Everyday Splendor: David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

Early in To the End of the Land, the new, epic novel by acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman (The Yellow Wind, See Under: Love, The Book of Intimate Grammar), an anxious and fearful Ora scans her absent son Ofer’s room, taking stock of his possessions. These include several books by postmodernist novelist Paul Auster. One cannot help but wonder whether Grossman chose to identify the books’ author as a nod to the literary tastes of his son Uri, who was performing his military service while his father labored on this magnificent and haunting novel. Uri would be killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Auster, a friend of Grossman’s, would dedicate his novel Man in the Dark (2008) to the bereaved family and the memory of their recently departed member. Grossman himself dedicated To the End of the Land, first published in Hebrew in 2008 and now translated into fluid and elegant English by Jessica Cohen, to his wife, his two surviving children, and the late Uri. Following a prologue set during the Six-Day War in 1967, the story begins in earnest in 2000. Ofer has just finished his three-year military service, but voluntarily re-enlists in the Israeli army for a 28-day tour of duty following the outbreak of hostilities with the Palestinians. (In reality, a Palestinian intifada did erupt in 2000.) A distressed Ora embarks on a quixotic journey meant to ward off the dreadful news of Ofer’s death, which she anticipates at any moment. “She will be the first notification-refusenik.” But Ora’s ambition is greater than that; she intends to keep Ofer alive. Unfortunately, she “rationed all her oaths and talismans to last exactly three years,” meaning that she must now devise a new means of protecting her son. Jerusalemite Ora goes to Tel Aviv, rousts Ofer’s father Avram, who has been mired in a deep funk ever since his capture and torture at the hands of the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War (1973), and alternately cajoles and bullies him into joining her mission. The traumatized Avram could never bring himself to meet Ofer, who was raised along with his half-brother Adam by Ora and her now-estranged husband Ilan. But a buoyant notion crystallizes in Ora’s mind; by talking about Ofer, she will shield him from harm and simultaneously coax Avram out of his shell. During the extraordinary odyssey that follows, Grossman subtly and understatedly locates the story of Ora’s family within the Arab-Israeli tragedy in whose roiling midst it is trapped. We are treated to a multivalent exchange between Ora and a wise and wisecracking Israeli Arab taxi driver; Ora and an initially recalcitrant Avram hiking aimlessly but determinedly through the scenic Galilee, coming upon the ruins of Arab villages destroyed during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948, as well as monuments to Israeli soldiers who have fallen in subsequent wars; and the revelation of what exactly befell Avram all those years ago in Egypt. And throughout their journey, Ora tells Avram about Ofer: his wondrous first steps as a baby; his tender relationship with his brother Adam; her husband Ilan’s love for both Adam and Ofer; her feeling left out by her three men when they were all together; and her distinctly maternal wish, during Ofer’s three-year military service in the Occupied Territories, that he not get hurt and also not hurt anyone. Ora brings her son to life in words even as he may lie dying on the battlefield, and she slowly reawakens Avram’s long-dormant Lebenslust and his suppressed paternal instincts. To be sure, the heady swirl of emotions often proves enervating, while the focus on quotidian family matters inevitably creates boring stretches, especially when elongated by the story’s languid pace. Yet the payoff is worth it. When fully explored, as it is by Grossman in this novel, the drama of the human condition enthralls more than the most gripping action sequence. Much of Israeli literature remains plagued by a lingering triumphalist strain born of the whitewashed and mythologized Zionist enterprise. To the End of the Land is not the first Israeli novel to depart from that rigid and jarring narrative, but it is arguably the finest. For even as Ora remains impervious to the militant and totalistic anti-Israel ideologies engulfing the Arab world and beyond, she defies Israel itself, the state that has “nationalized her life” and demands that she acquiesce in its jingoism and its greedy claim to her son. Indeed, To the End of the Land is, above all, a bold restoration of humanity’s primacy over ideology and politics of any kind. At the same time, the novel unabashedly embraces the life-affirming splendor of the mundane. This is Ora in her kitchen, enveloped in the bosom of her family: “Listen to the soundtrack, she thinks. Believe in the soundtrack. This is the right tune: a pot bubbles, the fridge hums, a spoon clangs on a plate, the faucet flows, a stupid commercial on the radio, your voice and Ilan’s voice, your children’s chatter, their laughter—I never want this to end.”

Äppärät-chic: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

“Oh, dear diary. My youth has passed, but the wisdom of age hardly beckons. Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?” Bemoaning his fate thus is 39-year-old lovable loser Lenny Abramov, the bookish and neurotic Russian-Jewish-American protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s feverish, boisterous, wildly funny yet also contrived and histrionic new novel: Super Sad True Love Story. And Lenny’s philosophical lament, equal parts rueful and self-deprecating, does not begin to encapsulate his troubles. The not-too-distant future world in which he feels himself an anachronism is a place generally negotiated with the aid of an äppärät, an electronic communication and data-collecting device with which Lenny hardly feels comfortable. His need for genuine human interaction instead of the äppärät-generated classification of humans according to everything from their credit to their “Fuckability” ratings, not to mention his preference for books over text-scanning—again courtesy of those infernal all-purpose äppäräts—sets him apart. And another thing: the world teeters on the brink of financial ruin. Which is too bad, not least because Lenny has just met the woman of his dreams, fellow confused American Eunice, during a sojourn in Rome, Italy. And he knows it: “For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.” Super Sad True Love Story comprises Lenny’s diary entries alongside Eunice’s text-messages, sent via her äppärät to family members and friends. Intriguingly, such a format enables Shteyngart (who is about Abramov’s age, was born in Leningrad to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the United States when he was a child, and has written the acclaimed novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan) to explore the versatility of language, whether masterfully employed or scandalously abused. Shteyngart clearly savors the adventuresome possibilities of English, possibilities made nearly infinite in this book by the profusion of infectiously silly youth argot, pompous and pseudo-scientific technical jargon, grammatically convoluted but always colorful dialects, and self-pitying meditations—sometimes uproarious, other times poignant—on the mystery of love and the evanescence of life. Indeed, aside from satirizing the corruption of American society by consumerism and its subversion by militarism, Super Sad True Love Story celebrates the power and beauty of words. Shteyngart endows Lenny—who finds himself in a world considerably more illiterate than our own—with an innocent, almost primordial logophilia: “I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data.” Back in New York City after his sabbatical in Rome, Lenny resumes work at the Post-Human Services division of a huge and—unbeknown to him—possibly sinister company. His department’s ambitious task is to make eternal human life possible. For Lenny, who suffers from an acute fear of mortality, his work is also very personal. He desperately hopes to qualify for the dechronification and cell-regeneration treatments necessary for immortality, thereby joining his visionary boss Joshie on the road to foreverdom. He may never prove eligible; his credit’s pretty good, but he hasn’t been fanatically monitoring and tweaking his triglycerides and pH levels and whatnot. Still, he has an unrelated reason to rejoice; Eunice unexpectedly moves in with him despite being unsure as to whether to pursue a relationship after their dalliance in Rome. Eunice is 24, Korean American, pretty and petite, and alternately grossed out by and drawn to the shambolic, technologically inept, emotionally cloying, and physically unimpressive guy who’s nuts about her and quite willing to put her up for as long as she likes while she avoids moving back in with her family and abusive father in New Jersey. It’s in the States that the reader becomes exposed to the full measure of madness hinted at by Lenny’s ordeal at the US embassy in Rome. America, where television seems limited to Fox Liberty-Prime and Fox Liberty-Ultra, has become virtually a police state. The country is governed by the Bipartisan Party, with soldiers of something called the American Restoration Authority patrolling the streets, ready to quell unrest by Low Net Worth Individuals (so-designated because of their poor credit ratings and meager assets) as well as disgruntled members of the National Guard, who are fed up with official neglect at home after having served in a disastrous invasion of Venezuela. Readers of George Saunders’s novellas and short stories may find the socio-economic landscape of Super Sad True Love Story somewhat familiar, what with the hegemony of corporations and the crazed consumerism of citizens. But Shteyngart charts his own course. The economy, run by gargantuan corporations such as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, is being bought out by China, itself run by the Chinese People’s Capitalist Party, at whose head sits the all-powerful Chinese Central Banker. Already, yuan-pegged dollars are worth a lot more than the plain old kind. Meanwhile, sexuality has become so commercialized that one can watch a political commentary show the gay host of which interrupts his observations to engage in live sex. And while the United Nations no longer exists, in its place can be found the United Nations Retail Corridor, which features stores such as JuicyPussy (and JuicyPussy4Men) selling transparent onionskin jeans and nippleless bras. Much of this is quite funny—if over-the-top—in addition to being scathing. Ironically, however, the source of its humor is also the book’s greatest weakness. The broader the satire—and Super Sad True Love Story is pretty broad, even when compared to Shteyngart’s earlier two novels—the more one-dimensional and artificial many of its characters. For example, Lenny’s youth-obsessed boss Joshie, his media-crazed friends Noah and Amy, and, to a lesser extent, his and Eunice’s fathers—his rabidly right-wing, hers motivated almost solely by shame and status—embody societal phenomena rather than the complexities of real people. To be sure, Lenny and Eunice do not fit this mold, what with their delightfully complicated personalities, together with the fact that Shteyngart has neither completely dissociated them from nor submerged them in the respective cultures of their origin. But, to the detriment of the story, they remain surrounded by caricatures. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, for someone given to frenzied social parody, whatever drama is conscripted for the sake of ballast will be similarly overwrought. Shteyngart’s sense of humor largely abandons him and he begins to take himself much too seriously when, two-thirds of the way through, the story veers toward violence and socio-politico-economic breakdown. Forget dystopia; what we have here is much closer to Armageddon than the atomization of humankind Lenny previously found so soul-destroying. This time, though, it’s the avarice of a privileged and blithely murderous section of humanity, rather than the retribution of a vengeful god, that sets everything ablaze. Make no mistake. Super Sad True Love Story boasts two tormented but appealing protagonists locked in a deliciously tortuous love affair. It is indeed super sad, though thankfully untrue and difficult to imagine as prescient, while proving by turns incisive and hilariously exaggerated in its skewering of American society’s excesses. But its own excesses, the product of a willfully cynical attitude on Shteyngart’s part toward the future trajectory of American culture and politics, prevent the story from transcending the restrictive confines of satire, and eventually madden and exhaust even the most amenable and patient reader.