In her fascinating new novella, "Antiquities," Cynthia Ozick elevates the notion of an unreliable narrator to delightfully confusing new heights. Entertaining as it is at the level of pure storytelling, this fictional whirligig will have you rereading and rethinking to plumb its depths.
Ozick, who is 93, recently told an L.A. Times interviewer that "the timeless is always timely." In "Antiquities," she deftly animates that view, connecting her 20th-century American characters with the ancient Middle East, to "the womb of the land that was the mother of true religion."
WASP-y octogenarian Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie is struggling to write a short memoir about his youth at a boys boarding school. As we come gradually to question Lloyd's motivations and his strict adherence to the truth, things get more complicated. The "marrow" of his account is an improbable story-in-a-story told to him by a strange fellow schoolboy with the fantastical name of Ben-Zion Elefantin.
Given the not-too-genteel anti-Semitism of the Temple Academy for Boys, Lloyd's growing closeness with the slightly older Jewish boy puts him in the sights of adolescent bigots.
Ozick, however, is after bigger game than mere prep-school cruelties. Despite their religious differences, Lloyd and Ben-Zion each has abandonment issues as well as intense familial links to a distant past.
Early in his marriage to Lloyd's mother, Lloyd's father, who was "enamored of ancient times," ran off to Egypt to search for ancient artifacts under the mentorship of a famous archaeologist who also is said to be his cousin. The youthful, exotic adventure faded into respectability when Lloyd's father returned to New York, but he died when Lloyd was just 10 years old.
Ben-Zion's absentee parents are vaguely described as "buyers and sellers, seekers and doubters" who "live mainly in hotels" and are "pilgrims in search of a certain relic" of their heritage, some unnamed object of antiquity that they search for at various sites in and around the Holy Land.
As "transcribed" seven decades later by Lloyd, Ben-Zion's tale of the origins of his family name — from an ancient tribe of outcast Israelites who inhabited an island in the Nile River — raises more questions than it answers. If true, how could even a precocious 12-year-old relate "a time-encrusted liturgical saga" with such passion and historical detail? If his tale is altered by Lloyd, why would he do that? Intriguing answers suggest themselves, but none conclusively.
Lloyd has had a life, a career as a lawyer, a wife (deceased, and barely mentioned) and one son, but all of that is of scant concern in Ozick's telling. These things he refers to as "the outward course of my life." Inwardly, Petrie feels a combination of love, conflict, dissatisfaction (with his Hollywood son, among other things) and guilt over his brief but life-shaping relationship with Ben-Zion. Yes, he befriended him, but Lloyd knows that he harbored many of the same anti-Semitic leanings of his contemporaries. His intense feelings for Ben-Zion nonetheless "contaminated" the bigotry that Lloyd acknowledges was a sort of birthright.
If this all sounds a bit ponderous, blame me, not the ingeniousness of Ozick's novella. Not the engaging, complicated figure she has created in Lloyd Petrie. Not the considerable heft of ideas she has knit into a story of so relatively few pages.
Writer and editor Claude Peck is working on a short book about Palm Springs architect Donald Wexler.
By: Cynthia Ozick.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 192 pages, $20.