Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review: A Brilliant Novel in the Works by Yuvi Zalkow

A Brilliant Novel in the Works
Written by: Yuvi Zalkow

Published: 2012

Synopsis: When Yuvi's wife finds him in his underwear, standing on top of his desk, she isn't particularly impressed with his writing habits. A self-proclaimed "neurotic Jew," he has a wife who wants things he can’t give her, an agent who wants a book he can’t deliver, and dead parents who, well, they don't really want anything, but that doesn't stop the memory of them from haunting Yuvi at every opportunity. His life begins to unravel as quickly as his unfinished novel, until the two finally begin to intertwine. Soon, his real-life friends and family begin to intermix with his characters. Yuvi travels from his suburban-Atlanta home to the North Carolina mountains of his father's childhood, to several hospital waiting rooms in a struggle to save himself, his marriage, his novel, and also the life of his brother-in-law and end war in the Middle East (if he has time).

I've been umming and ahhing about writing this review for two weeks now, and I've finally decided that I've just got to sit down, throw caution to the wind and hope that I manage to do my tangled thoughts, and this book, justice.

Why the hold up? Well part of it is the fact that the book's protagonist, Yuvi, bears some surface similarities to the author...Yuvi. How the heck do you review a book about a failing author who frequently cuts up his ass, prefers being spanked to having sex, stands on top of his desk in his underwear and generally fails at life, when the actual author shares the same name, and for all I know, a whole lot more? Second, the book and the protagonist's life is tangled up with writing in a very meta and complex way, which required more than just a typical review. Or at least that's how I felt. So here I am, two weeks later, struggling to work out how to express my reaction to this book sufficiently and hoping to all the gods in all the heavens that I didn't miss the key descriptor "autobiography" when I accepted this book for review.

So here it goes. Yuvi...he's pretty pathetic. I mean he's completely loveable, and I adored him in this book, but every few chapters I would inwardly sigh and thank my lucky stars that I wasn't his wife Julia. He's the antithesis of the romantic author image, he isn't holed away in some beautiful room overlooking a lake, a glass of scotch at his side while he battles through his demons as he bangs away on a dusty, yet reliable, typewriter. Rather, Yuvi can usually be found in his underwear, moaning about his inability to write his novel and complaining about his wife's love of BLTs. The writing happens infrequently and with a huge amount of pain. For someone who actively pursues the life of a writer, it seems to bring him a lot of grief - although that's something I sympathise with completely. He is, to be completly blunt and a maybe little inappropriate, thoroughly Jewish in all the ways American TV has conditioned me to stereotype. Although I suppose it isn't bigoted of me when the character himself is frequently pointing out how Jewish he is compared to his protestant wife and her family,and frequently uses it as a method to distinguish himself from the people around him. His Jewishness (if that's a word) is a crucial element of his character. The son of an Israeli Jewish mother and an American Jewish father, Yuvi clings to this as his only real sense of identity, even though his link to Judaism at this point in his life is tenuous at best, and it seems at times like he's almost replicating the Jewish characters of popular sitcoms perhaps to emphasise that he knows he's different, so that no one can use that as a point of attack against him. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Yuvi is so uncomfortable in his own skin, and so unsure (and unsupportive) of himself that he struggles to act accordingly with his true identity (writer) and overcompensates with something that should realistically just be a part of who he is, not the defining feature.

Yuvi is a big part of the book, so much so that everything else just sort of revolves around him. While there are sections created around Julia and her brother (Joel, AKA Shmendrick), or Shmen and his partner Ally, really it's about Yuvi's relationship with these people, and Yuvi's interpretation of their relationships through his eyes. Julia and Joel may be brother and sister, but what they really have in common is Yuvi, and Yuvi's relationships with these two people, the most important outside of his deceased parents, are very important to the development of Yuvi's character through the book. Julia, his wife, is compassionate, intelligent and determined. She works with rehabilitating addicts and spends so much time caring for other people that Yuvi constantly feels as though he's burdening her, that he's too goofy and child-like for such an incredible woman. Unlike Julia, Joel/Shmen isn't quite so together. In fact, he's pretty much the complete opposite of her.Where Julia is organised and professional, Shmen is erratic and creative and irresponsible. He'll call at 4am with anagrams, band names and useless facts, is always up for a martini and is incapable of holding down a job. He's also sick, which fits rather beautifully with his "live life to the fullest" mentality. These two balance out and provide Yuvi with an amazing scaffold of support - though it is one that he fails to recognise much of the time, or to truly appreciate - even though he loves them both to the ends of the Earth. There are other characters, his parents are often discussed during flash backs or self-contained short story chapters, Ally and her daughter, Yuvi's editor, and a few other people flit in and out of the book, but at the heart is Yuvi.

 As he struggles to write his book, Yuvi reveals that his success as a writer has come from short stories and it is back to this format that he falls as a way of coping with life around him. As he worries about Shmen's health and his marriage to Julia (he thinks she might be cheating on him with a tall, handsome uncircumcised man - everything he isn't in other words) he turns to short stories to try and make sense of it all. These short stories, which could be about an incident as a child, his grandparent's love story, a story told from Julia's perspective, or about a man trying to save the future of Earth from Uranus, are emotional, descriptive and very earnest. I don't know if any of the scenes with book Yuvi's parents were modelled on real Yuvi's parents, but the interactions and reflections are so full of love that I almost couldn't bear to read some of them, it felt like peaking at someone's diary.

It soon becomes clear that these short stories, and the daily narrative that surrounds them are the basis for Yuvi's book, which is only the start of the meta characteristics. Though it is set up as a realistic diary of sorts, it soons become clear that writing and words are so entangled in Yuvi's life that fact and fiction begin to shimmer and merge into one huge beast that can't be separated. Or, to put it differently but no less confusingly, the book reflects Yuvi's life which reflects the book/narrative which reflects back on Yuvi's life. At some points processes of writing are used to describe Yuvi's life, such as "It's a typical situation for me: the plot gets too twisted too quickly and now I can't find my way out" (page 40) but are also representative of his struggles as a writer and present issues with his book. Or after being hounded by his editor for something to move the action along - a death or something, anything! - Yuvi tries to spark up a friendship with a Palestinian journalist to fill this void, to which Yusef says "I don't mean to be disrespectful...but you're trying to use me as some kind of outsider who comes in to teach the main character a lesson. It's a bit contrived...You'll have to find another way to save your book" (page 248). At other times, fictional elements are introduced to beautifully convey an emotionally turbulent scene that simply can't receive the proper justice using regular words and realistic situations. I can't go into it without spoiling the final scene, but let me just say that the final chapter absolutely tore my heart out. It was beautiful, melodic, poetic, fascinating and a completely perfect conclusion to an event that had been building for so, so long. I'm sitting here in tears just remembering it, and it's a scene that'll live in my mind for a long time yet. If for nothing else, read this book to read this final chapter. If it doesn't take your breath away and leave you crying on the bus like it did for me, then I'll buy you a new book.

Yuvi is a writer, everything he does is storytelling, he just fails to grasp that at the start of the book. The beauty of this story is the transformation Yuvi takes as he finally begins to realise this, and stops interfering with the process long enough to create a well-constructed, eloquent novel that is full of emotions and fears and realisations about life, love, family and himself. And in getting his writing mojo back and his novel on track, his life falls back into place as well. Like I said, Yuvi is a writer, without it his life is a mess. Truly, this book is an extraordinary read.


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