"Bee Season" by Myla Goldberg

A strangely powerful first novel about spelling, mysticism and finding God in the details.

Published July 5, 2000 7:04PM (EDT)

There's a locution that keeps turning up in the first half of Myla Goldberg's heralded first novel, "Bee Season." It joins two phrases with a comma, looks like this. The first few times aren't so bad, pass unremarkably. But then it turns up more often, seems clunky. You start to think there must be a better way to phrase things, connect two thoughts. Makes the book seem affected, elicit invective; become a projectile, collide with wall. But then, somewhere around the novel's halfway point, it tapers off and disappears as the sentences smooth out and grow more sure of themselves. It's also right around there that the story begins to find itself and the characters begin to pop out into three-space, becoming more than a collection of attributes. "Bee Season" spends an awful lot of time trying to get out of its own way, but it is, in the last half, an affecting, sometimes powerful and lyrical novel of a family pulled apart by mysticism and insanity.

Eliza Naumann is an 11-year-old girl in the slow class at school who's a disappointment to her gifted parents -- her father, Saul, a Judaic scholar and erstwhile mystic, and her mother, Miriam, a lawyer with a voracious intellect and a compulsion toward order. While Eliza was never particularly good at anything before, she discovers that she's good at spelling bees. When she wins a regional contest, her father begins to take notice of her -- and she soon begins to displace her smarter, more talented brother Aaron in his affections.

The story is fugue-like when it starts to come together. Saul sees something Kabbalistic in the way Eliza can intuit spelling words by having the letters fall into place all on their own -- a hint of a talent far beyond his own abilities. As they practice together for the national spelling competition, he leads her carefully through an old Jewish mystical text and toward a state of biblioglossic transcendence in which the alphabet begins to crack open and reveal a hint of the light of God. Racing ahead, Eliza begins to go further in her studies than her father realizes. Aaron, spurned, drifts away from Saul's thunderous old-time Judaism and into the serene regimentation of the Hare Krishnas, while Miriam gives way to her longings for order, and moves toward a private, more dangerous sort of transcendence.

Goldberg's writing, as well, has gone Technicolor by this point. "Eliza awakens and returns to her own room," she writes, "her sense of filial closeness now faded to an awkward blush with the coming dawn." And: "Eliza hears the car door slam. The engine starts up and then fades in the distance until the loudest sound is the tick of the oven clock." You can't argue with writing like that. But this comes after a hundred or so pages of mostly arms-length, boilerplate description: "Saul has noted with approval the time Eliza now spends in her room," a typical passage reads. "He tells her how happy he is to see her taking initiative. Though he offers to help, Eliza feels protective of her practice sessions, takes a certain pride in studying alone." It's both an effort and a relief, then, to reach the point at which the book starts to open up and breathe, and the people in it begin to speak for themselves.

Once you've reached that point, the most surprising thing about "Bee Season" is the way in which God seems to be lurking everywhere, letting out a ray of light every now and again. He's always just out of Saul's questing reach, but lying in wait for Eliza in her innocence. He's in Miriam's brilliance and gathering insanity, and in Aaron's juvenile avidity for self-surrender and enlightenment. He's there always, but always inscrutable and evanescent, as though words can express but never contain him. You don't find many novels these days that flirt with the ineffable like that, and if "Bee Season" is an imperfect vessel for it, then so are its characters, and that's the whole point of the story. In its best moments, which become fiercer and more frequent as the pile of pages must have grown on Goldberg's desk, it feels like she's reaching for something that keeps getting closer, but that's beyond what this novel can accomplish. It's no sin to skip the slow first half, enjoy the rest, and wait expectantly for her next book.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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