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Foreign Bodies

Cynthia Ozick

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Nov 2010)

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies tells the story of Bea, a mostly comfortable divorcee whose life is upended by her family. Bea’s brother wants Bea to go to Paris to rescue her wayward nephew, while Bea’s nephew and his wife have an agenda of their own. As Ozick narrates the unexpected results of Bea’s trip to Paris, she gracefully shows us the ways in which people casually and irrevocably alter their neighbors’ lives. Ozick also demonstrates that the mind can be a kind of trap: Though we have quite a bit of power to influence the people around us, we are often unable to influence ourselves. Throughout this subtly brilliant novel, Ozick offers the great gift of her inimitable style; crazy verbs, tragicomic observations, and blurry lines between fantasy and reality remind us that we are in the hands of a literary giant.


Bea wants an adventure. She has spent her life in the shadow of men—her loud brother, her overbearing ex-husband—and she is starting to wonder if perhaps she could spend a bit more time pursuing her own desires. When her brusque, negligent brother approaches her with some requests, Bea says she will carry out his wishes, then rather deviously permits her niece and nephew to act according to their own interests. Bea also finds herself meddling in her brother’s marriage, just to assert some power over this tyrant who so often eclipsed her throughout her childhood. As Bea gains courage, she attains a victory over her ex-husband, as well; suddenly, his piano disappears from her apartment, and she even begins to feel lust for another man.


Meanwhile, Marvin, Bea’s brother, wants to restore order and establish control over his family. Marvin dispatches both Bea and his daughter, Iris, to do his bidding. When it becomes clear that Marvin will not win his son back from Paris, Marvin writes a large check for his son in the hope that this black mark on the family will simply disappear forever. On the marital front, Marvin is a schemer; he sends his addled wife to a kind of rest home, then begins to pursue his own little “bit on the side.” Unlike Bea, Marvin has never had any trouble stating and campaigning for what he wants.


Though Marvin and Bea are often in conflict, they share a sense of disdain for the young people of the novel—a boy and a girl with ambitions of their own. Julian, Marvin’s son, wisely escapes from Marvin’s clutches, rebelliously marries a mysterious European woman, and spends his days with the collected works of Kierkegaard. Iris, Marvin’s daughter, has a rabid interest in sex, and she will lie to both her father and her aunt so she can orchestrate her own fling with a plainly disreputable “healer” she meets through Julian. Julian and Iris, both guileless and cheerfully self-absorbed, act as foils to the older siblings in the novel; we can see younger versions of Marvin and Bea in these two memorable characters.


Throughout Foreign Bodies Ozick flexes her famous stylistic muscles. A snowstorm is not merely a snowstorm:


She woke into an abnormal early light—a filtered glare, as if her window had been transfigured by some dark galactic radiance. The panes were obscured by starry patterns of crystals. Snow! In the streets, humps of whiteness at the curbs, the few cars inching cautiously against a beating slant of white wind. Airports shut down, departures delayed, arrival times unknown. Announcement after announcement; much radio static. The queer light gave off a queer odor—the scent of apprehension.


Here, Ozick shows us the ways in a which a feverish imagination can alter the external world. A storm is just a storm, but seen through the eyes of nervous, excited Bea, a storm can involve a “dark galactic radiance.” The novel has many phrases as casually breathtaking as “a beating slant of white wind”; Ozick never seems to need to stretch for just the right poetic observation. Her verbs alone are works of art: Cars “inch,” snow “pelts the windows with chattering monotony,” a brain “swarms with fearsome dream-shreds retreating into oblivion.”


Ozick nicely illustrates one of her own climactic observations—that a person can very easily and disastrously affect another person’s life. By lighting a match and burning a check, Bea changes her nephew’s future and helps him to find his own identity. By writing a brief letter to Marvin’s wife, Bea causes a great deal of excitement that culminates in a fatal car accident. By playing one random, shuddering chord in her ex-husband’s house, Bea inspires her ex to compose the symphony he has dreamed of all his life.


At the same time, Ozick points out that people often become entrapped in their own thoughts and fears. We can change one another, yes, but we also can imprison ourselves; we can keep ourselves from getting what we want. Marvin sputters and fumes, from beginning to end; Bea spends decades mourning the collapse of her terrible marriage. Margaret, Marvin’s wife, so fears the world and the possibility of change that she consents to spend her days in a kind of cell, painting with her own feces. Ozick repeatedly reminds us of the specter of Bea’s parents—a woman who always wanted to own a larger, cleaner hardware store, and a man who always wanted to sit lazily in the back of the store, reading his novel.


Though Ozick’s inspiration for this story is The Ambassadors, Ozick has a frank interest in sex and a playful sense of humor to distinguish herself from James. This frequently humorous novel can become shocking: A man approaches his wife, who has just aborted her pregnancy, “and with his man’s body and his boy’s fear he bore down on her, pleading, and she yielded, she opened to him, dry-eyed, dry-mouthed, surprised and unsurprised, hurting in the place where they had combed her that day with an iron comb, he hurt her, he hurt her, until they lay breathing, breast to breast.” A young woman becomes entranced by her own sexual power: “The ugly nighttime nakedness, the naked force of it: the coupling…the copulating. The fearome penetrations. Coitus, a wolfish power to make fecund that tiny secret bean lurking in her belly.” Ozick’s occasional puns and comic interjections seem as un-Jamesean as her descriptions of sex: For example, Ozick’s protagonist delights herself by thinking, “To Bea or not to Bea was always the question.”


Lies, startling reversals, a death, a ruined fortune…Ozick effortlessly covers quite a bit of ground in this slim volume. Though she rarely strays from the cause-and-effect details of her propulsive story, she does occasionally take time to comment on the larger world; readers will enjoy her thoughts on Americans, with their quality of “exemption,” their sense of having descended from “a population of cowboys and gangsters.” It’s rare to see someone accomplish so much in under three-hundred pages; it’s the mark of a seasoned, confident, and hard-working novelist. Ozick has said that she wants to devote the last phase of her career strictly to writing fiction, and when we finish Foreign Bodies, we hope that she will keep her promise.

Rating:

I am a freelance writer and teacher who lives in New York.


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