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Friday, April 19, 2019

Shame’s Voices in Shelly Brivic’s Stealing: A Novel in Dreams

By Janina Levin

The stereotype that literary critics write bad novels does not apply to Joyce critic and JML advisory editor Shelly Brivic, who just published his first work of literary fiction, Stealing: A Novel in Dreams, after a fifty-plus year career in academia. Both the critical and the creative force of these years enabled him to develop the subject of human freedom through the medium of art while transcending literary criticism’s trends and fads. A sampling of his titles from 1985 to 2017 shows how his thinking would link art with revolution more and more strongly, moving from Joyce the Creator (1985) to Tears of Rage (2008) and Revolutionary Damnation (2017). Although Brivic is well known for having engaged the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan for a good part of his career, and although he has written two book-length treatments linking Lacanian themes to the works of James Joyce (Veil of Signs in 1991 and Joyce through Lacan and Zizek in 2008), these are not arcane analyses, and they are still in print. His engagement with Lacan has honed his understanding of the psychological struggles of ordinary people. I first heard him talk about the novel in his graduate seminar on Joyce in 2001, and was struck by his ability to move easily from criticism to the stuff of life that fuels good art and good criticism.

 Stealing can be read as a realistic novel about a dysfunctional family and as a work of experimental fiction in the modernist tradition, elevating the trials of ordinary people into a narrative about freedom and consciousness through art. Its realist narrative offers a familiar portrait of eastern European Jewish immigrants – the parents with their mishegas overfeeding and overvaluing their only asset – their kids. Readers will recognize these ambitious kids burdened with their parents’ high hopes in many post-war Jewish novels.

 The novel opens with an ordinary dinner in the Glogover family home. The mom, Judith, peels carrots onto old newspaper in the kitchen sink while talking to her dead sister in Yiddish about her “mismarriage” (1). She thinks her sons don’t understand her plaints, but they do. Her husband Joel enters the scene after a hard day’s work ready for a fight, accusing her – and the two sons she uses as both a solace and a weapon – of being in “cahoots” to destroy his authority (8). The family row that follows is both typical and highly individualized. It is a scene of mundane domestic misery: the older brother defends the mom and stalks out, the parents pick at each others’ faults, the younger brother tries to negotiate the ruckus. Yet the voice of each family member expresses an individual version of what David Foster Wallace has called “the day to day trenches of existence,” without anyone stealing the show. It’s a family chorus of misery and misunderstanding.

 The narrative follows the different fates of the two sensitive sons, Ira and Marc, who struggle to come to grips with their difficult upbringing. Ira’s is a story of a troubled downward path toward suicide. Marc’s, on the other hand, is more difficult to define in a single narrative strand, since he often holds, in his mind, the double voice of Ira and Marc as an entity itself. But Marc’s story does approach a wisdom narrative by way of a study of Western literature. You don’t have to be Jewish or have grown up in mid-twentieth century America to sympathize with Ira’s rages or Marc’s quest for meaning through psychoanalysis and literature. Stealing explores the way the dead haunt the living in families dealing with suicide, thus contributing to a larger conversation in contemporary fiction about this mental health epidemic. Yet while Stealing offers a thoughtful reflection on the motives of Ira’s suicide and its effects on his family, the novel strives to go beyond considering grief coping strategies, for it also uses experimental techniques. The novel focuses more on what Brivic considers core thematic concerns of modernism, themes that he tackled repeatedly during his career as a literary critic.

 Although both Ira and Marc aspire to become writers, and only one of them reaches this goal, Stealing is not Marc’s story but encompasses both brothers’ voices. Brivic accomplishes this through an experimental technique of presenting about 1/3 of the story in two columns, the left column for Ira and the right one for Marc, a technique that appropriately tracks Ira and Marc’s lived experiences and their intimacy. Although using two columns in a narrative does pose technical difficulties, a second reading gives a sense that as you are obliged to go back and flip the pages to compare Marc’s life with Ira’s, you are returning to the same moment in time that made both brothers suffer such different fates.

Shame—a topic Brivic explores in depth in “Ulysses’ ‘Circe’: Dealing in Shame” (2008)—is also an important theme in his novel, one that structures the entire plot of Stealing. The Glogover family is saturated with typical sources of shame: dirt, cheapness, excretion (the book revels in bathroom humor). The parents reflect the way shame and pride are often distributed along gender lines (“Dealing in Shame” 146). Judith is “shame’s voice,” a voice historically associated with femininity (143). She represents shame as the internal dissatisfactions of the self, linked to how people are kept in their place and stay there, believing they deserve their fate (143). Joel reflects how men hide their shame by reversing it, becoming proud of what would normally be devalued. In the opening chapter, Judith associates her husband with “the wrong end.” Ira remembers him singing in the bathroom, his voice mixing with his farts (Stealing 5). Ira later recalls being forced to witness his father giving himself an enema: “This was the first time I was upset by a rear end. I was told that I should be man enough to accept it” (115).

Brivic has stated that “shame is where the action is” in modern literature, since shame exposes and modernism lays bare structures of power to clear a path and begin anew (“Dealing in Shame” 144). In a critical discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses, Brivic summed up the affective resonance of the book by noting “In most situations in life, people strive to avoid shame and maintain pride…. Joyce as an artist reverses these strivings” (144). This same reversal is at the core of Stealing. But the book’s focus on shame is not a simple reversal, like the father’s bullying, making his sons figuratively eat his shit/shame. Shame in Stealing becomes cathartic because it gives characters the ability to see beyond their current situation. In a climactic scene, after Ira returns home from a mental hospital and refuses any of the food his parents give him, the whole family suddenly breaks down in tears, starting with the father, Joel, who finds himself unable to complain that his eldest son is a waste of resources. Ira’s illness is bigger than all of them, and their collective crying accomplishes a powerful leveling: “They all had an inkling that their problems would’ve been solved if only they could have gone on crying forever” (133). The father’s shame initiates a chain reaction, emptying out all that is inessential. As Brivic suggests, refusing shame as unbearable and masking it with pride leads to paralysis; shame should carve a space for change (“Dealing in Shame” 157).

 One can see the two brothers moving along the gender lines of shame. Ira follows the father in finding shame unbearable; the time period leading up to his suicide portrays the awfulness of being a family burden. Marc, like his mother, learns to compromise and develops a tolerance for all the abuse he encountered at home. As he gets older, he even begins to understand how much his parents enjoy taunting each other. But as Brivic has argued, the opposition between shame and pride along gender lines blurs the route to freedom; historically, we have witnessed a deeper level of understanding in the realms of art and religion, which favor abjection of the self via shame, cultivating a practice of self-emptying that cleanses the self rather than divides it along gender lines (“Dealing in Shame” 145). Stealing favors art as the medium that accomplishes this cleansing.

Works Cited 

Brivic, Shelly. Stealing: A Novel in Dreams. Frayed Edge Press, 2018.

---. “Ulysses’ ‘Circe’: Dealing in Shame.” Joyce Through Lacan and Žižek. Palgrave, 2008, pp. 143-160.

Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water: Commencement Speech (2005).” YouTube, 19 May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI


Janina Levin is a lecturer at University of the Sciences, Department of Writing and Rhetoric.

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