THE DIALOGUES OF TIME AND ENTROPY
By Aryeh Lev Stollman
Riverhead. 226 pp. $24.95
In both of his critically acclaimed novels, The Far Euphrates (1997) and The Illuminated Soul (2002), Aryeh Lev Stollman plays with the motif of secrets and lies, exploring the often unendurable pressures of a hidden life, a shameful past, an unsanctioned sexual desire or a terrible loss. Stollman's fiction stands out in a literary landscape of young American Jewish writers such as Nathan Englander and contemporary gay writers such as Edmund White because many of Stollman's characters struggle not only with the mysterious weight of their emerging sexuality but also with the physical and emotional legacies of the Holocaust.
The secrets and lies that attract Stollman's attention are immense tangles of individual lives and family histories: Children come of age in a world uniquely distorted by the recent past, and adults try to hammer out a viable life in a universe that will never entirely forget their suffering. In his new collection of previously published short fiction, The Dialogues of Time and Entropy, Stollman lingers over some of the same themes and philosophical preoccupations.
In "Enfleurage," a preliminary study of sorts for The Far Euphrates, Alexander is a lonely and melancholy young rabbi's son who finds himself caught up in a web of adult relationships that have been misshapen by a combination of horrific wartime secrets and Alexander's own pubescent, vaguely erotic longings for male companionship. Alexander's father warns that "the past moves through us like a graceful ghost . . . following us up the stairs, climbing in with us beneath the covers, whispering to us, 'Don't forget me, don't forget me!' " The young Alexander must watch, along with many of the other characters in these stories, how his father's theologically inspired wisdom plays out among the people around him.
In "Die Grosse Liebe," a woman's decades-old acts of treachery, performed to save the man she loved from the Nazis, are exposed, unsettling the postwar certainties of her only son. In "If I Have Found Favor in Your Eyes," a woman's altered surname is "meant to cover tracks and obliterate traces." One of the more intriguing pieces in the collection, "If I Have Found Favor" is the story of a young boy named Amir who, like Alexander of "Enfleurage," is uncertain about how to manage the "painful longing" and peculiar sexual desires of young adulthood and how to assess the seductive reasoning of religion.
Alexander takes comfort in his father's rabbinic assurance that "God is the Master Planner" who necessarily imposes some sort of order upon a chaotic and disorderly world. Amir shares Alexander's desire for certainty, finding himself attracted to the confident religious vision of his new Upper West Side neighbors, followers of a famous Hasidic rebbe. Paul and Naomi Flucht provide Amir with a picture of a divinely inspired, beautifully enigmatic world that, paradoxically, seems to make perfect sense; their presence simultaneously awakens Amir's more earthly and far more powerful desire for Paul.
Stollman is adept at animating the intellectual innocence and youthful erotic frustrations of characters like Amir. He also explores with great sensitivity our human frustrations with a universe that remains suspended somewhere between science and religion, appearing exquisitely rational at times but ultimately defying scientific explanation. A neurologist by trade, Stollman seeks in The Dialogues of Time and Entropy to provide a suggestive literary framework for reconciling the wonders of science, the inexplicable power of desire and the mysteries of God. *
Laura Ciolkowski teaches literature at New York University.