January 30, 2008

Bearing the Body Bares Its Soul

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Bearing the Body tells the story of a family divided, searching for reconciliation. Like so many families, amends are sought only after great tragedy. In this case, the recent passing of the mother and, two years later, the mysterious death of the eldest son, Daniel, plunge the two remaining members of the family into a delirious search for truth and connection in the city of the estranged son’s death, San Francisco. The father, a Russian Holocaust survivor, and the younger son, finally settled into his medical residency after many years of odd jobs, meet the girlfriend and her young son. Following in the footsteps of A History of Love and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, some of the statements uttered with the most clarity come from the dichotomous pair of the ancient, weighted man and the highly observant, tragic young boy.
The author, Ehud Havazelet, is known for his short story collections and his familiarity with that form of fiction is evident in this, his first novel. The book is divided in many ways, both in the form it takes on the page and in the style of the narrative; it must have been a formatting nightmare for the publisher. Parts One and Two are both divided into several chapters and then again into smaller sections. In addition, there are italicized segments set apart within a chapter, which may be a letter, reminiscence, or insight from or to any of the six or so main characters. The formatting is worth noting because it echoes the at times confusing narrative web of the story. Whether the variation within the narrative is “good” or “bad,” it is appearing more and more frequently in novels, and it is becoming clear that linear narrative is a thing of the past.
The characters’ situations are unavoidable, but it seems that, at least to Havazelet, the actions that many of the characters have taken, or decisions that they made, are less than satisfactory. It follows, then, that the reader is asked: what are the right answers to the questions the characters were unable to answer? The main questions center on forgiveness and the transference of history. One of the most important questions the book raises is: what should parents pass on to their children? Should they share the horrors of their pasts? Do they share their burdens? And if they do not, can they expect their children to understand?
Havazelet uses the San Francisco setting to vivid effect; characters’ pasts are remembered and retold while the reader witnesses the climb up the treacherous hills of the city; realizations and discoveries, both for the characters and the reader, await at the crest like oases. But like oases found after treks through the barren landscape of city and desert, the characters and readers must be weary of mirages. The ocean view and various bridges of the city also play distinct parts in the metaphors and central themes, serving to both separate and connect generations, continents and lovers.
The brothers are stuck in the perilous position of the middle generation, “hippies,” revolutionaries in their youth, who are disappointments on both ends; shocking and hurtful in their abandonment and ignorance of tradition and history in the eyes of their parents, and, after they have settled into banal desk jobs, revolutionarily impotent in the eyes of the younger generation, their children. The two ultimately deal with this situation in different ways, one leading to death and one to life, however incomplete and tragic it may be.
Like a satisfying piece of noir fiction, the “answer” to the mystery is slipped slyly into the middle of the novel, satisfying the reader’s initial reason for continuing to read. It is the continuation of the character’s internal struggle that brings the reader all the way to the end.