Messianic madness

Book cover of Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer showing a rabbi with a can and a scroll with the fave of a person with long hair in the background

Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From 1648 to 1658, some 100,000 Jewish people were killed in Poland during a Cossack rebellion. The Cossacks committed mass atrocities against civilians, with Jewish people among their primary targets. After this calamity, the idea began to take hold among the traumatized survivors that these events were a sign that they were on the cusp of the ultimate battle of Armageddon and the coming of the Messiah, who would lead the Jewish people back to Israel. Into this void stepped a Jewish mystic and rabbi named Sabbatai Zevi, who claimed to be the Messiah and declared that the year 1666 would be the fated year. But when he went to Constantinople in February 1666, he was imprisoned and given a choice: be impaled by a spear, be shot at with arrows (in which case if they missed, it would prove he was the Messiah), or convert to Islam. He chose the latter, gutting the religious movement and sending his followers into despair.

This is the background for Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s Satan in Goray, a dark, disturbing tale of messianic madness gripping a small town. It describes how in 1648, the Cossack’s “slaughtered on every hand, flayed men alive, murdered small children, violated women and afterward ripped open their bellies and sewed cats inside.” The survivors fled for nearby Lublin, where many were converted or sold into slavery. Goray, once known for its scholars and men of accomplishment, was deserted.

Years later, some destitute citizens return and begin to rebuild. Among them are the renowned Rabbi Benish Ashkenazi and Reb Eleazar Babad, formerly its richest member and leader, with his daughter Rechele. But the town can never return to what it was. As Singer writes, “Its best citizens had been slaughtered.” The novel details how traveling men first bring rumors to this struggling town of the coming Messiah, and then settle there to seed the growth of what would become a mass delusion that tears the town apart. Sabbatai’s followers take over the town and drive out the traditionalists. After Sabbatai’s conversion, their leaders decide that they must embrace evil in order to eventually ascend to Heaven. Poor Rechele soon becomes the center of the ensuing insanity.

Satan in Goray was Singer’s first novel, published in installments in a magazine in 1933. Its ideas about how people can so easily turn to false prophets and other charlatans for hope is still clearly relevant to our society. But the novel is never fully involving, as it is told at something of a remove. Singer may have seen this as a necessity, considering the horrific events he depicts. The novel is graphic and shocking, sort of like The Exorcist on steroids. The last section takes yet another step back, describing events with a religious writing style, as if it were a 17th century document. One character’s name, for example, is always accompanied by “may his remembrance be a blessing”.

Overall, though, this is a fascinating book. I find it sad that 90 years after it was written and more than 350 years after the events it depicts, people are still subject to believing the lies and promises of leaders who are clearly looking to take advantage of their desperation and hope.

The Invitation

Photo of a nightclub entrance from across the street on a wet night.
Caroline Cagnin / Pexels

I’ve excited that my short story “The Invitation” was included in the summer 2024 issue of The Summerset Review. This is the first traditional short story that I’ve had published in some time. My last couple of stories were surrealist tales of modern alienation. I’m really happy this one found a home in such an excellent literary journal. You can read it online here:

The end of it all, unexplained

Book cover for Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam showing a corner of a pool with a diving board at night.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind is a compelling apocalyptic novel that’s hard to put down. It begins with a family going on vacation from Brooklyn to a beautiful house they’ve rented in a remote part of Long Island. After a day, there is a knock on the door at night. It is an older Black couple claiming to be the owners of the house. They say that there’s been a blackout in the city and ask if they can stay there until things are resolved. The renters, not sure what to do, reluctantly agree.

From this promising setup, you might think the book would be a close study of these two privileged families put in a difficult situation and left to deal with each other. But Alam has something more in mind than a psychological case study. The TV, internet, and phones are down, so there’s no way for the characters to know what’s happening, but it soon becomes apparent that the blackout is only one of many problems. Nature seems eerily out of whack, technology is failing, and the characters begin to suspect that the whole world may be falling apart. Alam tells the reader in casual asides that a vast societal collapse is indeed in progress, and the novel turns into the story of what two isolated families do at the end of the world as we know it.

This is fascinating to ponder, but the book is ultimately frustrating in its refusal to either reveal exactly what is happening or just not let on about it at all. [Spoilers here] Alam sprinkles in hints about people dying abandoned in elevators and dehydrating in high-rises, about secret military planes in combat, about the environment in rebellion. But he seems less interested in explaining what’s going wrong or analyzing how people react to disaster as he is in simply creating a general sense of dread. The events make little sense—the power and water stay on, for example, even though society is supposed to have fallen apart.[Spoiler end] When Alam does reveal something about what’s happening elsewhere, he does it in casual, offhand authorial intrusions that make it clear he doesn’t really know or care himself. He’s just throwing possibilities against the wall, much like his characters—an omnipresent narrator who simply doesn’t care to explain.

When I was in high school, I loved the band Oingo Boingo. It struck me that Leave the World Behind is essentially a prose version of their song “Nothing to Fear,” which lists nuclear war and other dangers but then sardonically proclaims in the chorus, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” Alam unites two families, one Black and one White, then undermines our expectations, which would reasonably be a close examination of their preconceptions. Instead they’re presented as part of the same problem—wealthy, insulated, and naive, they’re complicit in the global social and environmental injustices that we’re all ignoring to our own detriment. What this novel does do very well is capture our contemporary sense of dread—a worldwide phenomenon, whether justified or not—our sense that things just aren’t going right in the world and will somehow, inevitably destroy this thin facade of civilized society that we’ve built.

The problem with this approach is that while it makes for a nice song or poem, and might even make a great short story, it’s a bit thin to hold up a novel. Readers want explanations. We want someone to point a way out for us. We know the world is in shambles but not what to do about it. We want deeper characters that can figure out what’s going on and how to make things right. Or, if that’s not where the author’s interest is, at least continue the story long enough to show what happens to the characters. Yes, I know it’s up to us whether we continue on this destructive path, but the book ends on as shallow a note as it’s sounded throughout, with no answers but an indictment of us all. In the end, it’s a call to wake up but with no prescription for what to do or even where to start. We’re all doomed, period, end of story. Granted, the novel was thought-provoking in a kind of teenage angsty way, but in the end it left me feeling empty and awfully depressed.

Poems about the queer immigrant experience

Book cover of Toska by Alina Pleskova with an illustration of a humanized grey fox wearing stockings, high-heeled boots and pasties. There is blood on the fur around its mouth, a prism with an eye rises from its hand, and a hand with a rainbow trail holds one breast.

Toska by Alina Pleskova

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Toska is a Russian word which, as Alina Pleskova writes in the title poem of this collection, has no equivalent in English. I don’t speak Russian, but read that it’s an unhappiness, a deep sadness or melancholy. It’s sort of akin to the Portuguese word “saudade,” a term for bittersweet nostalgia, something that might have been, which is somewhat well-known in English poetry. Toska is indeed a sad, melancholy collection. Pleskova, as a queer woman and Russian immigrant living in Philadelphia during these tumultuous times, is an outsider in many ways, and her searching lack of belonging pervades these poems.

I bought this collection after hearing Pleskova read the brilliant “Our People Don’t Believe in Tears.” That turned out to be my favorite of the collection. I thought “Take Care” and “Sacred Bath Bomb” were also standouts. I find poems to be more effective on paper, but you can read these through the previous links and, if you enjoy them, give the collection a try. The notes at the back, which explain the cultural references, are helpful in order to fully appreciate the poems.

I enjoyed this collection overall, but did find the consistent tone of despair grueling. I would recommend reading it alongside other things and maybe not taking it all in at once.

Poems with clarity and wit

Book cover for Plain Sight by David Bergman shows a man with a flashlight finding a piece of paper in the forest at night.

Plain Sight by David Bergman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recently saw David Bergman at the Baltimore CityLit festival, at a session about publishing later in life. He was in the audience, and one of the panelists unexpectedly asked him to read a poem. The one he chose, “The Man Who Was Not a Robot,” is a wonderful piece from his latest collection, Plain Sight, that prompted me to purchase the book.

This is Bergman’s third book of poetry, and his first in 25 years. He has Parkinson’s disease, and his poems are tempered and shaped by the specters of aging and disease. He is a great storyteller, writing with clarity, wit, and a very distinctive voice. Reading through these often conversational poems, even though I’d only met him once, I could almost hear him reading them.

Bergman tackles difficult topics head on with humor and grace. A series of “The Man Who…” poems forms the core of the collection, and many are outstanding, including the aforementioned poem, “The Man Who Could Not Smile,” and “The Man Who Knew Wonder.” Other standout poems include the heartbreaking “The Memory Sharer” and the beautiful closing poem, “Grace.”

Overall, this is a thought-provoking, welcoming collection. Highly recommended.

A long journey not worth making

Book cover of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky showing a hand holding a photo of a woman.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Idiot begins with the young Prince Myshkin coming back to Russia after years of treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland. Poor and sickly, he is hoping to see the one distant relative that he knows of. He meets the gruff Rogozhin on the train to Saint Petersburg, who tells him of his love for the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna. The book’s core is Myshkin’s involvement with this couple, with several subplots and countless characters moving in and out of the story.

There’s an interesting concept here, as Dostoevsky, after Crime and Punishment, decided to write a character quite the opposite of Raskolnikov. Myshkin is an innocent man in a corrupt world, almost a Christ-like character. But Dostoevsky doesn’t really do much with this idea. Myshkin wins many people over with his frank honesty, although it’s unclear whether most of them pity him or really admire him. In the end, his followers get him nothing as he gets tangled up in a tragic mess of crisscrossing love interests that eventually lead to his downfall.

The book seems intended to be a critique of late nineteenth century Russian society, although to this modern reader it lacks bite or humor. I also found the characters to be fairly generic, created to express different points of view rather than being fully fleshed out characters.

As translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the prose and dialogue do read easily, but the book still felt like a very long slog. There are several very lengthy scenes with pages upon pages of exposition. There is lots of talk about morality, the Russian character, and philosophies of Christianity, but to me it seemed to be little more than nationalist and religious ranting. Much is made of a painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger. Dostoevsky and his character see this work as confronting and negating Christian faith, but I think Dostoevsky missed the point of this sixteenth century German painting, which was to drive home the suffering that Christ endured, not to imply that Christ wasn’t divine. This misguided, forced argument, to me, represents what is wrong with the novel, as Dostoevsky seems to force actions and opinions on his characters to prove points he wants to make. One way to read this is that he believed their society was hopeless and wouldn’t recognize a Christ-like figure if it encountered it. But in the end, it just doesn’t amount to much more than a yarn.

Making the book even more difficult to read is that there are more than 25 characters to keep track of, each with multiple names. As the translators explain, Russian names are composed of first name, patronymic (from the father’s first name), and family name. Then there are two forms of diminutives used among family and friends–the familiar and the casual or disrespectful. The translators use these as I assume Dostoevsky did, but to this Western reader, keeping track of dozens of unfamiliar names for characters with little to no distinguishing features was extremely difficult.

I did want to love this book. Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite books in high school, and other books with similar approaches are among my favorites, like Don Quixote, The Pickwick Papers, and Being There. But I found this one kind of a mess. Despite an intriguing concept, it just wasn’t worth the time spent on it.

Cogs in the machine

Book cover of The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada showing smoke rising from a trash bin.

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Factory is a surreal, existentialist novel. You might call it magical realism. It’s what you might get if Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Angela Carter were living in contemporary times and collaborated on a project together. The novel follows three people who work at a sprawling factory in Japan. No one knows what the factory actually produces, and none of the three main characters seem to understand their job or how it fits into the broader scheme.

Hiroko Oyamada rotates point of view between the three, and at times it’s difficult to know who’s talking because their voices all sound similar, down to the side remarks they make about others. At first, I thought this similarity might be a fault of the translation by David Boyd, but I came to think that Oyamada did this intentionally to emphasize the lack of individuality of the factory workers. There are strange phenomena that appear to be real, like an ever-growing mass of unidentifiable black birds living outside the factory, and others that may or may not be, like lizards that have adapted to live behind the machines in the factory’s two cleaning facilities, subsisting on bugs, dust, and dryer lint.

Boundaries are thin in this novel. It’s sometimes hard to know who’s talking because of the lack of paragraph breaks in the dialogue. The breakdown of boundaries continues as the novel progresses–between timelines, between characters, between reality and the fanciful.

I found the theme of the factory as a dehumanizing force a bit facile, and without more uniquely drawn characters, it’s hard to feel too invested in them. The end was also abrupt. But I’m a sucker for existentialist novels, and The Factory is a creative and thought-provoking read.

Overgrown kids at play

Cover of Sayaka Murata's Earthlings showing a cute stuffed alien toy.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 1.5 of 5 stars

Like Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman, the main character in Earthlings appears to have some kind of autistic spectrum disorder and fails to understand how to navigate society or relations with other people. In Convenience Store Woman, the characters rant about the rules of society, but the narrator quite enjoys the structured existence of working in a convenience store. Earthlings takes this concept further and depicts a complete removal from not only society but reality. It’s a sort of cousin to Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants terribles, but meaner and with less insight.

Murata provides only superficial pop-psych explanations for why her characters have wound up feeling like stranded aliens among earthlings, and delves into little else in this novel in any depth. The goofy, absurdist story, told in a flat, emotionless tone, gives the reader no insight into the workings of society beyond what a typical teen might observe. The characters rage on about being tools and cogs in the Factory, expected to reproduce and to get jobs to support themselves, but like overgrown kids they can think of no feasible alternative. Their solution is basically to mooch off of the society they criticize and the people they can’t stand to be around. It all plays out with graphic violence, turning into what’s essentially a horror story written in the style of a mediocre YA novel.

Once more, I’ve finished a book by this author baffled about all the positive reviews. There is a long history of literature depicting the angst and unfairness of life as a young person in a restrictive society. The topic is also a specialty of the horror genre. This novel gives neither fresh perspective about the structural problems in society nor makes you feel the frustration of it. A cute stuffed alien on the cover and a simplistic writing style don’t mask the fact that there’s less of substance here than in a decent horror novel or movie.

It did occur to me that this book might be satirizing the frustration and empty rage of young people who are angry at the situation they’ve been put in but don’t even attempt to come up with realistic solutions. If that were the case, I’d dislike this book even more, as making fun of the troubles of people who are clearly mentally ill just seems cruel and heartless. Which just about sums up this mean, unenjoyable book.

Under a fluorescent glare

Cover of Convenience Store Woman, with rice ball in form of a smiling woman's head on a plate.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman is a short novel about a woman, Keiko, who finally finds her place in Japanese society at the age of 18 working at a convenience store, where she is told exactly how she is expected to behave. After a difficult childhood, this is a huge relief for her. Now, at 36, she realizes that her family and friends feel sorry for her, assuming that she wants a different job or to get married and have children. She is perfectly happy being a cog in the convenience store machine, but is compelled to try to satisfy society’s expectations.

Like the convenience store Keiko works in, the book is brightly lit, airy, and clear. Murata, who worked in a convenience store herself, drew from personal experience, and life in the convenience store is the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, the characters seem as if they were selected from a shelf, thinly drawn and mostly sticking to stereotypes, such as the misogynistic young man, Shiraha, who wants to withdraw from society but seems incapable of anything beyond insulting Keiko and spouting inane opinions about how society is still in the stone age. Keiko seems to see right through him but takes him in because she thinks it will be advantageous for both of them. The result is obvious and tedious, even for a novel this brief.

Closing this book, I was befuddled by all the great reviews it’s gotten. It was a quick read and fairly entertaining in its oddness, but there wasn’t much to it. Reading beyond the brief quotes after I finished (I try not to read full reviews until afterward because they tend to reveal too much), it occurred to me that it’s a sign of a very thin novel when virtually all the reviews mention the exact same points: Keiko hitting a boy over the head with a shovel in childhood, wanting to cook a dead bird she finds, eyeing a knife when her sister’s baby starts crying. The reviewers also all seemed to use “fluorescent” as an adjective to describe the book.

Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s tenth book, was a big hit in Japan, and I can understand its power as a critique of the restrictiveness and expectations of Japanese society. In translation, though, without being steeped in the culture, it comes across as an odd, quirky, almost comic work. I think it was meant to be dead serious, but this is one book that really does seem to get lost in translation.