Gilad Elbom - a fast and furious, metafictional novel saturated with ruminations on sexual aberration, heavy metal, structural linguistics, horror movies, and satanic poetry, the good things in life

SCREAM QUEENS OF THE DEAD SEA by Gilad Elbom

Gilad Elbom, Scream Queens of the Dead Sea, Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2004.


A young graduate of the Israeli army decides to moonlight as an assistant nurse at a mental hospital in Jerusalem and soon finds himself trapped in a hilarious yet terrifying freak show, surrounded by a motley crew of mad patients gone madder. Here is a fast and furious first novel saturated with ruminations on sexual aberration, heavy metal, structural linguistics, horror movies, and satanic poetry - the good things in life.

Another first-novelist attempts self-referential metafiction.
Here, the protagonist is a 26-year-old Israeli guy writing a novel while moonlighting as a nurse in a mental hospital; the author is a 36-year-old Israeli guy (who now lives in Los Angeles) who once worked in a mental hospital in Jerusalem. Gilad (yes, they share a name) is a comparative-literature and linguistics major fresh out of the Israeli army. For no discernible reason (his mother certainly disapproves),he decides to take a job as an assistant nurse (a male nurse, he repeatedly points out) babysitting lunatics at the local asylum. At least the crazies give good dialogue: one woman shouts daily that she’s dead; a man composes and recites romantic verse to a B-movie star; and a homicidal maniac insists he suffers from the hitherto-unknown Faith Deficit Disorder, which prevents him from believing in the existence of anything at all. Then there is Gilad’s married girlfriend Carmel (her husband is scheduled to die of cancer any day), with whom he has tediously predictable hard-core sex—do we really need a gratuitous necrophilia fantasy?—while both discuss dialectics of power with the earnestness of a couple of precocious college sophomores. Many road trips are taken—to Gilad’s job, to the infuriatingly bureaucratic Israeli army hospital, and finally to a casino in Jericho where Carmel and Gilad hang with a young Palestinian, during which time Gilad pontificates amusingly on heavy-metal lyrics, less amusingly on linguistics, and picks up colorful characters prone to comic monologues. But the trouble really begins when characters start butting in to offer their critiques of the novel we’re reading: Carmel complains that Gilad uses his patients as “literary fodder” and that she’s portrayed as “didactic, argumentative, moralistic” and “boring” (she’s right on both counts).
A potentially clever debut falls apart under the weight of the writer’s fascination with his own cleverness. - Kirkus Reviews


Metafiction -- that nebulous self-referential supergenre that includes everything from the movie Adaptation to Aliasdair Gray's Lanark -- tends to bother me. Much as I truly loved both of the examples I just cited, most of the works that involve a meeting between an author and a character, or which are otherwise self-referential, end up as something of a muddled mess. They can still be interesting (Grant Morrison's Animal Man run was fun, even though he cribbed pretty heavily from Gray at times) or amusing (see Giffen and Fleming's Ambush Bug comics) but most of the works simply end up as fun diversions, at best.
Gilad Elbom's debut novel, Scream Queens of the Dead Sea, certainly starts out as a fun novel. The title is quite possibly the best one I've seen in years, and the narrator (named, of course, Gilad Elbom) has a perfect deadpan voice for describing some truly odd situations. Our "hero" is a layabout who is obsessed with literary analysis and heavy metal, and dispassionate about everything else.
Elbom lives in Israel, and works in a minimum-security insane asylum. His patients include a murderer who claims to believe in nothing (including nihilism, atheism, or any other denial-based philosophy), a woman who thinks she's dead, a horror movie fan who constantly writes love poems to B-movie actress Julie Strain, and a host of other folks with the sort of wacky derangements that only seem to be inflicted on fictional characters. For all their insanity, they're capable of rational arguments and interesting dialogue; defending his love of Strain, one patient points out, "She's good looking, but that doesn't make her a slut. Take Beatrice, for example. Or Laura. Or the Dark lady. Nobody every called them a bimbo."
Elbom treats them like dirt, ignoring and belittling their requests for aid. Outside of work, Elbom carries on an affair with his best friend, Carmel, who randomly calls him up on the phone to rant about the state of the Israeli government. Carmel got married to avoid serving in the Israeli army, and her husband is now dying of cancer while she carries on her affair. Their relationship is a balance of griping about the Israeli/Palestinian relationship, Carmel hoping her husband (whom we never meet) will finally die, and extremely graphic sex scenes.
The novel, filled with black humor, slowly adds touches of metafiction as Elbom's misanthropy and exposure to the daily life of the insane asylum eats at his own sanity. At first, we're just presented with small touches -- Elbom promises to explain a character's history by the end of chapter three, or he mentions that he's writing this book in his spare time at the asylum. Slowly, more of the characters seem to be aware of the nature of the book itself, and refer to their portrayal in the novel. As the novel becomes more self-aware, Elbom's link to reality continues to fade. The novel climaxes after a disastrous visit by Elbom and Carmel to an Arab casino (and to the slums into which many Palestinians have been forced), and Elbom's deteriorating mental state becomes the focus of the remainder of the book.
Elbom (the "real" one), as a first time novelist, doesn't aim for subtlety. Linking the deteriorating state of his fictional alter-ego's mind to the political and social chaos that envelopes Israel is a nice touch. Elbom (both the authorial and the fictional ones) is clearly conflicted about his feelings for his homeland, with Carmel's constant cynicism over Israel's actions weighed against the fictional Elbom's own paranoid fear of being killed by a Palastinian. There are digressions aplenty, including one extended sequence in which Elbom and his car are constantly drafted by soldiers who need to get to different army bases. It's a satirical sequence that, along with the some of the zanier moments in the asylum, makes it clear that Joseph Heller is one of Elbom's influences. Likewise, Elbom's attempts to have a "sane" conversation with some of his patients are priceless:
"Forget The Dharma Bums. Have you read Robinson Crusoe?""Sure. I like his poems."
"No, no. Listen to me: Have you ever read a book called Robinson Crusoe?"
"By Kerouac?"
"No, by DeFoe."
"By the what?"
"Defoe. Daniel DeFoe."
"Was he the one who wrote Moll Flanders?"
"Exactly. And Robinson Crusoe."
"The wrote it together?"
But the wacky stuff (which, aside from the satire, also includes constant digressions about heavy metal and movies like Blood and Wine and Chasing Amy), the political commentary, the rough sex, and the look at insanity, while all well written by themselves, fail to achieve true synergy. Instead of one truly solid novel focusing on one or two themes, Elbom spreads himself too thin, and the ending ends up more muddled than coherent at times (something metafiction has troubles with under the best of circumstances). Still, this is an extremely impressive debut novel, and if it doesn't cohere completely in the end, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read, and bodes well for Elbom's potential. With a little more restraint, he could well establish himself as a comic novelist or satirist on the level of Bill Fitzhugh or Christopher Moore. - Adam Lipkin

The debut by Israeli writer Gilad Elbom is a seemingly straightforward comic novel, full of fashionable markers of a first time novelist such as a self-conscious first person narrator whose story begs to seen as the writer's autobiography. Don't be fooled.
Confessions of sexual depravity and obsessions with heavy metal music pepper the story, as do light-hearted meditations on structural linguistics, but Scream Queens of the Dead Sea is a complex exploration into a culture saturated by excessive militarism.
Elbom opens Scream Queens by explaining that he is not writing in his first language, Hebrew, even though it was "good enough for God". He writes in English-which is crucially the language of the books motifs: the language of Black Sabbath and porn-queens, and crucially Robinson Crusoe. By the end of the book, English is seen as the language of escapism, of deceptive promises. In it, you are free to pursue happiness, but only pursue it.
Part of the charm of the book is the way it reads at first like fluff, full of ingenious but silly "who's on first" dialogue. It's a sort of Israeli-gone-wild story of coming-to-age story. Elbom was a soldier in the Israeli army and later as a nurse in a mental hospital in Jerusalem, and he uses these experiences as the backdrop to his obsessive meditation on Satanic poetry, porno stars and eccentric psycho ward patients, one of whom is a murderer that believes in nothing, especially nihilism.
Paradoxes like these leave the reader in a state of delighted distraction. The reader's defenses will be down when Elbom hits with his searing critique. For example, he argues that the loud colors and over-the-top outfits of porn stars serve the same purpose as soldier's uniforms: to erase identity, to facilitate the person's use as an anonymous object.
There's much more to Scream Queens of the Dead Sea than the Israel-as-madhouse metaphor. Like Gilbert Sorrentino and John Barth, Elbom deploys a little metafiction here, a little postmodern wordplay to send the story reeling into surprising directions. But it glides rather lightly by, in part because of the largely passive narrator. Elbom uses his Hamlet-like inactivity, this narrative "flaw" to produce something unexpected. The narrator's meditating on the mental problems of his wards negates their frantic outbursts; turn them into caricatures not of Elbom's own personal problems, but of Israel's problems. The narrator's own escapist tendencies are simply the product of too much entertainment.
What distinguishes Elbom's take is that he links the problem to the Israeli dependence on the US. It is not enough for an Israeli dissident simply to move to the US. The move would be nothing more than exchanging his Israeli identity for an American one and yet staying in Israel means choosing either apartheid or escapism of pop culture. This is comically depicted in the climax when the other characters effectively banish the narrator to America because they believe he'll enjoy being close to the origins of heavy metal music. But the music of heavy metal with its perverse but biblical allusions is like a photographic negative of the "authentic" Jewish identity.- Standard Schaefer

Perhaps the only ones entitled to an understanding of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are madmen. Gilad Elbom has managed to create the best analogy for the middle east from the most unlikely building blocks: an insane asylum in Jerusalem, a very literary obsession with Z-movie porn actresses, a passion for heavy metal and linguistics and a deep sense of emotional detachment from everything else. Elbom's fictional self, just wants to relax in his new job as a male nurse, as he tries to repress the complexities of his affair with a married woman awaiting her husbands death, his conflicted attitude towards Israel's Arab population and his mother's nagging him to do something with his life. But as the narrative unravels through serpentine dialogues between him and his patients, from Immanuel Sebastian who doesn't believe in anything (not even nihilism) to Hadassah Benedict, who is quite convinced she is dead, his grip on reality gets increasingly shakey. Scream Queens of the Dead Sea is a convoluted paradox in which split personalities take over the plot and plot to takeover, all without ever really escaping the stagnation that defines their existence as it reflects the regime that created it. - G. Kollectiv

Gilad Elbom left Israel seven years ago and moved to the United States. He was following his love - of the English language. After completing his bachelor's degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Elbom began writing stories in English. He traveled to Los Angeles, where he earned a master's degree in creative writing. Now he is finishing his doctorate in English at the University of North Dakota. Elbom's first book, "Scream Queens of the Dead Sea," has just been released in Hebrew (titled "Adon Hasimptomim," translated with Lea Shashko and published by Babel and Yedioth Sfarim).
"Scream Queens of the Dead Sea" tells a partly autobiographical story of a discharged Israeli soldier who goes to university to study linguistics. In order to earn a living and fill his time, he finds a job at a mental health center in the Jerusalem area. Like his protagonist, Elbom worked for two years at a mental hospital. He also worked as an editor at the local Jerusalem newspaper Kol Ha'ir, where he wrote a heavy metal music column.
Elbom, 39, was born and raised in Jerusalem to a family that became religious.
"I used to lead the prayers and read from the Torah in synagogue," he says by phone from his home in North Dakota, "but that love affair ended at some stage, because we all began to drift away from religion."
You have been in the U.S. for seven years and have not visited Israel even once. Why?
"People tell me, 'Come, you won't recognize this country. It has changed. All the buildings and construction and housing for the rich.' But I haven't gotten around to it. I was busy studying and writing. Both my parents have visited twice. That's enough, isn't it? I needed that distance to work on my own independence."
Elbom's book is full of sarcastic remarks about Israeli society, the occupation, militarism and security, the bereavement culture and the terror attacks.
"It was written based on more than 30 years of life in Israel. Many people here have difficulty catching critical or sarcastic overtones. I have often noticed that when I employ satire, people take it at face value.
"I published an article online about the security fence, praising and extolling the wall for dividing between the good people of Israel and the Arabs who do not look nice, unwashed and unshaven, with their worn-out clothes. I wrote that the wall has no security justification, but rather an aesthetic one. A ton of Americans wrote me spiteful letters, calling me a racist. In Israel, on the other hand, people immediately caught on that it was satirical, and sent me spiteful letters, 'Leftist traitor, stay there. No one needs you here.' That made me happy, because Israel has a tradition of satire and slightly more sophisticated writing."
Why did you write the book in English?
"I was interested in writing a book in a language that is not my mother tongue. I also speak Arabic, Welsh and Polish, but my English is good enough for me to write a book. I started writing it in Israel, on quiet night shifts at the hospital, after everyone had gone to sleep. I would sit and write about what had happened that day in the ward; I switched all the dialogue from Hebrew to English.
"After three or four chapters, people told me I should go somewhere where they speak this language. I went to Hollywood and felt like some kind of strange bird. Everyone there is trying to get in - actors, singers and comedians. I sat like a nerd in a tiny one-room apartment with cockroaches, and wrote."
About a month ago Elbom married Emily, an American woman whose photo is on the front cover of the Hebrew edition of his book.
"Her family immigrated from Norway and she grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. She is a master's student and we met on campus. North Dakota is a remote, godforsaken, frozen place. Today it's 40 degrees below zero here. I always loved the sun and the sea and Israeli food, and doing simple things like going for a stroll, but being here is part of the challenge and the adventure.
"The truth is that Americans here think I'm crazy. I go places with my wife and people from Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska ask me where we are from. I say I am from Jerusalem, and that seems reasonable to them, but when my wife says she's from Fargo, they are surprised and get all excited. Americans think it's such a strange, exotic place." -
"I used to lead the prayers and read from the Torah in synagogue," he says by phone from his home in North Dakota, "but that love affair ended at some stage, because we all began to drift away from religion."
You have been in the U.S. for seven years and have not visited Israel even once. Why?
"People tell me, 'Come, you won't recognize this country. It has changed. All the buildings and construction and housing for the rich.' But I haven't gotten around to it. I was busy studying and writing. Both my parents have visited twice. That's enough, isn't it? I needed that distance to work on my own independence."
Elbom's book is full of sarcastic remarks about Israeli society, the occupation, militarism and security, the bereavement culture and the terror attacks.
"It was written based on more than 30 years of life in Israel. Many people here have difficulty catching critical or sarcastic overtones. I have often noticed that when I employ satire, people take it at face value.
"I published an article online about the security fence, praising and extolling the wall for dividing between the good people of Israel and the Arabs who do not look nice, unwashed and unshaven, with their worn-out clothes. I wrote that the wall has no security justification, but rather an aesthetic one. A ton of Americans wrote me spiteful letters, calling me a racist. In Israel, on the other hand, people immediately caught on that it was satirical, and sent me spiteful letters, 'Leftist traitor, stay there. No one needs you here.' That made me happy, because Israel has a tradition of satire and slightly more sophisticated writing."
Why did you write the book in English?
"I was interested in writing a book in a language that is not my mother tongue. I also speak Arabic, Welsh and Polish, but my English is good enough for me to write a book. I started writing it in Israel, on quiet night shifts at the hospital, after everyone had gone to sleep. I would sit and write about what had happened that day in the ward; I switched all the dialogue from Hebrew to English.
"After three or four chapters, people told me I should go somewhere where they speak this language. I went to Hollywood and felt like some kind of strange bird. Everyone there is trying to get in - actors, singers and comedians. I sat like a nerd in a tiny one-room apartment with cockroaches, and wrote."
About a month ago Elbom married Emily, an American woman whose photo is on the front cover of the Hebrew edition of his book.
"Her family immigrated from Norway and she grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. She is a master's student and we met on campus. North Dakota is a remote, godforsaken, frozen place. Today it's 40 degrees below zero here. I always loved the sun and the sea and Israeli food, and doing simple things like going for a stroll, but being here is part of the challenge and the adventure.
"The truth is that Americans here think I'm crazy. I go places with my wife and people from Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska ask me where we are from. I say I am from Jerusalem, and that seems reasonable to them, but when my wife says she's from Fargo, they are surprised and get all excited. Americans think it's such a strange, exotic place." - Shiri Lev-Ari

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