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Orly Castel-Bloom’s "Textile"

Rich, Israeli Beauty Freak

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Orly Castel-Bloom’s goofy and thoroughly-entertaining novel, Textile, will upend your image of contemporary Israel but also feed into any stereotype you may have of privileged Israeli Jews, with too much money and little to keep their attention other than spending it on frivolity.  Though Castle-Bloom (what kind of name is that, anyway?) has been widely praised in Israel and won several prestigious literary awards, few of her eleven books have been translated into English.  And speaking of translation, the copyright page attributes the translation from Hebrew to Dalya Bilu, though she is not listed anywhere else in the volume.  I’d call the translation (copyrighted by the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature) passable at most but, still, a clever novel slips through, suggesting that in Hebrew the story might be gut-splitting.

So here’s what we get: Amanda (Mandy) Gruber, owner of the Nighty-Night pajama factory (catering to Orthodox Jews), spends unlimited amounts of money on reconstructive surgery.  “Since she was a healthy woman, she went in and out of cosmetic surgeries.  She had already undergone seven such operations, most of them on her face.  Excluding the nose job she had had as a girl. To her satisfaction, her face grew to resemble that of a horse less and less from operation to operation.”  She’s been “breast lifted, stomach flattened, cellulite emptied in the thighs, eyebrow raised, cheekbone implanted, and raised to half-mast in the face and neck.”

The Nighty-Night pajamas (a business she inherited from her mother) have been so successful that there’s always money to spend on another surgery, whatever latest fad she learns about, to wit: “My shoulder blades have become eroded, and I’m having replacements implanted.”  The surgeon, clearly a quack, tells her that “up to recently shoulder blade surgery had been a much more complicated business, since the surgeon had to find the two original shoulder blades which had been absorbed by the back, and to return them to their rightful place, more or less symmetrically, and to sharpen the point of the shoulder blade which had been blunted by time.” It hurts, even to read that passage, even though a quick Google search reveals that, yes, such surgery is possible. But elective?

As Mandy goes under the knife, one of the nurses in the operating room suggests that there are plenty of other cosmetic enhancers available if she doesn’t run out of money.  “A friend of a friend of mine in Ohio had a collarbone implant on both sides to improve her décolletage, and that’s even before what she did to her breasts.  It’s insane what people do to themselves.  I even heard about someone who had the backs of her hands lifted.”   Yes, it is insane what people do to themselves and what countries do to themselves, in this case Israel.  Thus far, Mandy’s spent $68,000 on plastic surgery and plenty more on other frivolous beauty enhancers, such as the $1570 spent on Creme Caviar, she found advertised on the Internet.

In case you are wondering what all these foibles of one of Castel-Bloom’s main characters have to do with the title of her novel, let me explain.  Mandy wonders if she should change the fabric of her line of pajamas, specifically to organic cotton.  Mandy’s daughter (who will eventually inherit the business just as Mandy did from her own mother) wonders if the manufacturing should be moved from Israel to China or somewhere else, but that would displace all the women who sit at their Singer sewing machines sewing, sewing, sewing.  Obviously, these issues give one pause, make one wonder why the title should be Textile, given the rather frivolous character more interested in her own appearance than the appearance of the products her workers manufacture.

There’s another “textile” thread related more directly to issues of Israel’s survival. Mandy’s husband, the inventor Irad Gruber—known particularly for his invention of the spiral escalator—has spent his recent years working for the Israeli Defense Ministry, developing lightweight protective clothing, from spider threads.  He’s already won the Israel Prize for his past work, but the spiders he has been raising have suffered from colony collapse and he’s going to have to find a new source for arachnids to complete his experiments.  Fortunately, he believes he has found the right contact with an American scientist (an Israeli woman) at Ithaca University.

Are you still with me?  Well, Irad’s hijinks in the United States are as comic as his wife’s involvements with plastic surgeons, but this is all I am going to reveal here.

I’ll leave you to discover most of Textile’s rich comedy for yourself.  And the connections between individual and state?  Well, you’ll be pleased to recognize in them our own country’s dysfunction.  Enough to make you want to move to an isolated place like Pitcairn Island.

Orly Castle-Bloom: Textile

Trans. by Dalya Bilu

Feminist Press, 232 pp., $18.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.