Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, by Stuart Ross

Many writers attempt to find the absurd in the tragic, but few are able to translate their efforts into something highly, compulsively readable. Stuart Ross, in his new novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, certainly gives us a healthy dose of tragedy: his protagonist, Ben, a Jewish performance artist in Toronto, has lost both his parents to cancer, has a brother with a brain injury that has ruined his short- and long-term memory, and is constantly followed by the spectre of anti-Semitism. The absurdity is there, too – Ross’s trademark surrealism, including multiple conversations with actress Kim Novak about her role in the film Vertigo. But what makes Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew stand out is how its small, episodic scenes create a page-turning tension using the subtlest of narrative arcs: Ben is consumed with finding out whether a memory he has – that of his mother assassinating a prominent neo-Nazi – actually happened.

What struck me about this novel is how much it reminded of the works of PEI short story writer, poet and playwright J.J. Steinfeld. In both Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew and the majority of Steinfeld’s oeuvre, we find not so much direct survivor guilt over the Holocaust but rather guilt from the children of Holocaust survivors, the difficulty those children have of facing up to (and finding meaning in) a reality that could perpetrate such a mind-boggling atrocity. Indeed, Ben’s ability to spot random absurdity in the everyday seems to stem from his awareness of the grandest absurdity of all – the Holocaust itself. A friend’s mother is born with a debilitating deformity; his brother’s brain condition prevents him from recognizing the women he loves; a childhood bully terrorizes Ben for reading a book for pleasure. Everyone, it seems, is susceptible to the random cruelties of a random universe.

What’s interesting is the way the novel balances this randomness with Ben’s religio-cultural background. On the one hand, he is very aware of the role that God and religion play in his self identity – he has a bar mitzvah, he celebrates Jewish holidays, etc.; but on the other hand, you get the sense that Ben ultimately believes in none of it, believes that there is nothing beyond this one crack at existence that we are all given. This is typified in a scene where he describes a story he learns at Hebrew school about 12 rabbis who face a painful, brutal death when they refuse to reject their beliefs. As Ben puts it:

We were halfway through the story of the Twelve Rabbis when I started feeling really guilty. I imagined walking home from school one day, and getting cornered by some Christian boys. I pictured them wearing Boy Scout outfits. They say to me, Ben, give up your Jewish god and become Christian like us, or we’ll kill you right now. I think of potato latkes and jelly fruit slices … and of my mother sitting on the edge of my bed and telling me how all her aunts and uncles were killed by Hitler, and of my father slathering horseradish upon his lump of gefilte fish at the Passover Seder, and of my mother getting pelted with snowballs because she’s four years old and she speaks Yiddish. Then I think of being dead. Nothing happens when you’re dead, and you’re not even aware that nothing is happening, because you’re dead.
The juxtaposition here of an inherited Jewishness with an atheistic creed is startling.

But if it all sounds a bit depressing and ghastly, rest assured that it is not. Ross approaches these heady matters with an astounding sense of whimsy and humour. It’s wholly apt that his protagonist is a performance artist: what better way to express the comically arbitrary nature of life than through performances that are designed to exclude a grander sense of ‘meaning’? (As Ben says about his father’s reaction to his art: “He had no idea what I was doing – he was sure it was supposed to mean something and he was a simple man … ‘Whatever response you have is the correct response,’ I told him. ‘It’s not a matter of what I’m trying to say, but of what you get out of it.’”) Ben’s exhibits are, in one sense, typical of performance art: in one show, he eats a thousand donuts; in another, he submerges himself in a vat of ketchup and allows the audience to pull his hair; in another, he travels to Yellowknife to build inukshuks out of eggrolls. But it is that sense of playfulness, that child-like desire to express oneself as the universe spins around us, that makes both Ben’s personality and his art come to life.

Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew offers, in the end, no pat answers or solutions to the questions it raises. (Indeed, the sole plot point, that of whether Ben’s mother actually killed a Nazi, is never really resolved.) Instead, it simply gives us something deeper to ponder: the question of purpose, and the purpose of questioning. Perhaps there is no grander arc of meaning to the universe, but Ross is telling us that that’s okay. The artist’s job is to help us find patterns in the randomness. To find humour. To find beauty.

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