Orly Castel-Bloom's 'Textile' Shows Israel Without Terrorist Attacks and International Disputes

Whether you’re a long-time lover of Israeli literature or have never read anything originally in Hebrew, Orly Castel-Bloom’s latest book to hit the U.S. is worth a read. Textile (Feminist Press) manages to be both outrageous and measured, and provides a searing social critique of materialism and detachment in 21st century Israel.

Set in the north suburbs of Tel Aviv, the novel follows the Gruber family: Mandy Gruber who copes with her son’s military service by a succession of plastic surgeries; Irad, her husband and egotistic scientist; Dael, their son serving as a sniper in the IDF; and daughter Lirit who lives in the Negev desert with her much older boyfriend and little to no direction in life.

The Grubers are wealthy, mostly as a result of the pajama factory started by Mandy’s mother, which sells mainly to the ultra-orthodox, and which no one in the family cares much about. The family is disconnected from each other, from the problems outside their small world, even from their own lives. Surrounded by money, they can and do isolate themselves to the point of apathy and self-centeredness.

The novel is a fast-paced story in which almost nothing happens. The very matter-of-fact prose gives the illusion that a lot is going on in the lives of the Gruber family — an illusion they themselves seem to be under — but it is only an illusion, nonetheless. Though the family has, theoretically, everything they could want, their lives are not only empty but bland, devoid of emotion or meaning. Yet Castel-Bloom takes what might have been a cliché and turns it fascinating.

The novel is short but impactful, and political in ways that most Israeli novels – at least those that reach American shores – are not. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost entirely absent from the pages and from the family’s consciousness, self-absorbed as they are. Instead, Castel-Bloom satirizes the excesses that capitalism has brought to once-socialist Israel and the escapism that follows swiftly after.

Much of its success stems from its simple, bare-bones style, which makes even the more outrageous aspects of the novel seem disconcertingly normal, and which blurs the line between the important and the humdrum. A carwash scene in which “Soap from thin boring pipes sprayed the car, and giant brushes emerged from hiding and scrubbed energetically,” is described in the same brisk yet languid tone with which we learn Mandy once paid her daughter’s boyfriend to leave the country without saying why (“Lirit’s heart was broken by Lucas’s abandonment, and she either cried all day or didn’t speak”), or about Irad’s outrageous plans to build an anti-terror suit using the webs of spiders (“The plan was to issue them to all the troops on active service and also the reserves, and later the entire civilian population”). Everything in this surreal world blurs together and becomes somehow empty.

The slender novel is delightfully vicious in its satire and provides an interesting view of Israeli society, one removed from the global headlines of international disputes and terrorist attacks. Instead we simply see a family of Israelis living their lives, and not doing a very good job of it. It’s a great addition to the U.S.’s Israeli fiction offerings — so often dominated by male heavy-weights like David Grossman and Amos Oz — and one that readers everywhere can enjoy.

Image: Michal Revivo