Sunday, November 11, 2012

Cutting Humor: Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City

Dolly City, a wonderfully sick and absurdly humorous novel that I read in Dalya Bilu’s translation from the Hebrew, gets off to a strange start that offers a feel for what’s to come. When Dolly’s goldfish dies, she takes the fish out of the bowl and then does this:
I laid the fish on the black marble counter, took a dagger, and began cutting it up. The little shit kept slipping away from me on the counter, so I had to grip it by the tail and return it to the scene of the crime.
That’s not even the end of the second paragraph! (And no, this isn’t one of those books that’s just one long sentence or one long paragraph.) At this pace, it’s not long before Dolly kills someone and brings home a baby (not her own), a boy she calls Son. Dolly, a supremely unreliable narrator who claims to be a doctor, takes concerned motherhood to extremes, cutting Son open whenever she thinks he might be ailing. She also etches a map of Israel—“Biblical period… just as I remembered it from school”—into his back. Later she takes attachment parenting to extremes and glues him to her back. “Grotesque” can’t begin to describe Dolly and her life.

The doting, controlling mother line of Dolly City was most comprehensible for me, with Dolly becoming the ultimate clingy mother, admitting she uses her own (but not really her own) child as a guinea pig she says she opens and closes like a curtain. Toward the end of the book, she asks, “What kind of a thing is motherhood if you can’t take care of your child nonstop, one hundred percent?” Dolly defends her behavior to the final line of the book, where she says, “I knew that after everything I’d done to him—a bullet or a knife in the back were nothing he couldn’t handle.” Orly Castel-Bloom, by the way, dedicated Dolly City to her daughter.

Along the way, Dolly addresses topics like Holocaust survivors, practices medicine on the street (she offers her elementary school teacher an enema), and describes Dolly City as “the most demented city in the world,” a place with dense fog, impossibly tall-sounding buildings, and rattling trains. Dolly City is one of the more demented books I’ve read—and enjoyed—in a while, with hilariously twisted humor, a cubist feel (from all the tall buildings?), and, in a book where nothing but nothing feels normal, more defamiliarization than Shklovsky could shake a scalpel at. Bilu’s lively translation, with a voice that smoothly conveys the horror and humor of Dolly, gave me the impression she enjoyed working on Dolly City.

Up Next: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

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