What is the machine that seems to cause reviewers to trip over themselves with adulation for one debut collection and practically ignore another? This question has been gnawing at me since I finished Naama Goldstein’s The Place Will Comfort You on the very day the New York Times Book Review hoisted David Bezmozgis onto an illuminated marquee of short story writersall male, all white with David Foster Wallace (still a star but no longer the newest flavor), Julian Barnes, and E.L. Doctorow.
Certainly I can’t blame the Times alone for the laurels around Bezmozgis’s head. Reviewers have been gushing about Bezmozgis and Natasha, his collection of sweet immigrant stories for weeks, if not months, already. And they are sweet, modest, enchanting. But he is not the sole successful practitioner of the craft.
I picked up Goldstein’s collection, thinking, among other things, it’ll be soft. It has the word ‘comfort’ in the title; how artful, provocative or insightful can it be? The happy answer: very. Set in Israel and the U.S., Goldstein’s stories use a sometimes vague, sometimes acute political landscape as a metaphor for the unraveling of an individual, usually Orthodox, young person. In a recent phone interview, she told me all her stories are in some ways autobiographical she is in every character, whether lovable or loathsome. And she binds her characters in religious confinement not as a device to condemn Orthodoxy but because it’s a milieu familiar to her, as refusenik Toronto is to Bezmozgis. But poor refuseniks in Toronto are a cohort everyone can get behind. Orthodox kids in Israel, who in one story tell of burning effigies of Nasser, are a much more troublesome lot to defend, much less recommend to your book group.
And yet in a climate that increasingly challenges the political force of the religious right at home and abroad, such stories would seem to be fodder for the other side, for critics who find everything coming out of Israel, or inspired by it, as proof that the Jews are to blame for the seemingly intractable and tragic social and political situation. But forget politics altogether, or try to anyway. The adolescent despair, the profound sense that life can fall apart at any moment these feelings (not limited to adolescents, really) transcend religion and nationality. And Goldstein’s ability to engage such questions and to describe them so pointedly deserve another look from everybody.