A Hidden King, a Talking Dog, and a City Overrun with Prophets

Dror Burstein, trans. Gabriel Levine, Muck

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416pp, $27.00, ISBN 9780374215835

reviewed by Steve Rineer

Dror Burstein’s novel Muck, translated into English by Gabriel Levine, is a re-envisioning of the biblical Book of Jeremiah filled with a strange and beautiful originality. Burstein draws a parallel between ancient and modern times, but through a ridiculous, slightly futuristic, and dystopian reconfiguration of present-day reality. Muck, like our world, has a Guinness Book of World Records, with one character hoping to enter its pantheon by filling a stadium with largest bowl of hummus in history – a feat that naturally turns out terribly; it has its own Nevada, and there is a Las Vegas there, too, both of them located in the middle of Egypt. This outlandish, but somehow plausible world, on the point of downfall, like the Kingdom of Judah in the Bible, manages to be at once disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny. 

Muck’s protagonist, Jeremiah, is a poet. Early in the book, he and his work are berated by the celebrated critic Broch, who beats the man with his own keyboard. At the same time, Jeremiah begins to hear voices, which he first ignores, then pays scant attention to. His friend and rival, the fellow writer, Mattaniah, enjoys the fruits of literary success, but he harbors a long-held secret: he is in line to become the King of Judah. Throughout his life, Mattaniah has struggled to erase his past and run from his birthright; he claims to be from Mesopotamia, and covers himself with tattoos. ‘He grew Assyrian curls and a groomed shovel beard, and he pumped iron in the gym in order to make himself match the walls reliefs in which the Assyrian kings were always depicted.’

Amid a hidden king, a talking dog, and a city overrun with prophets, Jeremiah has beautiful and profane visions, like strange pots endowed with voices that shoot across the sky. The book brings to mind the Pynchon of Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow with its dense texture of clever illusions, strange settings and supernatural beings and occurrences. There is something in it, too, of The Broom of the System, but the prose is quickly enough paced to sidestep the charge of excessive self-regard one might attribute to Wallace, and Burstein cares more for his characters than he does for making a show of his own wit. At the same time, surprising bursts of pathos give the book a weight and poignancy all the richer for their unexpectedness:

‘Jeremiah already knew that the Babylonians would soon batter down the city walls and set Jerusalem to the torch, and that the flames would consume the court of the guard and the palace, and the Temple, and the desiccated fruit trees in their enclosures, whose shadows his eyes had registered a short while before, on the way over from the Temple. But none of this concerned him, not at all, for he was deep in the pit, in this pit that would protect him and shield him the way a shell shields its pearl in the depths of the sea even as a whale glides overhead; even when Jeremiah died, this shell would still watch over him. For he knew he would soon die there, that the pit would be both his executioner and his grave, and that the foul-smelling muck in which he would drown would harden over him after the destruction of the city in the heat of the dry summer, after all the city’s sewage stopped oozing through the pipes, the way piss and shit in a corpse dry up and cease to flow.’

Jeremiah’s sister died when he was young. Though she is not often mentioned, her loss looms over his and his parents’ lives. In a peculiar episode emblematic of Burstein’s gift for understatement, for integrating memory into the present and the jarring into the natural, she nearly returns to life in the midst of a family visit. Broch has just delivered Jeremiah a beating, and he goes to visit his parents’ house, where his mother is cooking, to get ice for his head. His mother, Esther, is talking about taking a trip to Ninevah to visit the sites and ride a bus that turns off into a lake and transforms into a boat. While she gabs on, Jeremiah thinks back to a time when the two if them where in a butcher’s shop when he ‘was just a child, facing a sheep’s head that stared back at her . . . she told the butcher, that’s enough, I can’t be a part of this anymore; my daughter died; please understand, I’m sorry…’ This invocation of absence is more striking than any concrete memory of the girl might have been; for a moment, her spectre hovers about the room, then vanishes as Esther returns to trivia about her planned excursion: ‘The driver plays Assyrian songs, and you get little flags, and then, all of a sudden, the driver jerks the steering wheel...and lands the bus in the Khosr river.’

It is in these smaller moments that Muck reveals a deep vein of humanity: it is not just a parody of the present day drawn from a parody of history, but an examination of the universal past and present and the ways they impend on one another. Ghosts never leave us; the past is never past; its filaments penetrate the present, where they continue to throb audibly. Moments like the incursion of Jeremiah’s absent sister comprise invisible parentheses within which Burstein encapsulates time, the dead, and the march of history.

The warring kings who provide much of the book’s putative action change names, but are never the vital centre of the story. Their back-and-forth, their shifts of alliances, and the wherefores of their grievances are perhaps the most idle and forgettable parts of the story. Yet this, too, seems a remark about history, about the futility of attempting to preserve it in memory: in the end, it is preposterous, an incomprehensible succession, full of impossible-to-recollect dates and battles and the rises and falls of fortunes, kingdoms, and families. It is sanguine and unsettling, doubly so when seen as a long series of invariable events repeating themselves ad nauseam. This account of war and bloodshed is the dark underlining of the humour that is the book’s dominant note.

At first glance, Muck seems to be one thing – a maximalist satire in the hysterical realist mode – but looking closer, one finds, beneath the deceptive surface of Burstein’s elegant prose, his pyrotechnics, and his supple plotting, a delicate weave of love, compassion, and humanity that raise this creations from two-dimensional caricatures to fully realised, memorable human beings, layered and intense in a way few novels in recent years can rival. Muck is a remarkable work of art, and Gabriel Levine has rendered it in a beautiful English that does honour to the original text.
Steve Rineer is a construction worker who lives in Southern California.  He attended college at San Francisco State University and later earned a Masters in Literature at LMU.  His poems have been published in the newer yorker, Former People: a Journal of Bangs and Whimpers, and Transfer.  He is currently working on his first collection of poetry.