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.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .

Read More >

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .

Read More >

Faces in the Crowd
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Reviewed by Valerie Miles

At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .

Read More >

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar
Reviewed by Cameron Rowe

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .

Read More >

Self-Portrait in Green
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .

Read More >