Sunday, December 23, 2007

Alice Mattison, Amos Oz: Two from the New Yorker

Reading notes: two short fictions from the New Yorker, a comparative review.

Brooklyn Circle, by Alice Mattison.

Brooklyn Circle is a standard, flat, day-in-the-life story of emotionally constipated Constance Tepper. Told close first person, though it would be hard to say this represents any particular point of view, as Constance is blessedly free of anything you could mistake for insight or self-awareness; the narrator falls short of omniscience only by failing to report from inside the heads of the other three characters: her former husband, Jerry, thirty year old daughter, Joanna, and an unnamed man whose apartment they stumble into from a fragment of elevated railway, a remnant of the Brooklin Circle named in the title.

Constance has agreed to let ex-husband, Jerry, who now and then comes to New York on business from Philadelphia, where they used to live; "spend a few days in her Prospect Heights apartment (though not in her bed)." This time the occasion is not business, but one of his eccentric historical investigations. He wants to locate what may be left of a never completed project to circle Brooklyn with an elevated train line. He used to take off on similar excursions while they were married. Constance had never accepted his invitations to accompany him. We can assume that this excursion will prove the exception (and that he will likely share her bed before the story a gun in the first scene and we know they'll have sex before the curtain).

The daughter enters the story as a complication whose main purpose is to show us how disconnected and out of touch her mother is. Of the daughter, we're told that "much about Joanna confused her mother, and lately the confusion had intensified. It had been hard to keep track not just of Joanna's emotional geography, but where, in the simplest terms, she was;" a sentence that would apply equally to Constance. Joanna had been arrested not long before. Something about an altercation or argument in a bar. Joanna, at least, had strong views, which seem to have gotten her in trouble. This was in the first months of the Iraq war and someone in the bar had taken exception to her anti-war views. Cops were called in and she was arrested. This may or may not have been a case for the A.C.L.U. Constance, though a practicing attorney, has no interest in investigating--prefers, in fact, not to think about it. They all have dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and the mother's reluctance to get involved or take sides is a source of irritation to both daughter and ex. Nonetheless, when they get home, they look at each other "for a long time." She likes his smell. She "leans into his embrace" ... and you know what comes next.

Then they go looking for the lost El. Remember, this is the first time she's gone with Jerry on one of his trips. They do a lot of walking. Jerry takes notes. Con is cold to his enthusiasm until he confronts her as uncaring. That's enough to break down her resistance and they both climb up onto that section of track where, after Jerry sprains an ankle, they escape through the window of a man who has threatened to call the cops on them. Safely home, Con finds that her hands, "but not the rest of her--wanted to touch him." She doesn't. She goes in the kitchen and has a glass of water, "looking at her hands."

There you have it. Eccentric husband, still in love with Constance, in touch with his inner child: self-absorbed Constance who doesn't know what she wants, afraid to take risks. A shared moment to show how it might have been, but wasn't, and won't be. Their lives will go on as before. Nothing much will change, and there is no reason to wonder why.


The stranger was not a stranger. Something in his figure repelled but also intrigued Aryeh Zelnik at very first sight, if it was indeed first sight; it seemed to Aryeh Zelnik that he somehow remembered that face, those long arms, almost down to the knees. Remembered vaguely, as if from an entire lifetime ago.

So begins Heirs: by Amos Oz.

Compare this with the first paragraph of Brooklyn Circle.

Fourteen years after her divorce, Constance Tepper agreed to let her former husband, Jerry Elias, spend a few days in her Prospect Heights apartment (though not in her bed). They’d lived in Philadelphia when they were married, and Jerry still lived there. Now and then, he came to New York on business. Jerry was a tall, thin man who had grown up in his grandfather’s lamp store, learning not to break the lamps by standing up in slow stages. His father was Jewish, his mother a light-skinned black woman from the neighborhood who worked in the store and married the boss’s son. Jerry looked ethnically ambiguous.

In the first, every declarative statement is contradicted or followed by a qualification. We are given facts, it seems, only for the sake of casting them in doubt. In the second, there is nothing ambiguous... except the word itself. In this, Oz and Mattison are both following well established, but very different conventions. Mattison, that of a minimalist realism: events represented as they appear to happen, reported in straightforward prose that doesn't get in the way or call attention to itself. There is no internal analysis. Facts are meant to report on themselves, commenting on themselves, fact after fact: the illumination of the everyday; prosaic and otherwise unremarkable characters and events granted a fictional coherence those same characters, like Constance, would be unable to see--their very opacity serving by contrast to help us--the readers--grasp the significance of that invisible chain of causation. We put down the story and ask: are not our own lives perhaps like that? Woven into a coherence we are too preoccupied, too distracted to notice?

The problem is, how many stories of this kind do we need to lead us to such a revelation? Each such story is a closed system, complete in its incompleteness, and such meaning as we may find in them is a kind of web reminding us that we are indeed, caught in the chains of causality, that even the random freedom of chaos is an illusion. The single "lesson" of the art that frames the story, is that we are not free.

Amos Oz's story takes on the problem of causation by resisting it, by refusing the reader hooks that tie one set of events to another, by dissolving the "facts" before our eyes. Who is this man Aryeh Zelnik may or may not have known in some past life? We are never told. He parks his car outside the gate, strides toward the front porch where Aryeh is resting on a hammock.
As hard as he tried, he could not bring to mind who this stranger-unstranger was. Where had he met him? When? On one of his trips overseas? In the Army? At the office? On campus? Or perhaps back in his school days? The man’s expression was wily and jubilant, as if he had successfully played a trick and was now enjoying his victim’s agony. Behind, or beneath, the strange face was the elusive insinuation of an irritating, familiar face, a face that unsettled Aryeh Zelnik. The face of someone who had once treated him badly? Or perhaps the opposite—someone to whom Aryeh had done some forgotten injustice?
It was like a dream, nine-tenths submerged, with only the tip still showing.
There is more than a hint of Kafka in this story.

We are told that the visitor, who will introduce himself as Mafzir, Wolf Mafzir, has long arms, almost down to the knees. The simian image is repeated later in the story, and we learn that Aryeh, too--though a much taller man, has arms "almost down to the knees." Maftzir informs Aryeh, in obsequious circumlocutions, that he is an attorney come on unspecified business. He repeatedly gets Zelnick's name wrong, and when told to sit down, he lands himself on the hammock, "thigh to thigh with his host. There is about him a "miasma of thick smells... of digestion, of socks, of talcum power, and of armpits [...] over all these smells was a faint netting of pungent aftershave lotion," which reminds Aryeh of his father--the familiarity suggested is both to himself, and generational. Aryeh has him move--but away from the window where his mother might be disturbed to see his silhouette.

The mention of his mother serves as transition to a brief account of Zelnick's background. His wife, Na'ama left him to visit her best friend in San Diego and never returned. She writes him letters telling him how well she and her friend are getting along. She tells him their "spiritual teacher" feels they should not give one another up. Their married daughter cautions him (again, by letter) against pressuring his wife to return, that he should find himself another life. This is how he came to live with his mother in the house where he was born. Since coming, though he had been a unafraid of danger since childhood, served as a marine commando, "undaunted by enemy gunfire or climbing up cliffs," he has "developed a potent fear of darkness in an empty house. His mother is ninety years old and death. Occasionally he has fears that she might fall ill, or come to require his constant care. It's occurred to him that this would "give him a logical and emotional justification for transferring her to an appropriate institution, and then the entire house would be his. He fantasizes bringing in a new and beautiful wife. Or a series of young women. Meanwhile, they live their daily routines. The mother in her room reading old books, Aryeh Zelnick listening to the radio and building model airplanes.

The stranger continues to circle around the point of his coming, growing more insufferable with every moment, helping himself to ice water--which he gulps down from Aryeh's glass. He effuses praise of the village of Tel Ilan, calling it the Provence, no, the Tuscany of Israel, and with this, closing in on his point, giving the history of Zelnick's family in the region. Again, he seems to get names wrong. Some ninety--almost a hundred years ago, there was one Leon Akabia Zelnick, he relates. Aryeh, corrects him.

"His name was Akiva Aryeh, not Leon Akabia. Maftzir ignores him, and we see he is not wrong with the names, but names have been changed. The family came from Russia. The story he tells is important. Let me quote it in full.
At the beginning, if I am not mistaken, the two older brothers arrived—Boris and Simeon Zelnik. They came from a little hamlet in the Kharkov district in order to establish an entirely new farming colony here, in the heart of the untamed landscape of the forsaken Menashe highlands. There was nothing here. A desolate plain of thorns. There weren’t even any Arab villages in this valley; they were all on the other side of the hills. Later, Boris and Simeon were joined by their young nephew, Leon, or if you insist on it, Akabia Aryeh. Then, at least according to the conventional story, Simeon and Boris went back, in turn, to Russia, and there Boris murdered Simeon with a hatchet, and only your grandfather—your grandfather? Or your grandfather’s father?—only Leon Akabia stubbornly remained. Not Akabia? Akiva? Excuse me. Akiva. To make a long story short, it’s like this: By coincidence, we, the Maftzirs, are also from Kharkov! From the forests of Kharkov! Really! Maftzir! Perhaps you’ve heard the name? We had a very famous cantor, Shaya Leib Maftzir, and there was one Gregory Moisevitch Maftzir, a very important general in the Red Army. A very, very important general, but Stalin had him executed. In the purges of the nineteen-thirties.”
The man stood up and imitated a firing squad with his two chimpanzee arms, ticking off a volley of bullets and displaying, as he did so, sharp but not entirely white front teeth. He reseated himself on the bench with a smile, as if he were pleased with the way he had carried out the execution. It looked to Aryeh Zelnik as if the man expected a round of applause, or at least a smile, in exchange for his own saccharine grin.

Only now does Wolf Mafzir reveal that the personal matter he wants to talk about concerns Zelnick's mother. He asks permission to take off, first his jacket, then his tie, then does so. He has in mind some kind of development--that they as they are, after all, family, "even partners," this is a matter they should work out together. As the property is in the mother's name, and who knows how long she will live, or the terms of her will, they will have to make themselves her legal guardian so there would be no need for her consent. Remembering how he himself had given thought to the idea of putting her away, "these suppressed hopes made him feel guilty and even disgusted with himself. But the strange thing to him was that this repellent man seemed to be reading the ignominy of his own thoughts."

Aryeh rises, questions Maftzier. Who does he really represent? But by this time control as passed to the intruder. Zelnick attempts to break the meeting off, to force Maftzir to leave by announcing that he has to enter the house to attend to some business. Undeterred, Maftzir wants to follow him in. Aryeh is powerless to say no and Maftzir enters the house, not following, but leading, going from door to door, finally entering the mother's room, where he finds her in bed covered to her chin by a wool blanket. He leans over to kiss her, first on the cheeks and then on the mouth. She opens her eyes and extends her hand, which he caresses, then slips off his shoes, crawls into bed beside her and pulls he blanket over himself.

Aryeh Zelnik hesitated a moment or two, turned his gaze to the open window, through which he could see one of the abandoned farm sheds, as well as a dusty cypress up which orange bougainvillea had climbed with fiery fingers. He circuited the double bed and closed the shutters and the window and drew the curtain, and, as he darkened the room, he unbuttoned his shirt and undid his belt and he also removed his shoes and undressed and lay down on the bed beside his ancient mother. And so they lay, the three of them, the lady of the house between her mute son and the stranger, who did not stop petting and kissing her and murmuring softly, “Everything will be fine here, my dear Mrs. Zelnik. Everything will be wonderful. We will arrange everything.


Maftzir's account of the family history is central to this story. It calls attention to itself by its very pointlessness. Offered by way of introducing Maftzir's purpose, it explains nothing, reveals no links in a chain of causation. The connective tissue of this story, what holds it together, will not be found by connecting dots and drawing lines of causality. This is not a self contained form, a closed circle like Mattison's story, but rather, is built out of a network of relationships that draw the reader first outside the narrative itself to a rich mélange of allusions. Cain and Able, the wolf and the lion (Aryeh is lion in Hebrew), the sins of the fathers visited on the sons, the alteration of names and transformation of the land (and the pull back toward it's origins) in the founding and development of Israel, the inescapable bond of generations, the return of the repressed... even to the absurd association with Red Riding Hood--the Wolf crawling into granny's bed!... but through that, to the symbolic mode of folk tale and myth. A close reading would demand an interpretation able to knit all these associations and allusions together in some meaningful relationship, and then back into the story. Here, the psychology would not concern the characters, but that of the story itself. And while I'm not prepared to carry this out, I can say without qualification which kind of reading is the richer and more rewarding.


  1. An interesting analysis that makes me want to go back and read both stories again.

  2. Anything that makes a reader want to got back and read again... I'll chalk up to as a small victory.