Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek famously criticized the way fat-free chocolate and decaf coffee have allowed us to rid ourselves of our guilt in today’s consumerist culture. Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom extends this dystopian vision in her new novel Textile (The Feminist Press, $18.95; translation by Dalya Bilu), where housing developments are built with no ecosystem, homes are established in brand-new apartments with no past, family members try to forget their ties to each other, and even the body undoes the effects of time.
Castel-Bloom weaves together a multivalent and sprawling text, set mostly in a lavish but hygienic Tel Aviv suburb and the isolation of upstate New York. The narrative focuses on a wealthy suburban family of four, who revolve around each other without real intimacy or responsibility.
At the heart is Mandy, Amanda Gruber, a judgmental mother figure absorbed in her own efforts to look younger and anesthetize herself while her son serves as a sniper in the Israeli army. Meanwhile, her genius husband, a somewhat famous scientist in Israel, is absorbed in efforts to invent a special suit to protect the body from terrorism. The outlier, and inheritor of the family pajama factory, is young Lirit, who just broke up with her boyfriend and is beginning to fill her mother’s shoes.
With a keen eye for class and gender politics, Textile moves from one character to another and still feels like a quick read. The author often takes us back three generations to trace the way languages and behaviors get passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. The text itself is multilingual, with bits of French and even Yiddish thrown in, and always in transition, reflective of the “third millennium” of history and critical of it. Everyone is an exile in some sense, trying on new tongues and wardrobes, trying to adapt to a new environment.
Not only is the book international but it also feels slightly futuristic, in the way that the lifestyles of the elite always seem some- how at the cutting edge of civilization and closer to its end. The only control group in the experiment is Mandy’s inherited business, the Nighty-Night pajama factory, which serves the ultra-Orthodox community and stays unchanged, according to her mother’s dying wish.
Though the opening inscription from Leviticus warns us of the law of Shatnez, not to wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material, Textile explores what happens when worlds are forced to collide, how we try to protect ourselves and our bodies from life.
“History is a load. A burden,” an Israeli-expat masseuse tells the famous Israeli scientist on his first night in Ithaca, New York. And yet, “It’s no good being the first in a certain place. It gives rise to anxiety,” the scientist declares later in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
Caught in contradiction and paradox, dissatisfied and desperate for happiness, and painfully incapable of communicating with each other, these characters shop or work or read or get plastic surgery instead. Underneath it are relentless pangs of guilt and shame and past trauma, triggered by layers of the very history and relationships they can’t bear.
Though Castel-Bloom, author also of Human Parts and Dolly City, has something of a reputation in Israel for daring and macabre themes, this book is both readable and relatable, a testament too to Bilu’s seamless translation. Textile is a sharp and engaging study of individual psychologies in an age of anxiety and consumerism, and Castel-Bloom is a masterful storyteller for these interesting times.