Cafeteria by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1968
The magic trick:
Sprinkling in important details about possible untold backstories and characteristics that send the reader in all kinds of different possible interpretive directions
Maybe I’m simply an amateur, but this story seems to me to fly out in all kinds of directions at once. You could identify any number of themes and build cases for all kinds of different interpretations. And that’s not a criticism. It’s very much to Singer’s credit. It’s remarkable, really.
The key is the way he drops hints left and right about all sorts of different possible characteristics, backstories and meanings. For instance, early on the narrator announces that “Women with whom I’ve had affairs live on side streets.” It’s nothing much. He’s trying to establish to the reader what his status is in this city, in this life. But I think it opens up a whole new way to take in the story. One imagines the narrator has a resume of failed relationships and broken hearts. Here he meets Esther. He is taken with her appearance, her youth and her admiration of his writing. It is not hard to imagine many of these previous affairs beginning the same way. She seeks something greater than mere romantic dalliance. She seeks idealized love.
So while the story spins off into many different things – the past, the Holocaust, perception, reality, New York City, the immigrant experience, the collective Jewish post-war experience – it has at its core a familiar Singer theme: selfishness and emotional distance confounding a potential love connection. All of those things build from what could be considered tossed-off sentences and minor details. It’s an amazing tapestry. And that’s quite a trick on Singer’s part.
I’m writing a novel, a story, an article. I have to lecture today or tomorrow. My datebook is crowded with all kinds of appointments for weeks and months in advance. It can happen that an hour after I leave the cafeteria I am on a train to Chicago or flying to California. But meanwhile we converse in the mother language and I hear of intrigues and pettiness about which, from a moral point of view, it would be better not to be informed.
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Singer is always a treat. I love ethnic atmosphere. It’s like Frank mccourt and his longing for a soft boiled egg with just a dab of butter and pinch of salt. It’s the little things.