The furies of depression, in the feminine mode.
Reading Alona Kimchi’s collection of five potent short stories, I was reminded of William Carlos Williams’s concluding words in his introduction to the original edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”
Hell it is. Kimchi’s pervasive theme is depression. Her depressed main characters lug along with them the various plagues that seem to thrive in the petri dish of Western secularism: ennui, fierce anger, self-obsession, self-loathing, phobic behavior, sexual promiscuity, gender confusion, eating disorders, sloth, perfectionism, an almost unbearable need to be loved and madness. For leavening, there’s death by AIDS.
Kimchi is mapping many Westerners’ — especially women’s — inner fury and despair at modern life’s betrayal of its promise to supply, not only individual pleasures and needs at a high level, but personal “fulfillment,” that secular substitute for redemption. Her basic character is a 20-something woman gone wrong and too smart not to know it. She grew up pampered, probably in Europe, then came to Israel, a trauma in itself, though the stories are not particularly about Israel.
In the title story, which reads like a pre-history for the others, Anastasia, a Russian immigrant entering puberty, lives with her mother and stepfather Yacov, a controlling bore obsessed about germs and bathroom habits. To protect her mother from Yacov’s displeasure, Anastasia tries to be cheerful and clean, but Yacov wildly over-reacts when she breaks a glass or talks to a girlfriend about boys, and he becomes positively frightening when she stuffs up the toilet. Later, he starts acting nicer, but she half recognizes something ominous about how much he touches her. As this claustrophobic family hothouse begins to leave its imprint on her, she listens passively to his lectures about birds, Zionism and the approaching “lunar eclipse” — an apt metaphor for the inner shrinking that defeats so many teenage girls.
In “Movies,” an aspiring filmmaker and her boyfriend remain connected by a cooled passion from another time. She sleeps a lot, feels lonely, watches films, thinks about having a baby but is disgusted by the idea, and he finally leaves her for someone else no better than she. “We’d Talk About Love” uses a controlled stream of consciousness to tell the story of love-starved homosexual Elisha, who contracted AIDS from his former partner but did not inform his new boyfriend Nissim. In consequence, the two are bound together in love forever, waiting for death.
“Berlin Diaries,” the best-realized piece, is a lengthy, grim and heart-wrenching tale about Galli, who is hospitalized with “loonies,” as she refers to her fellow patients, people “stunned by depression.” She’s not one of them, of course, being knowing, funny, outspoken — but so fragile and furious that when one says something personal and deep to her, Galli “blows a fuse,” dumps the other patient out of her wheelchair, kicks her in the stomach, then returns to her own room and slits her wrists. Later, OD’ing on her medications, she does permanent damage to herself, becoming a true “loony.”
“Nightmare Poem, or The Unrealized Cure of Mor Alkabetz” is Kimchi’s most fully articulated statement of depression’s social context. Mor, a brilliant and ambitious fashion photographer, suffers the confusion and wild distress that is merely “part of the general atmosphere…the endless tension that’s filling our Western reality.” She ruins her bulimic iron discipline by secretly gobbling a Stranger’s half-eaten pita and loses all personal restraint by shamelessly throwing herself at a former lover. About men especially, she is filled with confusion, jealousy and hostility, yet she calls herself “ the ultimate, voluptuous woman. I love sex and have no inhibitions” — but it’s not true, as she admits. What she wants and can’t get is, well, love, and if she can’t have that, she’ll choose oblivion.
The writing in these disturbing stories is taut, bitterly humorous and full of little shocks of perception. “When a man stops loving you, his eyes become covered with a dull film like dust,” one of the characters tells us, and Kimchi surprises us midway through “Berlin Diaries” with her description of the worldly, knowing Galli as she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror: “a fat girl in too-big pink hospital pajamas, scruffy, with bulging pimples on the forehead, small, deep-set eyes and greasy hair pulled behind the ears and hanging down like a rag.”
The stream of consciousness in “We’d Talk About Love” is not completely effective, and the resolution of “Movies,” through the recollection of a salvific minor detail, seems an unsatisfactory imitation of early Salinger. But at their best, these stories encapsulate a terrible private pain rooted in the sophisticated life the characters were trained to want and became helpless to escape.
The voice of their misery is especially convincing in its absence of self-pity, only brutally honest self-criticism. Kimchi is particularly good at demonstrating how a person can be both deluded and faultlessly perceptive at the same time, full of accurate knowledge that remains far from useful truth.
Published in Hebrew as “Ani Anastasia” (“I Am Anastasia”) in 1996, the collection won the ACUM Prize for Literature, and has been finely translated here by Yael Lotan.