12 April 14 | Monica Carter

P.T. Smith is a writer and critic living in Vermont. He has written for Three Percent, BOMB, Quarterly Conversation, and most recently Bookslut.

There are books on long lists that are obvious contenders—the long ones, the challengingly complex ones, the ones that have been talked about all year (here’s looking at you My Struggle II)—and there are those easier to pass over, to see as filler—novellas, short story collections—but which need to be recognized for the less immediately apparent award worthiness, and Orly Castel-Bloom’s Textile, translated by Dalya Bilu, is one of the latter.

The story of a contemporary Israeli family, Textile is in many ways, the best ways, a deceptive novel. The characters are familiar tropes, with the aloof, self-centered scientist as father and the controlling, vain, and emotionally manipulative mother, with a detached son off in the military, and a rebellious daughter making questionable decisions in her romantic life. In the hands of many authors, these are lazy side characters while more is invested elsewhere, but in Textile, bringing complexity and life to them is the heart of the book. Again and again, contradictions arise within a character, a tug between selfish choices and selfless ones, connection and detachment, profit and morality, and each time the contradiction is contemplated, whether by the character or by the narrator, we see that these people are more human than trope.

These are flawed, nearly unlikeable humans: a mother who pays a man to leave her daughter, a scientist who takes over a potential colleague’s life on meeting. Difficult to like characters is nothing new, but in Textile, something else is on offer. Just as one of the reasons to read in translation is a new take on what was once familiar, so it is a reason to read women writers. With the female characters especially, because they steer close to what are often sexist stereotypes, it is refreshing to see that not avoided, but confronted head on—taking negatives that we expect to see in men and women in lazy literature, and letting them exist next to positives and contradictions, as they do in people outside of books.

One of the ways Castel-Bloom accomplishes these interactions is in the structure of the book. Each chapter is broken down into what almost amount to anecdotes. They move from character to character, place to place, time to time. Sometimes connections are made from one to the next, sometimes intentionally, other times unknowingly. More often, they disconnect, turn away from the previous section. Characters connect with another not face to face, but in their own private thoughts, as ordered by Castel-Bloom: when the mother ends a section trying to avoid thoughts, the next section begins with her son doing so successfully. One may get lost deep within their thoughts, selfishly, aimlessly, and in the next section, a character in an outgoing mood may think fondly of that selfish person, or reject someone who moments before thought fondly of them.

This is just one of the ways that Textile is subtly complex, and terrifically consistent. Since the sections can be flashbacks or move linearly, and when linear, are overlapping, it is easy to imagine Castel-Bloom moving them again and again, seeing how each plays off the previous and the next, until the arrangement is just right, always digging deeper into each character’s identity and relationship to others. This is a reflection of how they are with each other too. Brother and sister loathe each other when her boyfriend is around, but in their own one-on-one, they support each other. Alone, daughter has little respect for her parents, but when a stranger is unhappy with her father, she rushes to the defense. They are isolated from each other in their selfish ways, but aware of it, and try to fight it, even as they repeatedly fail, disappointing both others and themselves, while we, the reader, see the pain of this disappointment from all sides.

All of this is to say that Textile is a book that amongst award-devouring beasts can be overlooked but absolutely should not be, and more than not overlooked, deserves to win the BTBA. The sentences are often stilted, awkward, near-clunkers, but wondrously, perfectly so. It is a book of people turning cold shoulders, of turning away from their best possible selves, and of blunt satire and mocking. Sentences are matter of fact, but saying much behind that straightforwardness, so sentences that almost fail, but instead match every aim of the book is a new type of prose to appreciate. Dalya Bilu’s translation efforts (and here let’s take a moment to castigate presses that hide the translator’s name deep on the copyright page and nowhere else, even more disappointing somehow from a press that by name should be speaking for the often denied voices) faced a specific challenge, walking a line between risking blame for “mistakes” and letting the purposeful awkwardness fit so masterfully with the tone of Textile.

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