A Song of Ilan
By Jacob Paul
Jaded Ibis Press, April 2015
Few writers are as open to formal experimentation as Jacob Paul is in his newest novel, A Song of Ilan. Paul’s first novel, Sarah/Sara, which explores many of the issues that dictate the thoughtful logic of Ilan’s pages, was named one of 2010’s five best fiction debuts by Poets & Writers. His other work has appeared in a slew of journals and magazines, including The Rumpus, Fiction Writers Review, Massachusetts Review, and USA Today’s Weekend Magazine.
It is clear early in the novel that certain aspects of the author’s biography inform Ilan. The titular character’s career bears some resemblance to Paul’s, which includes a stint as a product manager at OppenheimerFunds. Paul was in the second tower on September 11 and narrowly escaped its collapse. This experience and his education at a “black hat yeshiva” as an adolescent have had lasting effects on his work, which often deals with the reverberations of past trauma and the difficulties of living a life in Judaism.
A Song of Ilan is in three parts, which tell interwoven narratives. While an Israeli soldier, Ilan shot and killed a would-be suicide bomber in a café. The memory of this event, which centers on the spectacle of the female bomber’s body before and after death, haunts him throughout the novel. He feels the gamut of contradictory post-traumatic emotions, including guilt, pride, shame, and despair.
The novel’s first part follows Ilan and his wife Yedit as they climb a small cliff named, appropriately, Apoplexy. “But knowing what to call the collection of minute ledges and tiny cracks that constitute a route up this section of the cliff,” the narrator observes, “doesn’t make Ilan feel much better about leaving the ground.” With impressive skill, Paul explodes the climb into an expansive psychological drama. As anxiety and memory threaten to derail the experienced climber, the reader is jaunted back and forth through his life to date, including his military service, his marriage to Yedit, his urges of infidelity and the deep, lifelong argument that comprises his faith.
The final section witnesses Ilan’s transformation into a would-be suicide bomber who travels the New York City subway system with his finger on the proverbial trigger. The novel’s prose does a remarkable job of conveying the obsessive self-criticism and anguish of its protagonist. When Ilan is finally indistinguishable from the suicide bomber he killed years ago, the reader realizes that Paul has managed to illustrate the genesis of the terrorist impulse. For Ilan, its roots lie in an overpowering need for God and an inability to live in the rigid confines of orthodoxy.
Paul’s prose is skillful, almost ornate, and obsessed with the truth of the modern experience of religion. A Song of Ilan is a remarkable exploration of issues and experiences that are often discounted or outright ignored in American writing today.