What’s lacking in this world is analyses of second-rate novels. When I finish a novel I like to figure it out. What does the title mean? How do the parts interact? When he sent the letter, did he know she’d already left town? Is the game of Russian roulette in chapter 3 explained by the ultimatum in the prologue? This is why people have book clubs. But I don’t have a book club, so I look for analyses on the web. Where all I find is reviews. And even the best reviews can’t do a full analysis for fear of spoiling the plot.
What follows is an attempt at an analysis of Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan. It will give away every plot point, and it won’t be tremendously intelligible if you haven’t read the book. But if you have read the book, and are trying to figure it out like me, it might give you something to build on.
The book has five parts, titled “In the Beginning,” “Names,” “In the desert,” etc. So the novel presents itself as a Torah. Each of the parts has three chapters treating three different story-strands, so we begin with Moshe’s story, then Shem’s, then Aisling’s, then we have part 2 and turn back to Moshe, etc. The first strand begins in 1901 when a family of Jews immigrates to Ireland, the second begins in 1958 and gives us an Irish boy who has been placed in a mental hospital because he does not speak, and the third is set entirely in 2013 and deals with an Irishwoman, displaced to London, considering converting to Judaism to marry the man she loves. So the story spans 112 years and moves to from eastern Europe to Ireland and thence to London, which is to say that in the new Torah that is the novel, eastern Europe is Egypt, Ireland is the desert, and London is, as I suppose, the promised land. Terrible things happen in the first two story-lines, but the world of the story is gradually on the mend, such that Ireland heals the problems of eastern Europe, and London heals the problems of Ireland. Still, London cannot do without Ireland. The promised land relies on the memory of the desert, and Ireland remains the novel’s anchor.
London is not the only promised land in the novel. There is another place, further off, more sunny and perfect, represented both by Palestine and the utopian “fifth province” of Irish legend. But while characters do make aliyah, Palestine does not appear in the novel; it does not, as it were, take the stage—a fact underlined by the fate of Moshe’s play about the “fifth province,” a play that is never published or produced. But even London in this novel is a bit of a pipe dream. Ireland is what matters. We know that Ireland is the desert for many reasons besides its place in Gilligan’s Torah. We know it because of Lady Gregory’s play, “The Deliverer,” a performance of which features in a notable scene. We know it because Ireland is the font of meaning, the locus of stories. And we know it because a Book is given there, an Irish guide to conversion to Judaism, a book that will take people and make them into Jews and thus a Torah within the Torah that is the novel, a book that brings revelation to several of the characters and to us.
A bit of plot is necessary here. The first strand begins with the immigrants—Moshe, his wife, and their daughters Ruth and Esther—disembarking from the boat at Cork, which they have mistaken for New York. The father, a playwright and inveterate story-teller, becomes a pedlar. The family ekes out a living, and eventually hires an Irish servant, who also tells stories. Ruth grows up, unloved but loving Ireland. In her late 40s, she falls in love with a man named Alf, but after their first night together a Nazi bomb destroys her apartment, and each thinks the other has been killed. Alf signs up to fight in WWII, loses his legs, and is eventually institutionalized.
The second strand features Shem, who suffers from severe OCD that manifests as joyous but obsessive word-play, and an equally severe oedipus complex. Shem is happy, but has two deep worries. He has been traumatized by a rabbi’s discourse on the unforgivable sin of loshon ha’ra, and he has been unable to read what he believes is his mother’s diary. The day before his Bar Mitzvah, he sees his mother holding hands with a man who is not his father. He is silent at the bimah, and does not speak again, afraid that if he opens his mouth he will reveal his mother’s secret, damning her for adultery and himself for loshon ha’ra. Institutionalized, he meets Alf, whose story he writes down.
The third strand treats Aisling, who has moved from Ireland to London, where she has become a writer of obituaries. She would like to marry Noah, but he cannot marry a non-Jew. His parents give her a second-hand book on conversion, and, devastated, she leaves to spend Christmas with her family in Ireland where she reads the book.
What holds the three story-strands together? Linking the first and second is Ruth: the daughter of Moshe becomes the lover of Alf, who becomes the friend of Shem. Linking the second and third is a book: for the book that Shem thought was his mother’s diary is actually the Irish guide to conversion, bought by Shem’s father for his mother, and rebought by Noah’s parents for Aisling. On top of this, linking all three strands is a series of stories. Moshe tells his stories to Ruth, Ruth tells them to Alf, Alf dictates them to Shem, Shem writes them down. The prologue and epilogue show us Aisling visiting Shem, now living in a benevolent old folks’ home. Aisling has traced Shem through the marginalia in the book, marginalia written by Shem’s mother. From the same source Shem learns that the man her mother held hands with was his non-Jewish uncle, and that his silence has been meaningless. Aisling gives Shem the Book, and in return he gives her all his writing. Moshe’s stories, retold by Ruth and then by Alf, inscribed by Shem, are now the possession of Aisling.
This transition from word of mouth (Moshe-Ruth-Alf) to writing (Shem-Aisling) is another way the novel reflects a Torah: what begin as oral stories are eventually written down. And then there is the fact that the conversion book, the Torah within the Torah, also spawns writing, so that in addition to a transition from oral to written, we make a transition from text to commentary. (Gilligan hammers this home by presenting us the marginalia as footnotes to her own text.) Overarchingly we have a story of the failure to communicate which comes right. Cork is mistaken for New York. Moshe cannot understand the letter he receives from Lady Gregory. Alf and Ruth lose one another. Shem becomes mute because he is not allowed to read a book. But the Book is read in the end, and the stories are preserved and written and read and retold, and commentary is salvific. Shem’s silence is based in an untruth, but his OCD tells a truth. He is right to think that words are the magic that holds everything together.
If word magic is to work, it must involve love, and particularly the love match of two languages or of two sets of stories. An odd scene in the middle of the second strand is a key to this part of the novel’s meaning. Ruth, working as a midwife, has become famous in the Jewish community for telling Irish stories to ease the birth process. She records each birth in an official file, but she also keeps a private list in which she records not only name chosen by the parents but also the name secretly chosen by herself, a name from the story she told during the birth. When an antisemite sets fire to her files, her secret list can reproduce the information. The weaving of Jewish names and Irish names allows these births to be recorded again. As Aisling’s reading of the Book—the Book’s second reading—will bring healing to the story cycle, so Ruth’s second text will bring rebirth to the babies.
Two more things, lightly interconnected. One is the malignancy of water. The ship bring Moshe’s family to the wrong country. Ruth’s sister Esther buys another ticket to America but her ship sinks. Moshe goes swimming and dies. Ruth is swimming while the bomb falls on her apartment. To enter water is to lose or to drown. At best water promises but does not deliver. There are baptisms that do not take; miracle immersions that do not cure. Water does not belong in God’s desert.
The second thing is the prevalence of animal stories, notably of rats, bees, and swans. All of these are binding stories—stories of love—but the rats and bees injure even as they hold things together. The swans, though, enact a transformation over the years. They enter in one of Moshe’s story fragments about a man who makes paper animals and one day decides to fold his wife in the same way, breaking every bone in her body. They continue in a story Ruth invents about a man who digs up a paper swan which comes to life. They close in the paper swans that Noah makes for Aisling, and in a pair of real swans she sees. Swans are folded into Gilligan’s novel, and perhaps go some way toward redeeming the water. But nine? What are the nine folds?
I said that reviews can’t analyze because analysis has to spoil the plot. But every single review of the new episode of Sherlock (4.1) revealed the surprise ending and not one of them offered any analysis.
Jonathan Lethem has sold Yale University a great many pictures of vomiting cats for an “undisclosed amount of money.” This is why the academic enterprise deserves to die.