In its concern with the possibilities of storytelling, Motti could be said to be a fine specimen of what might be termed “dull lit.” Although the novel features a number of ostensibly sensational possibilities (a drunk-driving fatality, a prison stint by an innocent man, an extended fantasy about a schoolgirl), its focus is relentlessly inward, and any events are described only briefly, in passing. Here, for example, is an accident and its aftermath:
And then that dull thud (I didn’t see where she came from, I didn’t see her, Menachem said over and over, like he was possessed or something), and the crowd collecting after they got out of the car, the police lights, the muttering, the shouts…
From this, we quickly retreat into a consideration of “the persistence of life,” the tenacity of the desire to hold on. Which is to say that, though the accident determines the course of the book, it does so only superficially. It’s finally a distraction, an aside from a story that otherwise unspools in the private realm of the concealed self.
So let us get the plot out of the way: Mordechai, or Motti, is an elementary school teacher. He wants only to spend time with his dog Laika (named after the first canine cosmonaut) and to contemplate the various possible permutations of a (sexual, romantic, but mostly mundane) future with his very young next-door neighbor Ariella when she will be all grown-up. On Wednesday nights, Motti goes drinking with his friend Menachem, who was once Motti’s army superior. (Their relationship is shaded by these origins; there’s a power imbalance, however slight, however unacknowledged.) Menachem, married, with children, has an unfortunate propensity to drink and drive, and, one Wednesday night, he gets behind the wheel, hits a woman with his car and kills her. In the confusion that follows, Motti takes the blame and accepts the five-year jail sentence. His one request is that Menachem care for Laika.
In jail, Motti continues to dream about Ariella, about their future lives. His fantasy is only intermittently interrupted by one of the guards, who, apparently in all seriousness, regales Motti with a story that bears an uncanny resemblance to Huckleberry Finn. In the meantime, every Wednesday, Menachem comes for a visit. Although there are some important developments, plot-wise, toward the novel’s end, it’s finally a work about its characters’ inner lives, about the refuge they take in their private thoughts and fantasies. It’s a novel about the writing of novels, the telling of stories. In its unyielding interiority, it encompasses its own author/narrator, who repeatedly comments on the making of the characters, people who, should “someone…hold them tightly…would fall to pieces.” Does this mean that these characters do not hold up? They do not. But this is no criticism as far as Motti is concerned, for its point seems to be the ineffability of us all, the impossibility of capturing a story, a feeling, a person in prose. The book is filled with starts and stops, ruminations on process. “It’s hard to follow stories to their end. Especially when they don’t actually take place,” the narrator tells us.
Nothing really takes place in Motti. And that seems to be the point. It may be dull, but so is life, or most of it. All the passion, all the fear, all the living, the real living, takes place inside, in secret. Everything else is just incidentals, unnecessarily dramatic asides. Like its eponymous hero, the novel is quiet, unwilling to venture beyond the realm of fantasy, of silent introspection. It doesn’t make for the most exciting of reading experiences, but, by its own measure, experience is largely meaningless. Anyway, the narrator concludes, experience ends in death; only stories, should they end in time, offer happy endings.
Asaf Schurr’s Motti was released on May 3 by Dalkey Archive Press. To purchase it, click here.