Israeli books: Youval Shimoni’s experimental post-modern fiction classic A Room

Posted on March 24, 2016


In my New York Journal of Books review of Youval Shimoni‘s A Room I write: “A Room is strongly recommended to readers of post-modern and experimental fiction who enjoy stream of consciousness narratives and who are willing to delve deeper than a thin plot’s surface level.” Read that review first. Additional excerpts from the novel and my additional remarks that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.

Youval Shimoni’s 1999 novel A Room is known in Israel as an important work of post-modern fiction, and now it is available to English language readers in Michael Sharp’s translation thanks to Dalkey Archive Press. In my New York Journal of Books review I recommend A Room “to readers of post-modern and experimental fiction who enjoy stream of consciousness narratives and who are willing to delve deeper than a thin plot’s surface level.”

A Room is the second of Shimoni’s four books and the first to be published in English, but the book actually consists of two novels, The Lamp and The Drawer and a short story “The Throne,” and its themes are developed over all three texts. Those themes concern artistic creation, the leap between conception and execution, and what can go wrong during the latter. When the work of art is completed, then perhaps the viewer/reader’s process of engaging with it in some sense mirrors the artist’s process of creating it.

In The Lamp a mixed civilian and military film crew prepare to make a short army instructional movie about how to use a gas mask. In the first chapter we are told that a man has burned to death in an explosion during the filming, and the subsequent chapters describe what happened leading up to that unanticipated tragedy.

In his sonnet “On His Blindness” the 17th Century English poet John Milton wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” and for most of The Lamp the narrative explores what the characters are thinking about as they stand around waiting while a piece of equipment is being repaired. Nearly all of those mental digressions are placed in parentheses, and the word count of the text in parentheses is several times greater than that of the rest of The Lamp. Likewise the language alternates between the everyday colloquial and long dense handsomely written stream of consciousness passages.

In some of the most lyrical of the parenthetical digressions characters recall foreign travel:

“(Millions upon millions of waves stormed toward the cliff on which the hut stood, and everything he had abandoned now came upon him with a vengeance, his entire body, which had become thin and feverish, was filled with this knowledge: far above the unraveled mosquito net and above the thatch and above the clouds that the lightening sliced with a thrust, in the depths of the highest heaven, gigantic thunderous balancing scales moved; seven degrees from the equator he heard them with absolute clarity—in his eyes the mark of the location was not without meaning; and in the white of a grain of salt he could see the movement of a wave from the end of the ocean, the blazing of the equatorial sun, the refining and the purifying of the wave, its slow drifting toward the sky, its slow condensing and the touch of those kneading fingers endowing each cloud with its mark, until it ripens and falls and billows—on one scale was this island to which he had traveled far with all its bays and hills and masses of palm trees, and on the other a handful of dried leaves, upon which they had once lain: at the time a small sparrow stood on the sill beneath the stuck shutter and whistled.)”

In The Drawer an Israeli art student in Paris promises three local homeless people each a meal at McDonalds in exchange for posing as models in a hospital morgue with its refrigerated drawers in a remake of a famous renaissance painting of Jesus’ post-crucifixion pre-resurrection corpse. In the original painting “the ribs stretched his skin like a drum upon which perhaps drops of rain drummed afterwards, grains of hail or the beaks of birds. In the place to which you are going the cold will seep in from the holes in the palms and the soles and from the cut in the chest, until it fills the entire body and turns it blue; the stainless steel drawer will reflect the pale light of the fluorescent lamps, there were always fluorescent lamps in places like that, and perhaps the drawer won’t close with the bottle that will be standing in the corner instead of the goblet.”

The final text in A Room, “The Throne,” describes the many discarded designs a memorial monument goes through from conception to execution, and is a kind of commentary on the previous two novels.

For fans of post-modern experimental fiction A Room is a must read.