Rutu Modan: Exit Wounds

Modan, Rutu (2008), Exit Wounds, Drawn and Quarterly
[Translated by Noah Stollman]
ISBN 978-1-897299-83-8

I am deeply impressed by Rutu Modan. She is a young Israeli writer and artist, whose work has been trickling slowly into our English-speaking hands. There was a wonderful column at the New York Times, called Mixed Emotions (direct link here) from May to October 2007, and then the same year, Drawn and Quarterly published her first graphic novel, Exit Wounds, in a translation by Noah Stollman and it’s one of the best graphic novels I read all year. It is marvelous. Rutu Modan has created a humane, smart, beautiful book that challenges you and charms you at the same time. It is so complete and well-structured that it’s hard to believe that this is her first solo full-length book.

Prior to this publication, Modan was mostly a creator of cartoons and short sequences, most notably as editor of the short-lived Hebrew version of MAD Magazine. She also co-wrote a graphic novel that hasn’t yet found an English publisher or translator. A few stories of hers were published by Drawn and Quarterly as Jamilty and other Stories, and we can only hope there’s more to come. Exit Wounds is a full success, revolving around some similar issues as Alison Bechdel’s “tragicomic” memoir Fun House, but without the portentous Bildungsbürger weight that Bechdel hangs on her narrative. There is a certain lightness to Modan’s book that impresses me more than many other aspects of it, what with all the bleak- and darkness that it has to contend with.

Exit Wounds is, after all, at least in part, a novel about death. It is an explosion by a suicide bomber, murdering people by a bus station cafeteria in Hadera that provides the impetus for the main plot, which is fashioned with many of the trappings of the mystery genre. Many people among the murdered have been identified, except for one. Numi, young woman, watching the news, suddenly, startled, sees a scarf on the the street, unattended, orphaned from its owner. She recognized the scarf immediately, knowing it to belong to her lover Gabriel Franco. The body, however, cannot be identified by any normal means, the only possibility left is a blood test. Gabriel is (was?) an old man, with an ex-wife and children and so Numi decides to speak to his son and convince him to take that blood test.

This is where we enter the story. We meet Koby Franco, a taxi driver in his twenties, who appears to be somewhat ill-tempered and who’s certainly not happy with the direction his life has been taking. One day, a woman steps up to him and tells him his father has been killed in an accident. When he finds out that the scarf is her sole evidence and that she has approached him to make the identification, he dismisses her hypothesis and leaves. Not until weeks later, after not having been able to contact his father, after entering his father’s apartment only to find it deserted, he decides to have a more thorough talk with Numi to ascertain whether her fearful speculations hold any water.

Together they set out on an odyssey to Hadera and other places. Hadera is a city of some 77000 inhabitants, near Haifa. In the early 2000s it has known a fair amount of murderous attacks, numbers which have only gone down after the construction of the West Bank barrier, which, in Hadera as in other Israeli cities, has increased safety noticeably and significantly. Rutu Modan’s story, however, which is inspired by David Ofek’s 2003 documentary No. 17, about someone who died in a suicide bombing in 2002 and could not be identified, takes place before this.

The Hadera we encounter is a lonely place. People are hardened, the explosion, although it has taken place in the recent past, hasn’t left the impression upon their memories that it could have. A woman in the cemetery grins as she talks about a large number of victims to be interred the day Koby and Numi visit. Another woman hasn’t mentioned her being close to the explosion to her husband so he wouldn’t find out she was cheating on him. An immigrant, traumatized, leaves the country, which one of the regular patrons of the cafeteria comments with a shrug, mentioning that “her cleaning got worse.” On Israelis, these heinous attacks seem to leave but a fleeting impression, but that’s only superficially true. In Exit Wounds, the brown, gray and ocher exteriors of cities like Hadera bespeak the loneliness, the sense of loss, of fear even, that permeates the everyday.

This experience of loss, in turn, is part of an exploration of the relationships between the survivors. All kinds of characters are in love, or in relationships. The love story at the heart of the book is especially striking in that it is initially introduced by way of another relationship, Numi and Gabriel’s. A love letter to Gabriel, penned by Numi, quoting a Cole Porter song, serves as a catalyst, as kindling for the fire of what will start out as friendship and end up in a steaming sex scene on a lawn (this scene, by the way, is one of the most perfectly realized scenes I have ever encountered in this medium, these are panels that are sensuous but also fueled by a very intimate kind of realism, slightly off, but highly believable).

The love story sneaks up on you, it hides under the mystery plot and takes up more and more space, in fact, the two stories are intertwined, and as the love theme takes up speed, the reader is more and more enchanted, but despite the magical qualities it develops, the love story always, like that scene on the lawn, stays believable. The character of Numi and her visual representation has a large role in this. Unusual for visual media, Numi, the female love interest in Exit Wounds is rather plain and Rutu Modan frequently opts to dress her in clothes that conceal rather than expose her figure. Since the basic silhouette of the female body is so well established as a signifier, Modan’s decision here is remarkable and ties into other decisions concerning sex and gender, which are also rendered visually.

The fact that so much of the book is as dependent upon the art as upon the writing is another reason why Exit Wounds is so good. I think it’s the mark of an excellent graphic novel that many significant ideas are conveyed visually rather than through the writing. The artwork isn’t a substitute for writing, or an ‘enhancement’, and writers or artists who recognize the unique powers that the art has in telling not just a story, but in exploring and interrogating ideas and concepts, frequently produce stunning works. Rutu Modan’s art, clearly indebted to the ligne claire style of francophone comics, is successful in conveying that tension between light and dark elements I mentioned before.

The precise, highly detailed background, its colors perfectly conveying shifts in light and mood, is often devastating in its depiction of landscapes empty of human beings, or fading passers-by into a brownish background. And even when Modan pits her characters against a flat, monochrome background without any details, the effect is harsh, as it draws out the loneliness in the characters acting in the foreground, their every gesture and facial expression look suddenly so much more significant.

These gestures are interesting in their own right. Modan’s cartoonish way of drawing her characters, significantly less detailed than the background, reduced to a few important, telling lines, eschews the hyperrealistic (but artificial) style that, for example, Terry Moore employs. Despite not always being anatomically correct, her characters appear all the more life-like. I find it hard to describe, but I would describe it as a kind of warm realism, capturing the sense of a gesture more than the precise angle of the limbs involved. Modan’s art brings her characters to life; unlike Terry Moore’s art, for example, which uses, or toys with, iconical imagery, Modan’s interest is less intertextual, so to say; it’s her artwork, more than the dialogue (which is sometimes rather wooden, after reading Mixed Emotions, I blame Stollman’s translation) or other aspects of her writing, which creates the sense of verisimilitude that I have kept mentioning.

This believability, in turn, makes her ideas, whether it’s about the consequences of terror in a haunted populace, as mentioned above, or about issues of gender (women with make-up, for example are drawn with wider eyes, in a more exaggerated, doll-like manner, perhaps signifying the role they assume by dressing up like that), more palatable and the whole of Exit Wounds less like a sustained discourse of ideas about all kinds of things than an affecting and effectual story about a human’s fate and two other persons’ love. That love is not an alternative to the loss that the explosion has caused in the survivors and that permeates the pages of Exit Wounds.

In fact, the central and all the smaller peripheral relationships which become the more visible the more the novel progresses, are, I would argue, structured by absences. Absences drive people into relationships or keep people in them, some, like the embittered waitress at the cafeteria, clearly keep up relationships with the deceased, the eternally absent ones. At the core of all this is Gabriel, Numi’s former lover and Koby’s father. Slowly but surely he emerges as a fascinatingly itinerant character, in search of his identity, professional as well as personal. People who loved him or knew him once can only hold on to that sliver of his personality, the fact that they believe they know him is the perfect indicator that he’s gone again, in search of a different identity. He is always absent, not just in the pages of Exit Wounds, but also in the lives of its protagonists. He leaves behind objects, words, memories which help to construct his past but are useless in the present.

That permanent absence, that elusiveness serves to elevate Modan’s book onto a different level of discourse. Ultimately, she succeeds in welding the personal level (the love story, finding out about your father’s fate etc.) to a transpersonal level, thus raising questions (especially with the political subtext) about different identities, about general questions of inheritance and tradition (after all, the father/son dynamics are highly important). One of the major concerns in Exit Wounds, I think, is the role of the younger generation in a country so dominated and structured by the discourse of the founding fathers’ generation, the fathers’ religion. Modan’s answer is a humane one, a call to step free from the obsession with and the search and constant scrutiny of the past, a call for a communication between individuals of the younger generation, almost, even, an admonishment for them to make their own lives, to jump, even, into the future, relying on one’s fellow men. And Modan does this seemingly without effort, within just under 200 pages, and wholly successful. Extraordinary.

A.B. Yehoshua: A Late Divorce

Yehoshua, A.B. (2005), A Late Divorce, Halban
Translated by Hillel Halkin
ISBN 1-870015-95-9

I don’t know about you but I am constantly on the prowl for great writers I never heard of. That is one of the reasons why I follow the long- and shortlists of different prizes and the surrounding discussions, hoping to come across a gem. Gems, however, are few and far between, and I’ve become careful. I still do dip into the unknown now and then, and, most recently, my stranger of choice was A. B. Yehoshua who caught my attention when he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2005. Two weeks ago I finally read a novel of his, A Late Divorce, translated by Hillel Halkin, published in the original in 1982. I read every page with enjoyment up to the end of this marvelously written and conceived jewel of a novel. Looking, waiting and prowling paid off.

A.B. Yehoshua, judging from this book, is a great writer and A Late Divorce is a masterpiece that I had trouble to describe. But, I’ll try. Bear with me. A Late Divorce is a book about family, about Israel, about religion, about madness, about poetry, about love and about shame. Probably about half a dozen more things, too. The writing is great, as well, although I have to add the usual caveat. I’ve only read Yehoshua in Halkin’s translation. As far as I know, Halkin could be responsible for most of the stylistic goodness; if the translation, however, is even slightly true to the original book, Halkin’s task was a daunting one, because A Late Divorce is an uneasy book, never settling on one voice, one point of view, intent upon chasing the reader through a maze of sounds until the book itself ends with a chase in a masterfully bittersweet ending.

A Late Divorce is about migrations and returns: an Israeli professor, Yehuda Kaminka who teaches in the US, has built himself a home there, with a pregnant girlfriend whom he wants to marry. He returns to Israel, his former home, to obtain a divorce from his wife. It is a book about madness: this attempt of his is more difficult than we may have anticipated, it has required a lot of preparation and still, when the professor arrives, everything is hanging in the balance, because his wife has been locked up in a psychiatric ward ever since she tried to kill him, which is the act that drove him away. It is a book both about religion and family: He arrives on Passover week, a week of ritual and remembrance for those of the Jewish faith; during that week he lives at the houses of his four children, who take turns in accommodating him. Three of his children are married, the fourth is gay but also in a relationship.

In a week of ritual, we watch that family play its old games and go through it’s rituals, in a week of remembrance, we learn what an unhappy family this one is and always was. As the week draws to a close, the tensions rise, but due to Yehoshua’s immense skills, we don’t have a catastrophe waiting at the end, not in any usual sense. Instead, Yehoshua uses these last chapters to twist the knife in his readers’ hearts some more, making them feel a sorrow (and hope) that doesn’t leave when the last page is turned. Although there are no actual repetitions, Yehoshua’s construction creates a sense of repetition, recreating the same sadness and sorrow time and again that dominates the family, injecting new elements, shining new light on some old ones. Not an awful lot really happens in the book but these devices ensure that the book never gets boring, never becomes dull. The most significant and well-executed of the narrative games is how he creates a flow of voices by handing each chapter to a different character; the way one voice follows another made me gasp at times, he seems to have an unerring instinct of how to arrange this in as effective a manner as possible.

The novel is, also, about writing, in several ways; there is for example a fledgling poet, who uses a notebook with two columns, wherein she notes ideas and phrases, one for poetry and one for prose. She always notes both of these at the same occasions, which tells us how the same situation can be channeled through different sensibilities different kinds of writing. However, writing is emphasized most directly in the way that Yehoshua foregrounds his techniques, the tools he uses to convey his story. The book has nine chapters, one for each day, each one narrated by a different family member. Some chapters are, for lack of a better word, special, narrated in a special voice or a special way. I have no idea how Yehoshua renders voices in the original Hebrew, but in Halkin’s translation, Yehoshua’s not going for subtle effects like changes of tone, speech patterns or something like that. No, among these “special” ways of narrating the story there’s the first chapter, which is written in a style resembling stream-of-consciousness, no commas, no semicolons, a hurried stew of a narrative, poured straight from the mind of a child, Kaminka’s only grandson.

There is the chapter of his gay son Tsvi’s lover, who’s a sephardic Jew (there’s a whole strand of ideas in the novel that center upon the status of sephardic Jews in Israel) and, for most people, a closeted gay. His chapter only consists of one half of dialogue, his half. He talks to different people and unearths interesting information, which we only know to the extent that it is reflected in his answers and questions. And the very next chapter features only dialogue. It’s not just any dialogue, it’s one of the most culturally enshrined kinds of dialogue: Tsvi has a session with his psychiatrist. The fact that this last chapter’s narrative technique is reflected to an extent in the content (there are more ways, but impossible to share without spoiling it for some future readers) is no accident. Yehoshua makes good and judicious use of every word, phrase or paragraph he writes. He is not a generous but an efficiently brilliant writer. Nothing escapes his attention.

I have, in past reviews, positively remarked upon some writer’s use of illness, for example, not as a textual gadget but as something that has a logic of its own, and of the writer’s acceptance of it. I have also presented Giordano’s novel as a striking negative example of a writer who is neither generous nor, as a writer, particularly smart. Yehoshua is greedy, he takes everything and fits it into his system, but he doesn’t do it frivolously or carelessly. Giordano doesn’t care about the minorities he uses, not a bit. He exoticises madness, illness. Not so Yehoshua. What he does he does because it’s necessary, needed. He sees no need necessarily to consider others’ logic, others’ situations but he doesn’t use them as difference either, I think. It’s difficult, because the book as a whole is torn, morally. Yehoshua is a very moral writers, but his allegiance isn’t always clear. Often, it’s really hard to see where the projected norm is (unless there isn’t one, but I think there is), from which angle Yehoshua reads the situations and the characters or maybe I just don’t see clearly enough. In terms of what we just discussed, let’s for example, look at the child’s chapter again, which is, remember, the first one of the book, containing a narrative that resembles a stream of consciousness.

Clearly the speed and breathlessness of the way that chapter is told exemplifies central properties of this chapter’s speaker. At the same time, the setup of the chapter is very strange, the story it tells is wondrous and complete enough to serve as a separate story: The old man returns from abroad, sleeps off his jet lag for days while members of the extended family keep calling. The child watches everything and the moment the old man wakes, is the first moment in a while that the boy is left alone, babysitting his infant sister. A diaper-related crisis arises, the boy makes a mess of it, but the ruckus wakes the grandfather and together they set things right, clean up the mess. It’s one of the best chapters I’ve read in any novel, and it serves perfectly as introduction to the book. The family has yet to weigh in completely, Kaminka’s relationship to his wife and the reason for wanting a divorce have yet to emerge, yet to be disclosed but many other things are already stated here. Both are outsiders in the society they live in now, the old man because he is at odds with his family and because he’s perhaps more American than Israeli now, the boy because he’s peculiar, and fat.

And here’s where I return to what I just babbled about: his corpulence, presented as the result of an illness and his isolation from ‘normal’ kids isn’t used as such, especially not in the context of the novel. To be sure, he is no naïve child, he’s ashamed of himself, of his actions, anxious to know what people say about him, almost paranoid and he keeps trying to make sure that people know he’s ill not lazy or a glutton.

The gym teacher called me over try Gaddis he said I’ll help you I said I can’t. If you’d lose some weight you could jump he said so I said it’s not the food it’s my glands there’s something wrong with them. What glands he said who put that into your head? So I explained to him about the glands that make me fat the doctor said so he even gave me a note at the beginning of the year that I wasn’t supposed to jump.

He feels society’s gaze upon him and it’s a heavy load to have to bear as a child. But, and here’s the kicker, the same basic problems, the shame, the paranoiac fear of others’ tongues and eyes, everyone’s afflicted of that. Every single character here is miserable, mad, even Some chapters seem to be told in a pretty straightforward, conventional manner, just plainly told from the character’s point of view, so that we learn both about the events and about the character’s feelings towards them, his experience of them and his role within that strange disturbed family.

These chapters seem simple, especially compared with the others but that simplicity is deceptive. Just as the characters are often not openly miserable (unlike, say, the cast of Christina Stead’s masterpiece), these chapters and the characters that narrate them are also underhanded about other aspects of their mental make-up. Reading the book, we find that few things are told several times, it’s not a Rashomon type of structure, but it definitely works in a similar manner, but instead of seeing an event or an object from several angles, we see a character from several angles. While I still maintain that there’s a moral undecidability involved, as mentioned above (I will return to that in a second), this method, and Yehoshua’s hard gaze at everything, did remind me of Bentham’s Panopticon as described and used by Foucault. It doesn’t, of course, work for the characters, since awareness of the device and self-regulation is key to this, but since much of the book feels like an allegory anyway, it’s more like a reminder to his readers, an admonishment. This is the aspect of the book that’s horrible, really. There’s a cold moral core to much of it. Unpleasant, rigid. And at the same time, this is one of the central places where Yehoshua blurs distinctions. When we hear that Kaminka’s wife, the certified madwoman, stabbed him because she was “disappointed” with him, we can’t but feel Yehoshua’s nod of approval. He’s that rigid.

However, the book also conveys a passion, a personal, political one. While discussing the family and its problems, Yehoshua’s also discussing Israel and it’s situation, it’s history and its future. This is, perhaps, as important and central a reading as one that would foreground the personal relationships, the intrigue, broken hearts and the like. Yes, the book is a huge disquisition about love, about the power imbalance that it can bring, about the role of sex, the harm of ladylike prudery, the role of prostitution in a prude society, the role of homosexuality etc. However, it’s hard to ignore insistent phrases such as his aside about “a homeland still struggling to be a homeland.” There is a worry about Israel in the book, as Israel is surrounded by enemies, regularly harangued by its friends and despised by its enemies. Passages like this one, towards the end of the book, stay with you, long after you finished the novel:

Homeland can you be a homeland? […] It mustn’t be said not even be said but the state of Israel is an episode. Or will history have mercy?

The character voicing this subsequently dismisses the idea of historical mercy, with the cold of Yehoshua’s thinking on his breath. But, in a previous chapter, which is told from hindsight, disclosing the end before we’re there, there is burgeoning hope. It’s not Kaminska returning, because he returns in order to sever his ties with the homeland.

No, it’s the young generation, the children, infants and the as of yet unborn that represent hope and it is this hope that lends this novel its greatness. Yes, alright, it’s written and constructed by an extraordinary writer. This is the only book of his I know and my edition provides no further information beyond the prizes he’s garnered, but as far as the craft of prose is concerned, he’s one amazing specimen of a writer. The family, too, is vivid, and if I have not chosen to dwell overmuch on its dynamics it’s because part of the book’s enjoyment is finding out about that, being prodded and slapped and pushed by the book through the narrow alleyways of that family, listening to insufferable bigots and struggling poets. Through his way of shuffling the chapters he creates, in a way, a music of family, a rhythm of relationships. He reflects upon writing in numerous ways, probably reflecting on his own literature, as well. He’s, really, a very good writer, and the book is harrowing, a tough experience to undergo, but that doesn’t make it great. It is the vision, the hopes, the faith in youth that shines from the book that make A Late Divorce so much worth reading, I think.