By Clive Sinclair
Viking. 247 pp. $18.95
THIS IS a novel of up-to-the-minute playfulness and Old Testament ferocity -- another farrago of wordplay, lechery, farce, guilt, iridescence and Judaism by Englishman Clive Sinclair.
Its narrator-protagonist, Jonah Isaacson, teaches film at a British university, where he also keeps busy fending off opportunities to cheat on his wife Sophie. He has been uxorious partly by conviction. In his words, "There is a syllogism that has me half-convinced . . . Everyone commits adultery. Everyone dies. Therefore don't commit adultery and you won't die." He also has a condition, labile hypertension, which an overdose of sexual excitement could aggravate to the point where his heart would burst. (Since he and Sophie maintain an active sex life, by implication he finds her less than fatally attractive.)
Along comes Stella, a cosmetician so ravishing that Jonah risks his life to know her, as he puts it, "in the biblical sense." An assignation is easily arranged, but Jonah can't perform (one has no trouble imagining imminent heartburst as a radical turnoff) until Stella feeds him what she claims is an aphrodisiac. Suffering from what he takes for post-coital torpor, he dimly experiences a bizarre turn of events. A physician shows up in Stella's flat, breaks Jonah's arm with a hammer-blow, and wraps it in a cast.
Meanwhile, Sophie's uncle, a wealthy film producer, enlists the couple as aides-de-camp in a new venture. He has coaxed out of retirement the legendary Lewis Falcon, a John Ford-like celebrant of the American West, to direct on location a matzoh-ball Western called "The Six Pointed Star," based on the King David story. Falcon is the right man for the job not only because of his affinity with desert landscapes but because his Manifest-Destiny mythmaking dovetails with Israeli urges to expand into the occupied territories.
As the planeful of cineastes nears Tel Aviv, the disparate threads of Sinclair's narrative weave themselves into an audacious plot. Beneath Jonah's cast lurk the fixings of a bomb, primed for detonation as soon as he uncaps a pen given him by the terrorist who calls herself Stella. By chance a midair explosion is averted, but Jonah goes off on the ground, in the somewhat less charged setting of a crowded Israeli aquarium-in-reverse -- a glass room built into a cliff so as to gives its occupants a window on the open sea. Borrowing from Genesis, he raves about the ensuing "chaos, without beginning and without end. An ultramarine infinity, filled with golden specks, transparent-bodied glass fish, silver shards sharp enough to sever limbs, colorless moon jellyfish and . . . men and women begging, at the dawn of creation, for the breath of life." Only later does he realize that he is intact "give or take an arm."
At this point -- about a third of the way through a most eventful novel -- Jonah falls victim to amnesia, a condition that leaves him vulnerable when Stella, who has joined the film crew as a makeup artist, proposes another tryst. His protracted struggle with adulterous temptation -- one punctuated by ghostly semaphores from his phantom limb -- shapes the rest of the story.
Sinclair has also written an earlier novel, two collections of short stories, and a critical study of the Yiddish-language novelists (and brothers) Isaac Bashevis Singer and Israel Joshua Singer. Much of his work is devoted to examining, from every possible angle, the mixed blessing of being a Jew. One thinks, for example, of the character in a Sinclair story who explains why he used to thank God for the Holocaust: "Because it gave us Jews the right to sit in judgment on this stinking world." Jonah's disenchantment with Israel over its brutal treatment of Arab settlers takes him to the far side of such self-righteousness: "For some of us, alas, the Holocaust has become a passport to sinful pleasures. As Nebuchadnezzar was reduced to a bovine condition and made to eat grass with the beasts of the field, so shall such hairy Jews be shunned by society and forced to walk upon all fours, so shall they grow thick skins and wear a horn, so shall they fear all men. But, in the meantime, won't we have fun?"
A related comment, this one of the plague-on-both-your-houses ilk, exemplifies the author's willingness to joke about virtually any topic. Meeting a doctor with a missing fingertip, Jonah reflects that "Israel must be littered with bits of bodies, as if it were the studio of a divine sculptor." Jonah's own arm, of course, has recently been added to the litter -- and becomes the occasion for an egregious pun: While he is making up his mind whether to be fitted with a homely artificial arm in Israel or to return to England for a superior model and miss out on the filming, someone cracks, "Then the choice is clear -- aesthetics or prosthetics."
By the last chapter Sinclair has burdened himself with a daunting task: bringing Jonah's libidinousness, the wrap-up of "The Six Pointed Star" and even the fate of Israel itself into focus under the same lens. If he does not quite succeed -- if, for one thing, Jonah remains fuzzy because his drugged and amnesiac states tend to disqualify him as the wholly free agent that a morality tale requires -- that failure scarcely detracts from the novel's taut prose, skilled pacing, and pervasive, multifaceted intelligence. Cosmetic Effects is a disarmingly entertaining novel.
Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.