There is No Other
by Jonathan Papernick
you know, normal gestation time for humans is nine months,' the
psychiatrist said... 'but metaphysical time operates on an entirely
different schedule. In Genesis
it is written that the world was created in seven days. how long did
each day last? 24 hours? Surely not. Perhaps each day lasted thousands
or millions of years. Vered looks about four or five months pregnant.
She's nine years' old. You do the math. "
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
I must confess that
on first read many of the stories in this collection didn't speak to
me, but that is because my ears were shut to them. I learned a
valuable lesson from this book about all the personal baggage we carry
around as readers and how that affects us. My personal baggage? I am
Jewish and the minute there is a whiff of Jewishness
in a short story, my hackles rise. I feel defensive of the characters
and also, at the same time, slightly repelled; a whole mix of emotions.
I start to wonder why the character "needs" to be Jewish and immediately feel terrible for even
questioning an author's choices. It's not up to me, this is the story.
A short story collection has a very difficult task when there is
emotional turmoil roiling inside the reader before they've even given
it a chance.
Then I discovered, on second read, a whole new story collection. This
time, I'd worked through my issues, and so could open myself up to
these stories now that I knew, plot-wise, what would and woudn't
happen. And this time I saw layers, depths, and even found myself very
moved. Thank goodness I read it more than once, as I always do with
collections I review. But what about collections I am not reviewing?
How might my baggage impede me then, what am I missing?
I won't explore this further here; this is a review not a personal
essay. Let me start again. This is Papernick's second collection and it
is an ambitious one, with stories covering so many issues -
from religion and God to identity, loneliness, marriage, war and
adultery - it might make you dizzy. But when Papernick hits the
spot, he really hits it.
The first story, Skin on Skin,
in many ways sets the tone. A Jewish teen has invited "the new boy from
her English class" over while her parents are at "her baby cousin's bris". Papernick
beautifully conveys that dangerous and difficult mix of fear and
longing, wanting to enter the next stage but also wanting to remain a
She had naturally turned away from being part of an
unlucky, persecuted tribe. The way she saw it, there was no gain in
membership, only grief. 'I'm not Jewish,' she had told her parents
hundreds of times. 'I'm a secular humanist and I believe in
self-determination.' She thought ritual circumcision was barbaric. But
now, as he slid his hand around her waist, she wished that she was with
her parents and her aunts and uncles celebrating her eight-day-old
cousin's covenant with God and the Jewish people.The
second story is the one that, on second read, I found so moving.
A schoolteacher at a Jewish school runs into serious existential
trouble during Purim - the holiday where kids dress up in costume - when a
half-Jewish, half-black student comes in as the prophet Muhammed. The
situation gets worse:
Beneath the robe, Junius wore a camouflage vest. His
pockets were stuffed with white bricks of something that looked like
clay. But what concerned Needle and the rest of the suddenly terrified
class were the wires that ran into a small black detonator that the
smiling Junius held in his hand.The ensuing conversation,
as the teacher, Needle, attempts to diffuse the literally explosive
situation and the metaphorical one, deals with all the Big
Questions, from Chosen People to what happens after death and ends
suprisingly, neither sickly sweet nor hopeless.
My Darling Sweetheart Baby is
one of my favourite stories, dealing not with any overtly Jewish issues but those
of poverty, loneliness and connection. Schultz is unemployed and daily
waits for a large disability cheque with which he hopes to persuade
Jeannie to get serious with him.
He had kissed Jeannie
once, in a rainstorm. She had taken off her heels and was splashing in
puddles, kicking water around, singing some show tune Schultz
remembered his mother playing on her stereo when he was a child. It was
a quick snap of a kiss, but long enough for Schultz to feel her breath
enter him and knock around inside. He felt full of her all day. And
when he slept, she was still with him.
Of course, his plans go awry, and the ending is poignant, shocking, and right.
The other story in the collection that is still knocking around inside me is What Is It Then Between Us,
a very quiet and powerful piece that takes places only over a few
hours. It's a story about sex, about love, about trust, usual suspects
handled in an unusual and raw way. But it is also about class, poverty,
Hightower's wife is trying to get pregnant and this has put an enormous strain on their relationship:
was about her uterus and her tubes and her ovaries and other things
he'd never heard of before. He'd thought an embryo sounded like some
sort of burrito and that the birth canal was where Moses had been born
in the reeds. Hightower wasn't used to fucking on schedule. He felt
like he was failing science class again because he couldn't understand
why you couldn't make a baby any day of the month. When she gave him
the cold shoulder, he felt his prick would fall off like rotten fruit
from a branch.Hightower's confusion and feeling that he
has already failed lead him astray, but ultimately this story leaves
you with a spark, a small glimmer of hope.
This is a very varied collection, and for my money it's those that
don't try to hard to tackle Global Questions, that focus on the tiny
moments, that are the most revealing and the truest. Those are the
images you can't shake off, the voices that remain with you.