canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Atheist’s Bible
by Shalom Camenietzki
Thistledown Press, 2006

Reviewed by Paul Duder

Born in Rio de Janeiro, raised in Israel, and educated in the U.S. (earning, inter alia, a Ph.D. in psychology), Shalom Camenietzki now lives in Toronto, where he has studied creative writing and, per the Thistledown blurbist, had his writing widely published in Canada. The Atheist’s Bible is his first collection of stories, and it appears that by his résumé ye shall know him, as his prose is weighed down almost to the point of immobility with a seemingly autobiographical set of idées fixe.

Whenever a psychologist tries his hand at fiction, the reflex is to turn the tables and parse his work through the armchair Freudian’s lens. Laying TAB’s Toronto-centric stories down on the couch, a therapist’s notes might highlight these repetitive themes for further analysis:
  • Jewishness: a recipe for conflict and frustration. Trips to Israel or synagogue are excuses to hit on chicks. A bar mitzvah incites shame and rancour between parent and child. Concepts of salvation are to be mocked and derided. Interfaith relationships are an invitation to heartbreak.
  • Sexuality: a messy, squeamish, mortifying business. Bathing a two-year-old can spur on inappropriate arousal. Premature ejaculation forecloses healthy relationships. A sketch of a woman’s feet is the object of obsessive, Portnoy-esque masturbation. The risk of purple prose is ever-present (viz. “his creamy dick came to life”).
  • Younger women: unattainable desiderata of all aging men. To be pointlessly fawned and obsessed over. As a corollary, marriages inevitably succumb to tedium, become stale, end.
  • Men in middle age: unfulfilled, inert, self-loathing. “Why was his life as safe as Canada Savings Bonds?” wonders one character. “His world…was as puny as an ant’s, his life a tidy catalog of boring, lukewarm events” laments another. A third bemoans that his existence is “as predictable as a cuckoo clock”. And another, taking stock, wonders “where had the last ten, fifteen, twenty-five years of my life gone?” (His conclusion: no idea.)
  • Fathers and sons: they disappoint, stress, and enrage each other--before the inevitable falling out.
  • Psychiatry: impotent, costly, wasteful. Don’t get your hopes up.
  • Toronto: actually, pretty much an okay place. (Who knew?)

In worrying over these tropes, Camenietzki’s prose commits regular violations of, or at least disregards, many of the conventions of basic narrative grammar, without replacing them with anything fresh or otherwise compelling. Most of the 15 stories turn on a signal event, a bright line--a death, a windfall, a chance encounter--which the protagonist masticates like a particularly obsessional dog with a particularly Freudian bone. There is little action or arc; everything is internal, laced with self-regard. His endings are flaccid and synoptic. (“Show, don’t tell”, his creative writing instructors must have told him, but that holiest/hoariest of truisms manifestly didn’t take.)

Moreover, he is bedeviled by regular little lapses in idiomatic English; his phraseology is consistently a bubble off plumb, which lends the proceedings an air of amateurishness. While it may be churlish to criticize him for these awkwardnesses in what is likely his third language (I don’t imagine my own work in Hebrew or Portuguese would be making any short lists right out of the gate), it’s certainly fair to blame his editors for laxity and/or impatience, for pulling this mix out of the oven before it had fully risen.

TAB feels like a sketchbook that needs paring down, consolidation, and some new material. Camenietzki doesn’t just write what he knows, but seemingly ONLY what he knows. So: psychologist, heal thyself. Then maybe the writer can come out and play.

Torontonian Paul Duder is something of an atheist himself. And thank God for that.






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