Mona Gainer-Salim on Rachel Shihor

Illustration by Mona Gainer-Salim

I am in a library on a sunny afternoon. In my hands is a new, thin sheaf of pages, Stalin Is Dead by Rachel Shihor. I read slowly, patiently performing the ritual of "meeting" a new author: lingering, turning phrases over in my mind, but unable to resist flipping ahead from time to time in curiosity. The stories in this collection are short; barely a few hundred words each, they employ the tools of the fable, aphorism, and vignette in ways bold and direct, subtle, moving, and funny.

I haven't read far when I find myself facing a riddle. "The first time I sloughed off my skin, there was already something strange about it...I called my parents and they came over, swathed in deep sleep." The second and third time the creature sloughs its skin, everyone is too busy to bother watching. The only witnesses are "several thin red worms...pulling at it wildly." At first, this puzzles me, even disturbs me in its impenetrable strangeness, and I move on. When I return to it later, bolstered by my reading of the rest of the stories, I am able to advance a little further: could this be some sort of rite of passage? Perhaps what we see is the loneliness of a child; perhaps the parents watch only out of a sense of duty rather than real compassion? I now recognize some of the core features of Shihor's writing: a tendency towards surrealism; enigmatic characters brought sharply into focus by a structuring thought; the unadorned fact that these figures, human or otherwise, are so often afflicted with what one of them calls a "terrible loneliness."

Though Shihor's writing seems reluctant to offer up its secrets, in a way the thrust behind it is very clear. Across the board, the stories are emphatically critical of the authority of institutions designed to structure and sustain life. Religion, marriage, family: their promises of truth, love, and community are found again and again to falter and fail. Sometimes, as in the mini-essay entitled "Religions are a curse," this conviction is plainly stated; more often it is conveyed through settings and the choices characters make. On the surface, the settings don't have much in common: family homes, nursing homes, the depths of a mine, the side of a road, nameless refugee-flooded cities, even Stalin's deathbed. They are stimulating, puzzling in their diversity. Some are consciously conceived of as extremes of isolation and alienation. A refugee is clearly a marginal figure, and a nursing home can be a very lonely place—but a family home? Ostensibly one should not feel uncomfortable and embarrassed there, as if among strangers; it is supposed to be a bastion against these kinds of doubts.

Be they extreme or ordinary, these settings are sources of unease and confusion to their occupants. Shihor's characters struggle to find comfort in their relationships and have grave difficulties communicating with one another. In one story, "My Mother," even the innocuous question of who—mother or daughter—is to initiate a visit, is fraught with suspicions and misunderstandings. In Days Bygone, Shihor's first work to appear in English in 2008, an old woman reflects on her childhood and recalls suddenly finding herself in a roomful of stern and alien faces:

when the light went on, owing to its intensity and hence its somewhat violent appearance, the new wrinkles and weariness etched on our troubled faces, which had deepened during the day's tediousness or in those moments of obscurity while we were waiting for the new day's arrival, had become more pronounced.
It is worth asking why these characters feel so lonely—and what kind of change might improve their situation. A certain resignation is present in many a character's attitude: a feeling of having been promised something, then let down. If you pray and study the scriptures, they have heard rabbis say, you will find the answers to your questions. If you marry, their peers say, you will discover a peace and comfort that will fulfill you for the rest of your life. If you are kind to your family, you will be repaid in love. Most of Shihor's characters seem to have learned that these instructions will not work, or work haltingly and unreliably, but this does not prevent them from longing for the happiness that seems just beyond their grasp. Unable to find it through the promised pathways, they instinctually place themselves on the margins of their communities. They find that observing is a more honest act than participating.

This outsider status is shared by almost every character we encounter in Shihor's fiction, whether this position is enforced or voluntary. A remarkable feature of these stories is the sobriety of the storytelling. Shihor frequently employs first-person narrative, so that the restrained and sober voice emanates from the characters themselves. Even if their loneliness sometimes threatens to overwhelm them, these figures fundamentally appreciate that despair is as useless and self-defeating as unconditional belief. Shihor refuses to shy away from hard truths, but there is still an unmistakable warmth in the way she treats her subjects. Her characters are not innocent (one of them is Stalin after all); on the contrary, they are subtly tainted and damaged by the mere fact of being human, of belonging to a species with a proven capacity for violence and injustice. Yet Shihor's deep understanding of humanity's weakness and cruelty does not overwhelm her portrait; instead it adds an additional dimension of authority to the candid, unsentimental fairness of her approach. She is not interested in apportioning blame, but in uncovering truth. She takes her characters' grievances seriously and does not condemn them for their frailties. There is also room for humor—as in the case of Mr. Zimmerman, who sleeps through every meeting of the Tel Aviv Interfaith Committee, "and only when the word 'believer' or 'to believe' in one of its many forms trickled down his soul...did he jump from his seat and cry out: —To believe, ladies and gentlemen! To believe! Only belief will save us! Belief, ladies and gentlemen, that's what's important!" before promptly falling asleep again. When characters are thus mocked for their habits, it is done with subtle playfulness and even, one might say, affection. One gets the sense of a writer who observes life with clear, wakeful eyes, and who never averts them, no matter how distressing the things they see.

Shihor puts herself in the position of the outsider for us, so that we too may see more clearly the forces that attempt to govern our lives. It is a position by no means comfortable, and one that many of us take great pains to avoid. I am reminded of an idea raised in Roberto Bolaño's essay "Literature + Illness = Illness": a writer or artist is someone who risks, someone who steps out from under the cover of how things are supposed to be done, into a dangerous and blinding clearing. Shihor takes risks in her choice of form as well as of content: her preferred genres—the fable, the aphorism, the novella—have been, historically, unconventional in Western literature, and the stories she chooses to tell hint at an unsettling tension and artificiality at the base of the society that emerged from the 20th century. Her biggest risk, though, is daring to ask what sustains a life when the institutions designed to account for its meaning—and that are, indeed, precious above all to some of us—are revealed to be inadequate and disingenuous, daring to ask what replaces them when all illusions and distractions have been stripped away. "We are always surrounded by background noises," Shihor writes.

They are an inseparable part of "the beautiful life" that we try to sustain and that we daily renew in cafés, in arcades, on beaches, in offices, in the law courts, in theatres and in workshops. And were they to become softer, or were they to disappear completely—we would then hear with clarity the sound of the enemy burrowing in fear of us.
It is a terrifying thought. Shihor opens herself up to this sound, extends her ear—and we, her readers, lean in tremulously to listen. But while we are thus straining to hear, it may occur to us to ask whether this sound is real, or conjured by our fearful imaginations. Like the creature in Kafka's "The Burrow," we may simply be cowering in fear of the unknown.

Does Shihor's work give us an inkling of what we may discover when the background noises have been turned down and the false institutions dismantled? Shihor might counter that she is less concerned with the question of what is to be found, than with the willingness to step out from under the protective shade of traditions and protocols, to listen and look carefully, without prejudice. If you are able to do this, as Bolaño writes, something will come to you, "whatever it may be—a book, an expression, a misplaced object...a method, perhaps, and, with a bit of luck, the new, which has been there all along." The essential thing is to have the courage and honesty to examine our lives with a clear and steady eye, and this is exactly the gift Shihor so gracefully offers us through her fiction. And if we emulate her in this, we will not have lived in hiding from ourselves.

Click here to read an excerpt from Rachel Shihor's Stalin is Dead, also published in the July 2013 issue.