J.W. McCormack | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,167 words)

Imagine, if you can bear it, that we were sired and came of age in a world where all the works of antiquity had perished, leaving us with no Homerian sense of saga, no anguished Euripides or blood-spangled Oresteia, and few myths with which to orient ourselves. Now imagine we began to recover the Bible, and all its storied variants, book-by-book, in hastily translated installments, hot off the presses. Imagine a whole culture thrilling, for the first time, to the horrifying faith of Abraham at the binding of Isaac, chilled by the fate of Moses in the desert, riveted by the tearjerker hermeneutics of Job, and following the rise of the prophets as they struggle to maintain their faith in a fallen world like it was Dickens-at-his-peak or the Marvel Universe or Game of Thrones. Experiencing the original doorstop systems novel, we readers would be party to a renaissance in what story can and should be, our critical lenses refitted for new eyes through which to see the world. Of course, naysayers would argue that the planet and its creator are too seriously at odds for such an engagement with the substance of scripture. “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly,” wrote Kierkegaard (expressing a sentiment I imagine could apply to more than just Christians). And one of Martin Buber’s inaugural assumptions in I and Thou is Mundus vult decipi, “the world wants to be deceived.” 

“So let it be deceived,” continues the unattributably ancient adage which Buber is riffing on, and at first glance that may seem like what Muck, the latest novel from the Israeli poet Dror Burstein, as translated by Gabriel Levin, is doing when it mingles fanciful magic realism with a straight rendition of the Bible related to us as though it were settled fact. Muck features talking dogs, angelic interventions, and (most importantly) the largest bowl of hummus in the world — hardly what we might expect from a book purporting to retell the Book of Jeremiah. But this epic social novel, because it is and is not set in present-day Jerusalem, is and is not a political novel, maintains a balancing act. By retrofitting the Biblical source text to a worldly rendition of the Middle East in crisis, it manages to contain its surrealism and focus its absurdity to strikingly sober ends. As Buber elsewhere wrote, “Play is the exultation of the possible.”

It would appear that God is punishing the Jews for being a bunch of hipsters.

The Jeremiah of Muck is a middling-at-best poet who becomes a reluctant prophet, doomed to foretell the destruction of decadent Judah before indifferent politicians, ranting literary critics, and snickering fellow poets. This is not good news by anybody’s standard. Judah, as it was in the 6th century BCE, is little more than a puppet of more powerful states like Egypt and Nineveh, placing them smack in the middle of the Babylonian path to conquest. Ordained by God to preach imminent destruction of the Israelites who have turned from Yahweh to foreign idols, Jeremiah suffers indignity upon indignity, from the false prophets that inhabit his commute from Jerusalem en route to visit his parents in suburban Anatot, to ridicule by the local literary community. He’s fresh from a literal drubbing by Broch, the city’s resident critic-curmudgeon, when his visions begin and he receives his God-given marching orders as Judaism’s biggest buzzkill. Jeremiah is an explicitly unlikely “prophet to nations,” a down-to-earth striver-turned-mouthpiece-of-heaven. In the Bible, the priestly Jeremiah is told “Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them,” a curse on all Jewishdom beginning with the kings of Judah. In Muck, upon learning of Jerusalem’s imminent downfall, Jeremiah thinks immediately of his own struggling parents, poor candidates for exile, who “don’t even know how to unstick the float in their toilet tank. Don’t even know how to change the lightbulb.”

There is one of those cursed heirs in the line of the kings of Judah in the mix as well, and that is a secondary protagonist in the person of Mattaniah, whom we meet slumming with Jerusalem’s arts crowd, adorned in tattoos and oblivious of his future as Zedekiah, the regent who will powerlessly oversee Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of his people. His only confidante is his trusty mutt Tukulti-Ninurta, who turns out to be fluent in both Assyrian and Hebrew (“Yes, many dogs know how to talk, but they would never admit to it … A dog that knows how to talk knows how to think as well, and had enough brains to realize that a human being is about as likely to let go of a talking dog as a dog is likely to let go of his favorite leather sandal. Doggy not drop sandal!”).

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Given the cheerlessness of Jeremiah’s prognostications and the doom awaiting Mattaniah, Muck looks on paper like a thoroughly depressing dive into one of the Bible’s most exasperating entries — even Jeremiah longs for the much flashier endeavors of his distant cousin Jonah. But Burstein has a charmingly light touch that manages to convey both urgency and a fatalist’s taste for the absurd. Musing on the apostasy of his peers, Mattaniah thinks:

Many of his pals and acquaintances hung out in Moab and took part in all sorts of strange rituals. The goddess Anat in particular was popular among young girls, because she wasn’t lorded over by any male gods, and her worship fit in nicely with the spirit of the times (from a feminist point of view). But others chose different gods, Ammonite and Aramean and Egyptian and Assyrian gods; there was a sort of free market of gods and holy sites, and scores of people were always heading out to find themselves in the open expanses neighboring Judah … By then they were likely to start feeling the heat, so they’d take a nap, alone or in pairs, then they’d rise in the afternoon and drink coffee, and set off for a stroll, and smoke and stare at the stars at nightfall.

In other words, it would appear that God is punishing the Jews for being a bunch of hipsters.

Burstein’s Israel is both antique and sleekly modern, a place where pyramids and ziggurats are actually Las Vegas-style casinos, reality TV subverts the piousness of God’s chosen, and hummus is such a serious matter that Mattaniah’s elder brother is basically a heretic for despising the local dish; “Hummus stood in his eyes for everything that was wrong with the Middle East.” The effect is to let the air out of the serious tone of the Book of Jeremiah (and the ensuing Lamentations) while slyly crafting a political fable that straddles myth and history with effortless, almost sylphlike, poetry.

And yet there remains some question as to how political Muck is, given the difficult course it sets through themes of power, pita bread, and invasion. In an interview with the American poet Ian Dreiblatt in The LA Review of Books, Dror Burstein isn’t so much evasive as to the ephemerality of his Israel as he is certain in the consistency of humanity throughout civilization:

To a certain extent, there are geopolitical similarities between Israel and ancient Judea. Nevertheless, for me, this is the least interesting part of writing, as it seems almost obvious. There’s no way around it if your hero is Jeremiah. Although the novel is local in many senses, it is also about every human culture with corruption, aggressiveness, greed, and fear, and every person who speaks against that, with almost no one caring to listen.

I am not qualified to arbitrate whether this constitutes a dodge to the militant and exclusionary policies of the Jewish State, but it’s impossible to not to read the latter half of Muck, as tanks roll in from Mesopotamia and the Judeans become accustomed to life under occupation, as rife with pathos in the thick of atrocity. Even if he doesn’t cite it as a direct influence, it’s hard not to think of the humanist approach of S. Yizhar in the novella Khirbet Khizeh, a touchtone of Middle-Eastern literature set during the 1978 Arab-Israeli War, as reference point, because even as Burstein piles on motorcycle-riding angels and kings who neglect their subjects in favor of playing the Goldberg Variations and Philip Glass, he never flinches from depicting injustice:

As Passover drew near, the poor were invited by the rich into their homes, as usual, but whenever poor people accepted this invitation — a tenth of the population was poor or indigent by then — they’d be knocked unconscious with a wooden plank, or else they’d be shot on the spot, because it was generally assumed that if a pauper was invited in and discovered a supply of matzoth or fruit, within minutes, as though the news were being broadcast telepathically, the household that had been so wise as to amass supplies for a rainy day would be inundated by dozens of the poor scrambling for the sugar bowl. The rats of poverty had been hit hard, the king broadcast on his festive radio program in the month of Nisan.

Burstein’s earnestness in rendering cruelty and desperation weights the novel with a ballast derived from the cultural memory of war with which Israeli identity is stamped. Bibles are unique to world literature in that they are always present, always transpiring, kept alive by worship and study and feeding directly into the substructure of human society at an almost atomic level. Burstein may be unusual in his implementation of a tone that is both Talmudic in its authority and lackadaisically modern, but everybody can think of a relative or acquaintance for whom the day-to-day, its news cycles and deviations from traditions, are to be sifted through for Biblical truth. We’re all partly Jeremiah, feckless in the path of ghastly inevitability, and Mattaniah, denying that any of this is happening until it is much too late.

Why, the world’s nothing more than an ocean of muck! Okay, the end.

The prophet and the heir apparent circle each other for the bulk of the novel before meeting as adversaries at the climax, after the free-spirited vaguely-Burning-Man-vibe Mattaniah has become Zedekiah, the more-than-a-trifle doomed monarch foretold by Jeremiah. As for the muck of the title, it is the detritus of a sundered people. It is the froth of worst fears realized and the curious relief at reaching the very bottom of disaster. Sunk into this pit of sewage, Jeremiah experiences tranquility at the gradual dissolution of burdensome mortality and it is suddenly possible to think “Why, the world’s nothing more than an ocean of muck! Okay, the end.”

But it is not the end. The final twenty or so pages of the novel depict almost unfathomable brutality as the Hebrews are well and truly trounced by Babylon, bodies hung on hooks and utter destruction visited on man, animal, and vegetation. Not even Tukulti the talking dog is safe. Jeremiah’s tenure as Yahweh’s prophet is complete, his futile and thankless task fulfilled, and he is at least allowed a moment of revelation:

Suddenly he grasped the whole of the Bible, from the beginning creation to the present moment, as a book whose end could never have been other than utter destruction—from the moment the heavens were separated from the earth, and man from animal, and Adam and Eve, and the drowned from the saved, it was only a question of time until that choice would lead to aloofness and arrogance and rebellion, for the demands upon them were too difficult, they never could handle it, beginning with Adam and Eve and ending with Zedekiah. Hence exile and ruin were inevitable. It was already planted in the story of the Garden of Eden for everyone to behold, but no one, no one had beheld.

Here Muck would seem to have discharged its responsibility to overlay the horror of the present with the word of an angry God. And still, even as the corpses of his friends and loved ones lie in piles and nearly everything is purged from the earth, Jeremiah finds something still alive, if only in a dream. Poetry blooms in his mouth; this second-rate and loathed literary imposter discovers a hitherto unknown genius, as “Words and puns and golden phrases surged from within like fireworks. All of a sudden, his idiom and style turned brilliant and polished.” And then Burstein goes for the only conceivable rejoinder, the only suitable epilogue in his long paean to bearing witness to the ravages of history and the infinite booberies of man, and that is to utter the ultimate in refrains: “If only there were someone who would listen.”

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J.W. McCormack’s reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Books DailyThe BafflerBombVice, and The New York Times.

Editor: Dana Snitzky