the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Book of Dahlia: Not as good as they say

I just read "The Book of Dahlia" by Elisa Albert, one of this year's finalists for the Jewish Book Council's Sami Rohr Prize. Even though I recently wrote a rundown of the prize nominees for Haaretz Books, I had only read one of the books ("The Septembers of Shiraz," by a real-life Dalia), and thought I should educate myself a bit more about the books written by the authors the book council's judges consider this year's most promising Jewish fiction writers.

Albert seems to have gotten almost universally laudatory reviews - and I can't help but wonder why. The reviews I've seen tend to fall into one of two categories: the younger set, excited to find a familiar voice in fiction that represents them (as one review put it, "I realize in some ways it reflects poorly on me to say this, but it's been a while since I've read a book that I identified with as strongly as this one"), and the presumably older set, excited to come across a fresh new voice that I infer sounds kind of exotic to them when contained between the covers of a book (writing about Albert's earlier collection of short stories, which I haven't read, one reviewer said, "It is also both refreshing and a little shocking (at least for me) to find such bawdy, hot prose as Albert's in the work of a young female Jewish American writer").

My problem is that being exposed to 256 pages of the running commentary of the protagonist - Dahlia Finger, a bitter uber-slacker and potty-mouthed pothead living off Daddy's largesse and obsessed with the movies of her youth, who is diagnosed with a brain tumor at 29 - made me feel like I was stuck on a never-ending inter-campus bus ride in front of a couple of frat boys discussing how plastered they got the night before, in a conversation consisting almost entirely of the many variations of the word "fuck," with an occasional "asshole" or "whatever" thrown in to spice things up a bit. I found myself rushing to get to the end of the book, not just because it's not exactly a difficult read and certainly not because I couldn't wait to see what happened next (there's not much in the way of plot action here), but mostly because I just wanted to get off the damn bus already.

Chronology puts me in the "young set" camp (I was born the same year as Dahlia, so we share the same cultural references - and the book is replete with them, making it seem all the less likely "The Book of Dahlia" will have much lasting resonance, rather like Dahlia herself). But I have no particular desire to hang out with this character for so long, even if she is vaguely familiar. Albert has said she didn't want to fall into the trap of making Dahlia too likeable, and in a way that's admirable, but in addition to not being a sympathetic figure, Dahlia's also not particularly loathsome or anger-inducing or even all that interesting - which means I ultimately don't much care what happens to her one way or the other.

(I also found myself distracted by the occasional incorrect usage of the Hebrew that Albert scatters throughout the book, mostly in connection with Dahlia's mother being an Israeli immigrant. Was there really no way Albert could have checked whether Israelis would actually be asking Dahlia "Ma shlomcha?" - the masculine version of "How are you?"?)

After I finished the book (ah, my stop has arrived!) I realized that my reaction was similar to the one I had when reading another highly acclaimed female Jewish writer, Allegra Goodman, whose not-particularly-appealing young slacker chick protagonist Sharon Spiegelman turned me off to "Paradise Park." Just coincidence? Or is there a silent conspiracy out there of reviewers/culture-shapers who have come down firmly on the side of disaffected young Jewish female characters, however uninteresting they may actually be?

For all that Albert is said to employ irreverent, conformity-bashing writing (the cynical take on the happy-happy-joy-joy self-help culture! the courage involved in - spoiler alert - killing off the main character, and in a book about dying, yet! creating a character who's a rabbi but not a nice guy!), the book actually contains a kind of sneaky reverse snobbishness, a take on the mainstream that I suspect may even be partly responsible for some of the, let's face it, conformist positive reception of the book.

There are a couple of instances in which Albert seems to use the book to harangue anyone daring to think of criticizing it. At one point, she writes: "Why so profane, ask the bookclubbers? Because we are talking here about death, and fuck you if you don't like it: You're going to die, too. This is serious. Fuck fuck fuck." Elsewhere, she basically tells us that if we don't sympathize with Dahlia, we're hypocrites who don't believe that life is valuable just for the fact of its being lived.

One reviewer takes Albert's challenge a step further, implying that anyone who doesn't like the book is probably not very sophisticated: "'The Book of Dahlia' will probably find detractors just as passionate as its champions. As Albert writes, 'A vile, self-absorbed, depressing, lazy, messy, spoiled, f-up [that, of course, is not how Albert actually puts it], probably mentally ill loser dies. So what?' Albert answers her own 'So what?' with a deeply sympathetic portrait, devoid of sentimentality. Readers looking for a depiction of illness as a crucible for the triumph of the human spirit will be disappointed. But this book keeps its steadfast focus on a more complicated truth, and that is its triumph."

Yeah, maybe, if this is the first book you've read that features death. But for readers with high expectations (possibly unreasonably so, I'm sure some would argue, and probably heightened by the good reviews and award nomination), who are on a hunt for writers whose language transports and for complex characters who demand to be cared about, Elisa Albert's "The Book of Dahlia" is just not the hot shit, as Dahlia herself might have put it, that it's cracked up to be.


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