Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow:
Marking Time in the Dark Night of the Soul
On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings - oh, happy chance! - I went forth without being observed, my house now being at rest, Without light or guide, save that which burned within my heart, And this light guided me more surely than the light of noonday.
(The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross)
We all know the feeling. Whenever we eat a certain food or smell a certain scent, we remember a particular person, a particular time in our life, a particular moment in time. The squeak of chalk on a blackboard instantaneously takes us back to the day in third grade when we felt stupid in arithmetic or a snotty kid made fun of a mistake we made or the class bully beat the you-know-what out of us. The slanting rays of sunlight falling across a room or the crunch of autumn leaves underfoot have the power to vividly remind us of the day a loved one died or a lover deceived us or a seemingly minor decision that charted a new course for our life that we never anticipated.
Proust devoted an incredibly lengthy novel to the sensuous recalling of the curious and compelling details that comprise our human memory. In this elegantly spare but evocative The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, a young woman examines and assesses the deceptively small but significant details and everyday events that have shaped her personality and destiny. Through seemingly random and jumbled flashbacks and flash-forwards, Kate Bernheimer’s intriguing psychological novel captures in striking detail Ketzia Gold’s agonizing journey of self-discovery as she passes through a psychological “valley of the shadow of death.” On the other side, she emerges as a new being - not unscathed, to be sure, but sadder and wiser, stronger and more compassionate, sensible and self-aware and self-possessed.
Almost magically, Bernheimer draws us into Ketzia’s world, into Ketzia’s very skin, deep into Ketzia’s mind. Like a near-death experience, her life flashes in front of our eyes, as time blurs and yesterday, today and tomorrow all vie for equal importance. Kaleidoscopic scenes from her unhappy marriage are interspersed with chilling childhood memories and glimpses of an enigmatic future as we experience with Ketzia the ever-deepening darkness of her deteriorating emotional state and the pall of profound sadness that shrouds her life.
In a stroke of whimsical genius, Bernheimer interweaves episodes of Ketzia’s life with classic German, Russian and Yiddish fairy tales that restate the book’s themes and lend a timeless quality to a very contemporary story of love, loss, and family dysfunction. Ketzia herself often reminiscences in quaint folk tale style, a device apropos for an idiosyncratic woman on the cusp of psychosis. Ketzia is going crazy, and she knows it. As she slips into madness, she makes up rhyming verses about herself and her dog: “Doggerina, Doggerina, singing by the bed, don’t you know your Ketzia Gold is a dumb nuthead?”
What’s Wrong with this Picture?
“How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood,” a famous poet penned, but childhood is anything but happy for Bernheimer’s sensitive and tormented heroine. Ketzia’s middle-class suburban Jewish family has a deceptive veneer of normalcy that almost, but not quite, conceals their dark side. Imagine “The Wonder Years” being made by Roman Polanski, and you have a pretty good picture of life in the Gold household.
Ketzia is painfully aware of her family’s multi-layered dysfunction. In a poignant passage, she describes escaping the murky emotional maelstrom inside her parents’ house to sit on the steps outside in the dark, surrounded by their pet dogs. They lick her legs, the only creatures in Ketzia’s world to offer her any comfort or solace:
With shut eyes, I could see snakes and frogs and mice and cats crawling from every corner of the ceiling of every room of my mother’s house, upstairs and down. But when I got inside, no trace of animals remained, except the sound of frogs and mice and snakes and cats in hiding.
Against a familiar 1970s-America background of beach vacations and birthday parties and family celebrations, small but soul-scarring atrocities occur with a frightening casualness. Mr. Gold is the stereotypic suburban man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit - except for a few kinky proclivities. He has “a thing” for the family’s sexy young babysitter with her mile-long legs and tiny miniskirt. Drunk, he orders little Ketzia, dressed only in her skimpy pajamas, to accompany him on a late-night walk in the middle of winter. On Sunday nights, he takes pictures of Ketzia and her older sister Merry in their bath as they innocently strike progressively more provocative poses for his ever-clicking camera. “The tiny square photos still remain to this very day, framed in Mr. Gold’s office - a montage of nude girls on the wall,” the novel chillingly informs us.
Ketzia’s mother, grandmother and aunt alternate between obsessive concern and indifferent acts of cruelty. Ketzia’s diabolical sister Merry delights in finding new and dreadful ways to torture her sibling. She throws toddler Ketzia’s beautiful birthday cake in the garbage (for which there is apparently no parental reprisal), regularly inflicts bruises on her little sister and invents a vile game called simply “The Punish,” in which Merry is always the tormentor and Ketzia is the hapless victim, forced to eat bugs or drink ten glasses of water or submit to rape scenarios concocted by Merry’s warped imagination.
Even Ketzia’s music teacher, whom her parents much admire, mistreats and demoralizes his young student. Telling her that she can “trust him completely, more than even her parents,” Mr. Danilo plays the guitar and makes her dance on a tabletop wearing only a pair of rubber gloves. He invents a variety of sado-masochistic games (called “cleaning games”) that Ketzia finds “far more dangerous than ‘Punish.’”
“Is it any wonder,” asks the omniscient third-person narrator who regularly appears as a counterpoint to Ketzia’s first-person accounts, “that even now, hearing a guitar still makes Ketzia ashamed, and that she will never, ever ‘sing’ on command? She had years of practice at that, to be sure - with Danilo and starting at ten.”
Ketzia’s dark night of the soul has officially begun.
“I am not myself”
So admits Ketzia to her unhappy husband, Adam, in response to his accusation, “You are not the girl I thought I married.” Ketzia is wed her beloved childhood sweetheart, but the union is doomed from the start. Her experiences have damaged her, changing the little girl who “hasn’t stopped smiling since she was born” into an unpredictable, perverse woman with layers of lies covering the deep cracks and fissures in her psyche.
One moment, Ketzia prides herself on being slavishly servile - cutting her husband’s sandwiches into shapes to amuse him, styling her hair to his taste, making meals when he isn’t hungry. The next, she is contrary and cruel, vacuuming when he needs to sleep, preparing foods she knows he hates, forgetting to do laundry he needs, doing everything “backward,” as she calls it.
Ketzia becomes calculatedly destructive, acting out her free-floating anger in a series of mishaps that she calls “accidents.” After she causes Adam to break his leg, she comments that she was “stupid” to have put objects on the stairs, then called him to come down and join her. Later, she destroys his childhood mementoes, again contending it is unintentional.
As she slips deeper into darkness, Ketzia becomes obsessed with the women her husband knew before their marriage and convinced that he is unfaithful to her now. Daily, she snoops in a locked closet that contains Adam’s memorabilia, looking for new items from the women with whom he is having affairs. Ashamed at her behavior, she covers her face with a green-tinted cosmetic mask that she hopes will conceal her guilty expression when he comes home. “Green for your envy,” she chants to herself. “Green for inexperience. Green for rotten love.”
The strain of Ketzia’s increasingly bizarre behavior and her inability to “keep up appearances,” as her parents did, cause the marriage to collapse and Ketzia to have a nervous breakdown. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the whitest trash of all? Ketzia Gold and Adam Brown, girl and boy with dirty lawn,” she thinks she hears the neighbors next door saying.
“Open the window and let the lies out”
Such is the counsel offered by the fairy tales that open and close The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, which is what Ketzia must do to emerge alive and sane at the end of her dark night.
In the classic tradition of seekers of enlightenment from all spiritual traditions, Ketzia ends up in the desert - literally and figuratively. Penniless, separated from Adam and estranged from her family, she lives in a sleazy motel that rents rooms by the hour “in a warm place that on the map was always orange, sometimes outlined in red . . . on the road of oracles.” The manager can watch her through a two-way mirror as she does what she has to do to pay for her room and board:
I would strip . . . and lie on the bed in my pale slip and let hot tears burn lines on my cheeks, but only for a moment . . . I’d stretch my body out . . . my feet dangled in the hot desert air. Lying flat, I would wait for someone to come . . .
She walks far out into the desert every day, where she describes everything as “dead, dried up in the vast oven of sky and earth.” In this final, horrific blast furnace of the soul, she is purified.
. . . I simply wandered. I went everywhere to see if I could find Ketzia again. Jingle jangle jingle went the bells in my head . . . Is Ketzia here? Is Ketzia there? Never any reply . . . “
Ultimately, Ketzia finds the answer within herself and experiences an epiphany of sorts that liberates her from the lies that cloud her vision and allows her to pick up the threads of her life with grace and dignity. In beautifully written flash-forwards, we experience Ketzia’s transformation as she works as a transciptionist for a private detective agency, a job that gives her a sense of equilibrium and her first taste of genuine pleasure:
This job keeps me rather serene, a state that I currently relish . . . I like strict transcription, because it is steady. The flow of words to my brain remains in control . . . Some days, my private investigators sit in a back room lighting cigarettes and drinking. I enjoy the smoke and the liquor scent . . . the atmosphere soothes me . . . I learn much about the ways of the world. In fact, I faithfully record many tales here at Triple D Company that serve to wake up the soul . . .
Though there is no fairy tale “happy ending” for Ketzia, there is emotional closure. This new incarnation of Ketzia can recall both her capricious, cruel family without rancor and her former husband’s kindness with profound gratitude. Like the mystic St. John of the Cross, who speaks of “his house now being at rest,” Ketzia says, “My life is completely in order now, I think . . . how lucky I feel to have managed the complexities of modern living . . . It helps to keep things simple.”
The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold is a challenging and rewarding first novel, full of lyric description and brilliant insight, peppered with the wry wisdom that fairy tales provide and the poignant truths that are the light at the tunnel’s end of all inner journeys. This is the first in a series of novels about the Gold family that Bernheimer plans to write, in which fairy tales will continue to play a prominent part.
Interview with Kate Bernheimer
by Phoebe Kate Foster, PopMatters Associate Editor
What inspired you to write the novel? Was it the fairy tales that you used in the book?
I was inspired by - or at least I was working from - a fascination with fairy tales themselves, their extremely convoluted and nonsensical plots that somehow make a strange kind of excellent sense. Their narrative style is incredibly gorgeous to me. I started from that, an obsession with them that began when I was very, very young. As I read more and more fairy tales as an adult, I found massive collusion between their “subjects” and those in my fiction: childhood, nature, sexuality, transformation. I realized that it wasn’t by accident that I was drawn to their narrative structure and motifs.
What are the major motifs in fairy tales that relate to your book?
There are recurring elements in popularized fairy tales, such as absent parents, some sort of struggle, a transformation and a marriage. If you look at a range of stories, you find many stories about marriage, sexual initiation, abandonment. The plots often revolve around what to me seem to be elemental fears and desires. They are powerful representations of the human struggle to understand the terrors and joys of the natural world. People tend to think of fairy tales as “archetypal.” They are also extremely sensual, something which translates well over the ages.
There is a noticeable difference between the rather dark-flavored fairy tales you selected for the book and the light-hearted ones most of us are familiar with from Disney and such.
Fairy tales are, in fact, quite serious. They are so delightfully and crazily narrated that we can forget this. Plus, they’ve been largely cleaned up. Often they contained stories about sexual initiation or cases of attempted incest. The versions we know conceal their darker side somewhat. Often they were changed so that stories could be used to morally instruct children. Little Red Riding Hood became a warning to little girls not to talk to strangers, not to stray from the path. However, because so many other details were not eliminated or altered effectively, the morality remains murky and ineffectual. People I know are still creeped out when Red Riding Hood climbs in bed with the wolf - and no one really believes she thinks it’s her grandmother, from what I gather!
Despite efforts to make fairy tales sweet and happy, their origins come through. Even some of the “happier” ones are fraught with violence and meanness. For example, in “The Frog King,” a girl rejects the friendship of a little frog until she discovers he can help her find a lost toy . . . and then he doesn’t turn into a prince until she throws him with all her might against a wall. But we all know from popular culture that if you kiss a frog, he becomes a prince.
Sometimes, violent details have been eliminated from fairy tales simply because they were deemed too graphic. So one does not, at the end of Disney’s version of Cinderella, see the stepsisters’ eyes get pecked and pecked by doves, because Disney wanted to market the story for wholesome family viewing. On the other hand, the producers felt perfectly happy to let the stepsisters violently tear Cinderella’s clothing off of her body. It’s a contradiction in even the most popularized versions of tales that intrigues me - the play between violence and light.
Is there a difference between fairy tales and folk tales?
Fairy tales are a subset of folk tales - specifically, fairy tales are folk tales that are magic tales.
Many of the fairy tales you use in the novel are unfamiliar to me. Does not knowing the original story hinder a reader’s understanding of the book?
While many of the fairy tales I drew upon for my novel are not the most widely known, it’s my hope that a reader could completely appreciate the novel without knowing the original versions. It has a fairy tale “feel” that I hope functions for readers, and also, I worked very hard on paring down the motifs of the novel, striving to keep it very precise and almost - dare I say - “easy.” So, though its system of references is complex, and I got many of the images and patterns for the book out of fairy tales that are more obscure, I worked to get them to function within her (Ketzia’s) story so they could stand utterly alone.
With any novel that has authentic detail and emotional resonance, people inevitably wonder how much of it was drawn from real life.
There are some obvious overlaps. For instance, I did work as a typist for a group of private detectives once. It was so bizarre. I think it was my favorite job, as far as paying jobs go. The detectives really did leave handguns on my desk, just so casually, as if that was completely normal - just like I described it in the book.
It’s interesting to me that people want to know whether what happens in a book “really happened.” I think if the book feels right - feels true - then it did happen, somehow, in some way, whether symbolically, emotionally or otherwise.PM:
The novel is short, but extremely complex. How long did it take to write?
It took me a bit more than seven years. I think it’s useful for people to know that novels - even novels as short as this—take very hard work. The arrangement of it took a long time to perfect. It required a lot of staring at what I had, and thinking about what I needed to add. Sometimes I would change one word, meticulously, and that was a long day’s work. I think it took me seven years to figure Ketzia out because I was really dealing with a quite complicated set of ideas, but was trying to sculpt them down to their barest, most important, expressions, in both form and content.
Though Ketzia is still a young woman at the close of the novel, you use the word “Complete” to describe her tales. Why?
The novel does strive to tell her story from the essential beginning to the essential end - that is, the parts that represent who she is most perfectly. At the end, I think she does achieve a rather dignified sense of unity with herself. The title is also an intentional reference to fairy tale collections—The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm, for instance. Reading the “complete” works of anyone always gave me a sort of ownership of the stories contained therein and gave me a feeling of inclusion, I think, in that author’s world. So that was part of the attraction of the word.
What would you like readers to take away with them from their time spent with Ketzia?
People have told me that when they read the novel, they feel sad, but also strangely comforted. I’d like that. I’d like them to take away the thought that reading it was time well spent - whatever that means for each individual reader. And I’d adore it if it made people interested in reading fairy tales. They are a vastly underrated literary art!