Review: The Tel Aviv Dossier by Lavie Tidhar and Nir Yaniv

The Tel Aviv Dossier
The Tel Aviv Dossier

The Tel Aviv Dossier
Lavie Tidhar and Nir Yaniv
ChiZine Publications, 2009

Yes, another book from the folks at ChiZine though admittedly this one was a bit harder to find since there seem to be few physical copies left floating around.  It looks like Amazon Canada (linked to on the image to the left) has some left which is where I got mine.  I was sold on this book courtesy of the excellent description from ChiZine:

Through a city torn apart by a violence they cannot comprehend, three disparate people—a documentary film-maker, a yeshiva student, and a psychotic fireman—must try to survive, and try to find meaning: even if it means being lost themselves. As Tel Aviv is consumed, a strange mountain rises at the heart of the city, and shows the outline of what may be another, alien world beyond. Can there be redemption there? Can the fevered rumours of a coming messiah be true?

As the city loses contact with the outside world and closes in on itself, as the few surviving children play and scavenge in the ruins, can innocence survive, and is it possible for hope to spring amid such chaos?

A potent mixture of biblical allusions, Lovecraftian echoes, and contemporary culture, The Tel Aviv Dossier is part supernatural thriller, part meditation on the nature of belief—an original and involving novel painted on a vast canvas in which, beneath the despair, humour is never absent.

Experience the last days of Tel Aviv…

Of course throw “lovecraftian” on just about anything and you’ll probably manage to sell me; maybe I’m a bit of a sucker that way. But With elements of Lovecraft thrown in with a dash of the Apocalypse I was sold pretty easily.  The Tel Aviv Dossier is a kitchen sink kind of novel that tries to do just about anything and everything.  While enjoyable it was something of a mixed bag in terms of how it succeeded with those elements and the ending in particular left me a bit cold.

I should perhaps comment by saying that I’m not Jewish.  Now that doesn’t mean I wasn’t capable of enjoying the novel but I get the impression that it may have seriously impacted my understanding of a lot of what was going on and I suspect may have lessened the impact of some of the crazy things that occur over the course of the novel.  Of course I can’t be certain of that.  At the very least The Tel Aviv Dossier, aside from all the supernatural elements going, managed convey the sense of being dropped headlong into a cultural setting similar to my own yet also distinctly different.

Despite the description placing the three characters in a certain position of prominence I didn’t find The Tel Aviv Dossier to be a character driven novel.  There is a patchwork quality to the novel and a distinct focus on events and sensation on a broader scale rather then a character to character basis.  Indeed the open half of the novel jumps back and forth between various narratives, typically in the first person perspective and occasionally as transcripts of chat conversations, records, or letters of the destruction of Tel Aviv as it happens.  In many cases the abrupt ending of the of the narratives, typically with the narrator’s death, combined with the documentary approach to the structure lends a certain amount of confusion to proceedings and I think it took me a couple of pages to settle on the notion that I was reading a compiled document put together after the events being described.  Of course this does nothing to ease the distinct impossibility of some the narratives but when combined in with a talking head, seemingly sentient tornadoes and the sudden appearance of a mountain in the middle of the city narration by dead people ends up being one of the less implausible things that happens.  The novel doesn’t really stay in the same place for too long in this section.  Though the narrative typically comes back around to the three characters mentioned in the description: the film-maker, the yeshiva student, and the fireman you never spend enough time with them to get a very basic feel for them.

The early sections with the yeshiva student Daniel are interesting and it certainly gives some of earliest sensation of some sort of “cosmic horror:”

Long before that moment on the sidewalk, with the city torn apart before his eyes, Daniel had dreams in which nameless horrors were plotting to seep through and suffuse the waking world. They were shapeless, formless things. They were not evil, nor were they good—they simply did not fit into a Jewish moral framework, or even a generic human one.

Unfortunately, while similar notions are repeated elsewhere in the novel it is tone and idea that is never really carried through to a concrete conclusion (at least as far as I can tell) and one that typically gives way to a greater attention towards the chaos and disaster of Tel Aviv’s destruction.  The idea itself is, I suspect, a vessel used to explore the weakened faith of the characters an idea overtly stated by Daniel a little later:

He had had doubts; his faith was like a building with weak foundations; it needed constant repair. There were those in the yeshiva who spoke with utmost certainty of the messiah’s return.  Such a return would herald a new era: no more wars, and peace alone would reign; all Jews would keep the mitzvahs, the commandments of God, and all the goyim  would recognise and know the Jewish God.  And others still spoke of the End Days, and the time the dead would rise: but it would only be the dead of the Jews, and a few selected goyim, perhaps.

And an idea explored further in the second half of the novel as the disparate and desperate denizens of Tel Aviv cluster around various core beliefs reforming their faith around the new and terrible landscape of the transformed city.  It is an interesting discussion but one that I think might have been better served had we been able to follow a more personal journey for a specific character since the Daniel sections are brief and disappear after the first half of the novel.

The ending of novel definitely ties into this discussion of faith but it takes such a stark left turn from the earlier tone of the novel that it certainly jarred me out of the setting.  That isn’t to say that the sense of horror so pervasive through the rest of the novel isn’t carried through in the conclusion but it takes on such a distinct shift in tone in the climax that it almost felt a different book entirely.  It almost felt like, in the last 25 pages or so, the novel suddenly decided to take itself seriously and much of humor that had cropped up in the novel fell by the wayside.  In the end I enjoyed The Tel Aviv Dossier.  It is a distinctly different type of book then what I’m normally used to reading.  I don’t think I can throw a whole-hearted recommendation behind it though, especially if you’re partial to getting a physical copy and live in the states since it’ll be difficult to get one.  The book is readily available in electronic form however so if you’re curious head on over to the ChiZine product page for some sample chapters (and sample audio); it is available as an e-book through Horror Mall.

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