In August of 1997, my Swiss roommate Romana and I dined al fresco under a pergola in an East Jerusalm hotel, a bower of grapes overhead as water babbled in a small fountain. It was a respite after four weeks of checkpoints: A suicide bomb had exploded in an open air market in July—the first in eighteen months, ending the restive but hopeful calm which captured the imagination of Israelis and Palestinians alike. The bomb ensured the full military closure of the Occupied Territories. It was also the definitive collapse of their nascent, tentative peace.

After two months living in the West Bank town of Birzeit, and one month of defying Israeli soldiers, cultural misunderstandings and witnessing true privation, we ate quietly.

We had shared these two months trying to sleep in our dingy room with bad electricity, mosquitoes, and packs of feral dogs outside our window who howled until dawn, when the Call to Prayer took over where the dogs left off.

We attended classes together on the empty Birzeit University campus, save for the fifty international students who remained there after Israel instated the complete military lockdown. Our Palestinian professors often traveled hours to and from the campus, finding ways around checkpoints, sneaking through farmers’ fields; or were hassled by teenage soldiers, who menaced and humiliated them from behind their Oakley sunglasses, machine guns at the ready and chips on their shoulders. All the Palestinian students were forced back to their home villages, postponing their education another month, two. Six.

We floated like ghosts through their dusty, abandoned campus.

Now we sat in East Jerusalem. The program was concluded. We were going home.

Our Palestinian friends could not leave. These were the terms of living in these few square miles of land: militant radicals wreaking havoc on their lives in an instant, calling down the wrath of the stronger, more well-equipped adversary. The stress of living under military shut-down was constant and non-negotiable.

A kitten sat at my feet, mewling.

I was going to see my own cat, in my own dingy apartment, which now seemed the epitome of Western excess with our second-hand furniture and motley set of chipped Ikea dishes. I absently pulled a piece of turkey from my sandwich and dropped it in the dust at my feet.

A pregnant cat leapt from a hiding spot and pounced on the kitten, hissing as she scarfed the meat. Then she climbed up my jeans, into my lap and onto the table while the kitten cried on the ground. She climbed onto my plate to steal the meat from my sandwich. I laughed, scraping the queen off of me, but she was hungry and I was an idiot. She scratched me with her claws, too desperate for the turkey to let me get between it and her unborn, hungry kittens.

The kitten mewled, the tender morsel of food so tantalizingly close and then stolen, while dining Palestinians politely turned away, noting the general foolishness of the Western tourist.

My roommate and I dropped shekels on the table and fled, laughing as we went, forced from the restaurant by hunger.

Here, even the cats were living under terms we didn’t understand.

Defining the slippery category of literary fiction is arguably a fool’s errand, not only because every so often someone (most recently, and most tediously, Lee Siegel) eagerly declares it dead, but because there’s inevitable disagreement over precisely which duties a novel must perform in order to qualify. Nevertheless, as that famous line about pornography goes, I know it when I see it, and Wherever You Go, the new Israel-set novel by Joan Leegant, is most certainly not it. The reason I bother to emphasize this is that the novel, her debut, carries the trappings of literary-ness so overtly: it’s published in a tastefully designed hardcover (featuring a photograph of a woman’s slender figure ascending some stone steps in Jerusalem’s Old City); it boasts a hyperbolic blurb by author and critic Jonathan Wilson, who references Chekhov and draws a comparison with Philip Roth; the story, promises the jacket copy, encompasses the Very Important Themes of religious extremism and Middle East politics; there are epigraphs from the Bible and Shakespeare; Leegant, the bio reveals, won awards including the PEN New England for her first book (a collection of short stories), used to teach writing at Harvard and, should you require further convincing, gives thanks for residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo in her opening acknowledgments. So you can imagine my disappointment when Wherever You Go, which follows the ultimately entwined fates of three soul-searching American Jews in Israel, turned out to have about as much psychological depth, moral complexity and political nuance as an episode of 24.

The Jerusalem File

 

A late Southern writer used to lecture his students to “never compete with the camera.” Discuss.

The relationship between film and fiction is a complex one. If you happen to be a fiction writer, sooner or later, civilians will ask you when you are going to pen a screenplay (which is a little like asking a painter when he or she plans to take up sculpture). Still, the common engine of novels and movies is the simple act of storytelling, and the best examples are a cross-pollination of the two.