Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016, pp. 256, $24.00
There is a tradition, more prominent in theater than in fiction, of the unwanted guest. One thinks of such works as Kaufman and Hart's 1939 play The Man Who Came to Dinner; the 1967 Stanley Kramer-directed Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier; the 1981 farce The Nerd, by Larry Shue; and the classic Bernard Malamud short story "The Jewbird" from 1963. The uninvited guest is often the source of cruel, hilarious mockery; he is the engine of a grand and poignant melancholy, with political undertones--the wandering, homeless Jewish bird in Malamud, Poitier's black man engaged to a white woman.
Israeli fiction is due for a contribution to the uninvited-guest genre. The idea of the lost, well-meaning, malignantly clueless or even indifferent guest who drops in, hoping for the best, ending up with the worst, knocking over every nice vase of flowers on every antique table in the room--yes, this is a plot that may resonate, depending on one's politics, with Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and just about anybody else who sets foot in the Promised Land.
Nobody could be better suited to update the story of Malamud's "Jewbird" dropping in uninvited than the great fiction writer A.B. Yehoshua. Born in 1936 in prewar Palestine, descended from a long line of Sephardi Israelis, Yehoshua is not only a superb writer--Harold Bloom once placed him in the company of poet Yehuda Amichai--but also a major, if sometimes simplistic, theorist of Zionism. In 2006, Yehoshua infamously declared at a forum at the Library of Congress that American Jews are merely "playing with Jewishness." Only in Israel, Yehoshua proclaimed, could one live an authentically Jewish life. Yet Yehoshua is, along with Amos Oz and David Grossman, one of the great literary peaceniks of contemporary Israel. He thinks Judaism is impossible without Israel--yet he sees that Israel is impossible as is. Jews are uninvited guests who cannot possibly leave--for they are also among the hosts.
Such complexities suffuse The Extra, Yehoshua's new novel. It's the story of Noga, an Israeli expatriate now playing harp in a Dutch orchestra, who has returned to Jerusalem to apartment-sit for her widowed mother as she spends a trial period in a Tel Aviv assisted-living facility. Noga thought she would be living in her childhood home by herself, but she soon discovers otherwise: Two haredi...