"Scream Queens of the Dead Sea"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 17, 2005)
"It's about five-thirty when I get back to the hotel. People are beginning to leave now, coming out of the casino, their eyes all puffy and red, packing themselves back into their cars…Dawn by the Dead Sea is beautiful. No fish, no fowl, no waves, no life—but somehow it's the only place that makes some sense, the only place where you are neither here nor there, the only place where you can speak the language of the living dead."
In Gilad Elbom's witty, metafictional novel of life in Jerusalem, an iconoclastic, "fictional" speaker named Gilad is writing a novel which parallels events in the life of the book's real author Gilad Elbom. The main character, a young man who studied languages and linguistics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has taken a job as an assistant nurse in a mental hospital, and as he speaks to us in his lively and sometimes flippant style, the reader observes his personal relationships, the lives and sometimes bizarre behavior of the inmates in the asylum where he works, the uncertainties of daily life in Jerusalem, and the overriding question of what constitutes sanity in modern-day Israel.
Gilad's girlfriend Carmel is married to a man who is dying, and though she sees Gilad regularly for passionate interludes, she is also gaining emotional points with the outside world by being a devoted caregiver to the husband whose death she anxiously awaits. His patients, whom the reader comes to know well, are a motley crew. Immanuel Sebastian, an atheist, describes himself as suffering from Faith Deficit Disorder. Abe Goldmil, a Beat poet, writes paeans to his goddess, a porn star named Julie Strain. Hadassah Benedict believes she is dead, while Desta Ezra is an Ethiopian Jew who stopped speaking when she was airlifted to Israel from her own country. The only Arab in the group is Ibrahim Ibrahim, the Palestinian murderer of a young Israeli woman, whom the military has assigned to the asylum for observation.
The dark humor of daily life in Israel permeates the novel, from Gilad's delay of his departure for work until he has heard that the terrorist bombings and daily murders have already occurred (and have missed him once again), to his running around to military installations throughout the country to obtain files and paperwork for one of his patients. His trip to the Palestinian territories to visit a casino (populated entirely by Jews, since gambling is anathema to Muslims), and his attempts to take his patients on an outing to a restaurant add to the color and sense of absurdity. An instruction manual from the Israeli government on how to be a good tourist comes in for particular ribbing, while Carmel's constant phone calls to Gilad at work at the worst possible moments serve as a comic chorus throughout.
Moments of hilarity abound, varying in style from rapid-fire, who's-on-first interchanges, to descriptions of personal quirks (Gilad's mother insists on washing off dropped ice cubes because they are "food" that should not be wasted). Absurd poems written by Abe Goldmil, a patient, and discussions of Robinson Crusoe, which Gilad is trying to read at work, add parody and literary commentary to the mixture. Stream of consciousness writing and free association, some of it related to Gilad's interest in heavy metal music, are interposed into discussions of life and literature, giving a wild, existential tone to much of the novel.
Plot is almost non-existent, the whole purpose of the novel seeming to be the recreation of Gilad Elbom's life as he reaches a personal crossroads and tries to decide where to go from there. Fortunately, the light touch, the humor, the self-deprecating commentary, and the pseudo-angst of the main character provide enough intrinsic excitement to keep the reader going in lieu of a "real" story. With honesty and a lack of pretense, the novel achieves a unique, amusing charm, giving a new and intimate vision of one man's life in Jerusalem.
- Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Scream Queens of the Dead Sea at Oznik.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Scream Queens of the Dead Sea (October 2004)
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- Bookslut review of Scream Queens of the Dead Sea
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About the Author:
Gilad Elbom was born in Jerusalem in 1968 and really did work as an assistn nurse in a mental institute in Israel. He studied English and Arabic at the Hebrew University, then moved to Los Angeles to attend the graduate writing program at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Dakota.