PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 19
Portraits by Luna Khods
Tamara Faith Berger writes the best similes. Like the rest of her prose, they’re visceral and utilitarian. “My mouth felt like wallpaper glue” or “the smell from her shorts was like milk on the verge.” The pleasure of Berger’s language, the way it grabs you—you can flip open a page at random and it’ll still sink its hooks into you.
Berger’s most recent novel full of these snagging sentences begins with its unnamed narrator completely fucked up by the return of Barbra, an Ethiopian-Israeli exchange student who stayed with his family for an eight-week period seven years ago when they were both teenagers. And in the time since, he’s written his life around that summer. It was the precipitating event, the impetus for the aftermath in the story he’s continually re-telling to himself as well as to his therapist, Dr. Bornstein, and his girlfriend, Ariane. He calls Barbra his “molester.” But it’s complicated—he calls himself the “abuser.”
Though Barbra’s a fictional character, her narrative is based in recent history. She’s one of the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews that the Israeli military emergency airlifted to Israel in a mere 36 hours during Operation Solomon. The Israeli government’s 1991 “rescue mission” was motivated by fears that growing threats of political instability in the country would leave the Jewish population in danger. Barbra was five years old when a soldier grabbed her and put her on a plane heading to a foreign country where she’d grow up as an orphan and racial minority.
A Zionist with a white savior complex, the narrator’s father thinks Operation Solomon was this miraculous humanitarian effort and he’s so excited to have sponsored one of the repatriated Jewish youths through the local Rotary Club chapter. He thinks Barbra will be a grateful orphan singing Israel’s praises to the rest of the club’s gentile members, but instead she calls herself an exile, recounts a soldier feeling under her dress as a little girl, and upon her arrival in Israel, being given a number in a camp. The narrator’s mother has a more woke point-of-view than her husband, using words like trauma and abuse to describe Barbra’s experience. The narrator and Barbra start playing escalating sadomasochistic role-playing games, sometimes acting out Barbra’s abduction.
Queen Solomon is Berger’s fifth novel and definitely not her first starring teenagers in a sort of smutty bildungsroman. Her characters are finding themselves sexually while they’re also figuring out the world and how power is distributed across race, gender, and class. Desire and coercion are both at play. Like Michel Houellebecq, her characters pivot seamlessly from sex to cultural anthropology. And like Chris Kraus, they’re readers interpreting the world around them through the lens of books. The reading list in Queen Solomon includes Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Ka-Tzetnik 135633’s House of Dolls, and Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah.
I talked to Berger about her latest book on the phone from her home in Toronto.
Where did this narrator character come from?
There’s always been this story in my mind, the story of my high school friend who got schizophrenia. We were all a part of a really close-knit group and he just totally changed. I was thinking a lot about him when I started writing Maidenhead. The story was leftover, though, and I really needed to make it more central to a book.
Also I’ve always felt sort of stuck around Jewish men and I thought the best way to get over that was to get behind one and mess around. I didn’t want Jewish men to have such a hold over me, and after writing this book, they don’t so much anymore. I was trying to be as kind as possible to my narrator but to work with what actually has disturbed me about Jewish men, which is their righteousness and clannishness. I wanted to deal with a story that took apart a little bit the power of Judaism and Jewish men over me.
The story is very specific to these Jewish issues, but it also reminded me of more broad studies of victimhood in the zeitgeist right now, relating to identity politics, like Sarah Schulman’s book Conflict is Not Abuse.
I really liked that book. I sort of expected there’d be some big pushback against it and weirdly there wasn’t. But I felt like it was a really important book which just prefigured the #MeToo movement.
Barbra and the narrator’s relationship in your book made me think of how Schulman compares traumatized behavior and supremacy behavior, the ways they are similar, and how these opposites sort of fold in on each other.
Even you saying that is sort of [apprehensive] Eeeeeeeeee. I don’t know. I think Schulman truly understands and tries to elucidate this complexity, this continuum of victim to victimizer behavior but it’s a hard thing to say and stand behind because most victims of trauma never get their due, never end up on top. Our social and judicial systems are so obviously skewed towards victim-blaming. I appreciated the way that Schulman wanted to infiltrate these systems to suggest more local, friendship-based efforts towards working out conflict. It’s very important that she notes the “duty” of repair.
I guess it’s sort of up to the reader, but how critically do you recommend reading the narrator and his account of events—calling Barbra his “molester” for example. His insistence on this hardened script seems flawed but also really realistic of the way we tell ourselves stories.
Someone who read the book was like, “he’s such a misogynist,” and I think that’s a bit extreme. A reader’s empathy with the narrator will likely wax and wane and that has something to do with the fact that me, the writer, I’m there too. I mean that I think there’s a bit of double consciousness for the reader in reading this narrator. I was trying to write him with as much compassion as possible. He is confused about what Barbra meant to him in his life, what she is going to continue to mean to him, and where she is going to lead him.
There’s also something about him that I would like to believe but I don’t know if it’s true—that this young man would follow this woman somewhere. My feeling is that doesn’t happen as often as it should in life, I mean that a guy follows a girl’s leadership, her ideas, her way of being in the world. In my book, the narrator lets himself be completely overtaken by this other person, he goes forward with her. Even his insistence on the script of his own victimhood doesn’t stop him because he wants more of her. He doesn’t want to destroy her. He wants the opposite.
How do you approach combining smutty sex with cultural anthropology and socioeconomic critique in your writing?
Out of all my books, I think this one is the least titillating! But I’ve always liked the idea of smashing it altogether. Pulp is an interesting model. I’ve been researching these books from the 20, 30s, 40s, and 50s. You really had to search through those books for the dirty parts.
I dislike BDSM erotica, for the most part. I guess the narrator and Barbra’s relationship in this book is somewhat sadomasochistic, but it’s very detached from the aesthetic of any dungeon. From what I do know about BDSM, people often have stuff they want to work through with sex. I think it’s really intelligent, this purposeful melding of the conscious and unconscious; how people consensually engage in this kind of play to deal with their stuff. In the case of the book, Barbra’s story is not just her story but a people’s story. She’s using sex for both power and catharsis on a personal and a national level.
I read that you started out writing for porn?
Yes, I wrote for these pulpy magazines with some porno pictures but mostly it was just text. The internet existed when I started writing for these magazines but of course it wasn’t the same as it is now—rife with porn. I got this job answering an ad at the back of Mirror Magazine in Montreal from a company in Hudson, Quebec. I worked for them for a long time, about four years, from the time I graduated undergrad until I was about 25 or 26. I’d write these porno stories about half the day because the money was good enough that I didn’t need to do it the entire day. But still there was this feeling after a while, “Oh my god, I’m going to go insane writing these.” I started to get too violent, too extreme. My stories started getting rejected from the company. It was like too much period blood everywhere all over the place. And that’s what Lie With Me, my first book, grew out of. I never wrote fiction before these stories. Maybe that’s why my fiction is so unsteady, or distorted—because there’s reams of porn underneath.
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