The Mystics of Mile End
515-815 1st Street SW
Calgary, AB, T2P 1N3
2015, 290 pp., $21.95, ISBN: 9781554812530
Sigal Samuel’s playful yet poignant literary endeavour, The Mystics of Mile End, explores many topics, including religion, family, grief, and identity. But one thematic thread that winds its way through every voice and plot line, emerging as the novel’s loudest message, is the power and implications of language. Mixed messages, false metaphors, searching for signs and meaning in texts, books, and messages: these are all the ways language can muddle the meaning and purpose of life.
David Meyer, a professor of religious studies, is a lapsed orthodox Jew and widower with two children, Lev and Samara. They live in Mile End, Montreal, where a long-established mixed Jewish population—from Hasidic to Orthodox to secular—rub shoulders with a more recent wave of hipster Anglophones. The Meyer family continues to grieve the loss of its matriarch, Miriam, long after her death. Miriam was the better parent and the better Jew, and she tore a hole in Lev and Samara’s lives when she died suddenly in a car crash.
In the absence of a second parent, David must bear the brunt of the family’s responsibilities, even if he tries to shirk them and slip back into his textbooks the first chance he gets. Despite his academic specialization in Judaism, he is not a religious practitioner. This had been a bone of contention between he and Miriam before her death, and their daughter Samara continues to carry the torch of hostility by taking up, at an early age, more than a passing interest in religion. David’s disapproval of her religious inclinations drives a wedge through their relationship. Even when she eventually turns her back on faith, the damage has already been done. To make matters worse, David witnesses his son Lev, as he navigates adolescence, suddenly turn away from scientific reasoning and critical analysis, and devote his life to religion.
Peripheral characters include the next-door neighbours, the Glassmans, who are Holocaust survivors and serve as spiritual teachers to Samara and Lev. Another neighbour, Mr. Katz, constructs a replica of the Tree of Life, a central symbol of Kabbalah (mystical) Judaism, in his front yard out of various recyclables: empty toilet paper rolls, painted leaves, and dental floss.
Sigal demonstrates that while language can both be comforting and strengthening, it can concurrently serve as a destructive, destabilizing force in human relationships. Each character encounters the constraints and dangers of language in one way or another.
David leads a life of textbooks and grading papers full of useless words that leave him unsatisfied. Only after his heart attack, when his just-diagnosed heart murmur begins to speak to and communicate with him, does he realize all that he overlooked in life and the mistakes he made. But during his jogs around the neighbourhood, David begins to detect, within the fuzzy noises of the murmur, a word … and then two words. Despite his weak heart, he runs faster and faster to hear more words, or the same words spoken at the same time. When stretched to the limits of physical exertion, he finds the answer to life’s purpose:
… black coffee and the smell of books, and a fine wine on a white tablecloth, and middle-of-the-night bicycle rides, and middle-of-the-way forays into old age, and the pale blue dot on Val’s left leg, whizzing away into infinity, and the new manuscript waiting to be written, and the old silences waiting to be spoken, and the girl attacking her copy of Žižek with a highlighter, and all of the trunk drawers full of jewelry and sadness, and the telephone ringing all day, and my children. My children.
For Samara, the restrictions of language become apparent when she seeks to communicate through religion. As she sings at a friend’s bat mitzvah, much to her father’s chagrin, her voice touches every person in attendance except the one she most wanted to reach—her father. So begins her solitary, lonely, and long quest for answers to life’s unanswerable questions.
She turns to the tenets of Kabbalah, and attempts to climb the metaphorical Tree of Life in order to obtain knowledge-giving “keys.” In the process, though, she drives away her partner, Jenny, and alienates herself from her brother Lev. She finds herself lost, dropping out of school and chasing false messages and signs. Her descent into near madness ceases only when words and language are taken from her:
Just as I turned to face her, a huge wind filled the space between us, stealing my breath, stealing the words from my mouth. It tugged me toward the sky. I dug my heels downward, but the wind was too strong for me. It howled in my ears, drowning out all sound. Jenny was mouthing my name, mouthing questions at me, but my limbs were shaking violently, I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. My senses were shutting down, collapsing in on themselves one by one. The last thing I saw, the last thing I expected or wanted to see, was Jenny, on the doorstep, holding her arms out toward me, the final key gleaming in her hands.
As a child, Lev marvels in his best friend Alex’s secret language that consists of numbers, not letters. He helps his friend in his quest to speak to astronauts at the International Space Station, even when he thinks it’s a futile undertaking. He grows interested in religion and begins taking lessons with his next-door neighbour, Mr. Glassman, who tells him the story of the origin of language. The first word, discovered by a king who locked it away in a garden, was watered until it grew into a tree. When a thief stole a piece of the tree’s fruit and ate the word inside, he became so gleeful with the effects of the knowledge the word provided that he shared the word with his wife. So began the dissemination of language.
But, in Mr. Glassman’s story, the citizens became greedy for words, “believing that the more words they had, the better they would be able to communicate with the people around them.” However, what they discovered upon eating all the fruit and releasing the words, was that the language they produced was too direct and precise. Without vagueness or ambiguity, Mr. Glassman tells Lev,
… human relationships could not be sustained. A wife could no longer simply shrug her shoulders when her husband asked why she hadn’t smiled in days. She could no longer say: I’m not sure exactly, it’s just this sort of funny feeling I have. She had to say: It’s because you’re going bald, or, The truth is I never really loved you.
To protect their relationships, then, the people began to jumble the words, to speak more and more to obfuscate meaning. But this wasted words. To regulate language, the king restricted the number of words each royal subject could have in a lifetime.
After finishing the story, Mr. Glassman leaves Lev with the following advice:
“The wisest among us never speak a single word. They guard their words as carefully as if they were precious stones. They know that there is nothing better for the body than silence. The wisest of the royal subjects live forever.”
When confronted with the implications of language on his life and relationships, Lev recalls an observation he made as a child. Despite living side-by-side with the Glassmans for his entire life, he never heard them speak. Even with all the windows open in both houses, the sounds moved in one direction only: from his home to theirs. Lev ponders this peculiarity in the final chapter, as he scratches the surface of his own personal epiphany:
And now sitting beside the old man and his wife, he realized that not a single word had ever passed between them in his presence. Mrs. Glassman had never addressed Mr. Glassman directly, only Lev … And Mr. Glassman, too — hadn’t he always called Lev in when there was something he wanted to communicate to his wife?
The intentional absence of verbal communication between the Glassmans is what strengthens their marital bond and demonstrates to a careful observer that love is possible only when language is carefully regulated.
The Glassmans adhere to the belief that they have a finite number of words. When Mrs. Glassman slips into a coma and lays motionless on her deathbed, Mr. Glassman makes a pledge to die along with her. He plots ways to kill himself so he can accompany her into death. He tries to steal David’s old heart murmur medicine, in the hope that it will burst his heart, releasing all his life’s remaining words so he may join her. While contemplating the act of suicide, he muses on his wife’s diminished state:
The heartbeat was so hollow that he was struck by admiration for his wife’s diligence. She had expelled those words, all right. Had disposed of them thoroughly. In her veins and arteries, the blood was running freely now, not a single noun or verb to slow its passage from the heart.
But Sigal doesn’t leave us there. The idea of language as a destructive force is an interesting one, but as Mr. Glassman notes, it’s based entirely on one story and not on scientific proof or religious doctrine. Rather than scholarly inquiry, rational thought, or faith, Mr. Glassman explains that narrative is how we make sense of the world and our place in it. There are signs everywhere, and we have to choose which ones to read and listen to. Narrative, then, is how we make life bearable.
When Samara is at the top of the Tree of Life, in both the figurative and literal sense (she has climbed Mr. Katz’s tin-can-strung tree replica), Mr. Glassman speaks of his wife’s thirst for silence, and how stories are one way to alleviate the pain and suffering of life:
What if she saw, all those years ago, something that took me decades to understand: that the world is not pretty, but human beings need to try to make it so. Not by escaping to some higher world, not by seeking some invisible sign up in the sky—but by seeking it here, here on the earth, here in the people around you.
In The Mystics of Mile End, we are treated to three lengthy sections, each told from the perspectives of the three protagonists—David, Lev, and Samara—and then one final chapter which jumps from Lev’s head to Alex’s head to Mr. Glassman’s head. While the frenetic energy of the last part doesn’t match the even, disciplined pacing of the first three, the sudden change in speed isn’t entirely without merit.
While the quiet sections of the first three-quarters of the novel devolve into high drama near the end, it’s the rapid-fire epiphanies that propel the plot forward at such an alarming rate. David’s heart murmur required heart-beat-increasing medicine; how fitting then, that the later scenes barrel ahead at break-neck speed, as if they were high on his pills. In the final chapter, called “Mile End,” the worlds of all the characters come crashing together, entangling all of the various plotlines before Samuel straightens them one by one. Every loose end is tied with a bow by the last, satisfying page.
While the point-of-view rotation works well at providing crucial insights, developing character, and panning the width of an entire family and neighbourhood, they are presented in block format and not braided throughout the novel. While this helps divide the novel into discrete chunks, the reader is treated to a less-than-immersive experience. We live inside Samara’s head only during her troubled undergraduate years, for example, and we aren’t privy to her earlier attraction to and eventual revulsion toward religion. We also don’t witness, from her perspective, how she was stirred from despondency and coaxed down from the Tree of Life by Mr. Glassman’s final words. The author is almost too deft at drawing characters and sparking emotional investment, because every time the perspective switches, the reader longs to return to the character’s point of view for a sense closure that never manifests. On the other hand, one might argue that perhaps Samuel is simply demonstrating yet another conundrum with language: the more words used, the more the hunger for knowledge grows.
Samuel spins a family saga against the backdrop of faith and mysticism, grief and suffering, family and love. She luxuriates in scenes just long enough to leave the reader gratified and contemplative. And she has a large supply of oft-witty and insightful commentary on religion, language, and the precariousness of human relationships. The evidence of her research is impressive: Samuel presents a staggering array of religious passages, excerpts from Western literature, and philosophical theories that are illuminated by her smooth prose. Coupled with her erudition, Samuel demonstrates a deft hand in brave and honest storytelling. Despite being her debut, The Mystics of Mile End is a stunning tour de force, and it reads like the work of a much more experienced novelist.
Sarah Richards’s short stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Room, and UNBUILD walls, and she has published non-fiction work with Lonely Planet and BBC.com. She serves on the PRISM international editorial board, works as a writing mentor at Booming Ground, and is an MFA Candidate at the University of British Columbia. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two kids. Find more on her website.