to flee Germany for Palestine before the Second World
War. The horror her mother conveys to her of her abusive grandfather. The
alternately mystical and mundane lives of her ex-lovers.
While Susan spends most of her life in America, it is her family in Israel, in
both the micro sense of her close relatives and the macro sense of her
coreligionists, that occupies her thought. Thus, while on a quasi-spiritual
journey in Nepal, all Susan thinks about is that the grungy man at the table
across from her is Israeli. The thought brings her comfort, but even so, Susan
feels disconnected: “She could walk over and say Shalom, but then she’d be
stuck explaining that she didn’t really speak Hebrew after all.”
And that, after all, is the tragedy of the American Jew’s relationship to the
Israeli, and it is a tragedy that Singer aptly conveys. Feeling an intrinsic
bond with a people that she has nothing, really, in common with, Susan ends up
with nothing at all (the Israeli, at the end of the story, steals Susan’s
watch, her Israeli grandmother’s legacy).
This stasis is the tragedy of the book; it is also what keeps this fine,
tenderly written book from being a great one. Susan’s story may be beautifully
told, but it is not, finally, all that interesting. Watching Susan watch her
family in Israel live can get somewhat dull.
Indeed, the final explosion in the book has Susan, anxious and worried, email
her cousin in Israel. “[H]e does not reply. At a distance, it’s hard to tell
what’s going on. Perhaps the language barrier is too great. Or perhaps he
simply doesn’t want to correspond.” While their lives are central to Susan,
Susan’s own life is peripheral to theirs. By the book’s end, the explosions
that rocked Susan’s consciousness throughout its stories have taken their toll.
Susan has worried and fretted and wasted her life doing so. She is left with
nothing but memories of the past, hazy recollections of a country and a people
to whom she finally realizes she is only tenuously connected.