Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why have I written to you? | Black Box

"New or old?" This was the question I asked myself as I stared at the two books on the shelf. The bookstore offered autographed copies of Amos Oz's newest collection of short stories (בין חברים - Between Friends) and a new edition of his older Black Box. After several minutes deliberation, I chose Black Box. Not because I hoped that a more established title of Oz's would necessarily be better. Rather, Between Friends is another short story collection and I wasn't sure I was over the wonderful Scenes from Village LifeBlack Box, being an epistolary novel, seemed to be about as far from the wonderful constraints of a short story collection as possible.

Yes and no.

I've known for years that my mother - the original voracious reader in the family - did not like Amos Oz or his writing style. When mentioned that I had liked - even loved - Scenes from Village Life, she was surprised. She dismissed his sharp, often coarse writing style as compared to the more elegant A. B. Yehoshua, or to the exceedingly readable Meir Shalev, or to David Grossman's emotional lyricism. Oz's style, by her measure, simply couldn't hold up. And for the most part, I agree with her assessment. Oz writes more bluntly than many of his Israeli counterparts. But it doesn't matter, because one thing is clear - Oz is an author in perfect command of his writing. Black Box is an excellent example of this.

Scenes from Village Life was special in large part because of the way Oz seemed to know exactly when to end his stories. There was a perfect level of suspense in each, wrapped up cleanly into small stories that drove me to keep reading. Though Black Box obviously has a larger narrative, this same care applies to each aspect of the novel-in-letters. Though the letters may sometimes drag on for longer than I would want/expect, it's obvious that Oz knows exactly what his characters need to say, and how.

Black Box revolves around the collapsed marriage of Alex and Ilana. At the start of the novel, Ilana is contacting Alex (a well-known professor living abroad) for the first time in seven years, asking for his assistance with their angry, often violent teenage son Boaz. Ilana's writing style is clean, one-sided and lyrical. We immediately get the impression that there's more to the story than what Ilana is sharing, and as the novel progresses, we learn about why Ilana and Alex got their divorce (with Alex completely cutting off ex-wife and son). Ilana is meanwhile remarried to Michael (Michel), whose influence on the story grows alongside Alex's re-involvement in his ex-family's life.

The story is mostly told through letters between these four major characters, with the occasional correspondence between Alex and his lawyer, clippings from Alex's notes on military history or literature, and occasionally letters from other family members. Oz does a brilliant job of switching between characters, on a level I don't think I've ever encountered in an epistolary novel. If normally the reader needs to be told who is narrating the letter before beginning to read it, in Black Box each letter-writer is so clearly distinct from one another that within the first few lines, it's obvious who is writing to whom.

For example, Ilana, as I mentioned, writes pretty. Hers is a literary style; she invokes long, beautifully written passages meditating over her impressions on what Alex is doing at any given moment. She quotes entire conversations comfortably, as though writing a novel. But her letters feel like novels in other regards as well. Ilana is an unreliable narrator, admitting to certain lies and omissions from one letter to the next, gradually letting down her guard as the story progresses. Boaz, meanwhile, writes with numerous spelling errors. His style is loose, colloquial, bad. He writes like you would expect a poorly educated teenager to write.

There is no external narration in Black Box. Most of what we know about the characters is either through their writing style or through secondhand accounts. The only character who really describes her own life is Ilana, but she herself casts doubt on most of what she says. We know she is intelligent, manipulative, and passionate from her writing style, just as we know her husband Michel is religious, single-minded and vaguely possessive from his own accounts. Alex, meanwhile, comes off as stiff and cold, whether in his sharp telegrams to his harassed lawyer or in his long, oddly pained letters to the other characters.

Though each character is thoroughly unappealing, together their letters create a clear sense of intimacy between reader and fiction. Each character frustrated me for other reasons: Boaz for his aggression and impulsive view of the world, Michel for his method of applying his political beliefs, his hypocrisy and his sexism (in general, there's an uncomfortable thread of sexism running through Black Box), Alex for his violence and coldness, Ilana for her manipulations, lies and generally victimized perspective... These are people I wouldn't want to deal with in real life, but I was nonetheless drawn into their world through Oz's clear-minded writing. I cared, even if I sort of wished I didn't have to.

I didn't love Black Box. I don't think I ever could. It's hard to love a book when its characters are so unappealing or when it brushes against politics so lightly without really revealing its true feelings. But it's also hard not to like a book that creates such a strong level of intimacy between these awful characters. Past the halfway mark of the book, I felt almost overwhelmed by one of the letters: Ilana is recounting the beginning of her relationship with Alex, her former army commander. Reading what felt like such a personal, intimate letter unnerved me, unsettled me entirely. Worse are the moments from the other end - Michel's impassioned, almost fanatical letters to Boaz felt a little too believable. By the end of the book, I had to remind myself that these were fictional characters. I had to remind myself this because an already grim story turned even more inwards. The effect was... powerful. This is not as easy a book to recommend as Scenes from Village Life, but yes - it is recommended.


  1. I think it's very difficult for an author to create distinctive characters in an epistolary novel. I recently read one (The Red Book) in which every single character had the same 'voice' thereby ruining the whole thing.

    Black Box sounds disturbing, yet worth it. On the list it goes!

  2. I loved 'Scenes from Village Life' (and was almost prepared to go to the streets when it wasn't shortlisted for the IFFP last year!). This is one that I've heard good things about before, so I hope I can fit it into my busy reading schedule...

    ..but then I say that so often ;)

  3. I've only ever read Oz's essays. Where would you suggest I begin with his fiction?

  4. I too have a lot of trouble enjoying books with impossible-to-like characters. But if they are well-written (and it sounds like this one is), then I can at least appreciate the story.


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