By Myla Goldberg
Doubleday, 275 pp.
If you are among the many who suffered through one as a child, a spelling bee is probably the last place you would go to find God. The very act of spelling--words remorselessly stripped of their meaning and broken into the arbitrary symbol-strings of the English alphabet--seems the ultimate triumph of rote memorization, of knowledge stripped of intuition and comprehension. But to Eliza Naumann, 11-year-old protagonist of Myla Goldberg's new novel, "Bee Season," spelling is a religious experience. As she studies the perverse ways in which letters combine and recombine, she finds herself delving ever deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos, not least of which is the riddle of her own family.
Eliza's is only one of the many-fold paths to understanding pursued in the Naumann household. Eliza's father Saul steeps himself in the lore of Jewish mysticism, hoping that scholarship and study will point the way to a form of transcendence more authentic than his youthful LSD trips. So busy is he with his books that he fails to notice that he is living in a family of natural-born mystics. His wife, Miriam, on the surface a respectable, buttoned-down lawyer, leads a secret life shop-lifting mundane consumer tchotchkes, which she arranges into a kaleidoscopic art installation, a vision of perfect order, ever-changing yet all-encompassing. Eliza's brother Aaron, a shy, nerdy teenager, abandons the synagogue for the local Krishna Consciousness temple, where marathon bouts of chanting and dancing bring him out of his shell into the warm glow of communal belonging.
There there's Eliza. For her, spelling isn't drudgery, it's a kind of rapture: She simply closes her eyes and the letters appear unbidden, magically lining up in the dictionary-sanctioned order. Hebrew letters have a prominent symbolic role in Judaism, and Eliza's triumph in the metropolitan spelling bee alerts Saul to the fact that he has a mystic prodigy on his hands. Desperate for her father's attention, Eliza lets him guide her through her spelling bee training, and then follows him into the teachings of the medieval Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia, who believed that the study of letters and their combinations was the surest path to the divine. Under Saul's tutelage, Eliza learned Abulafia's arcane techniques of letter permutation. As her confidence grows, she starts to chafe at her father's plodding pace and sets her sights on the highest level of Abulafian revelation: the spelling out of God's name.
With Saul and Eliza walling themselves off in the study, Aaron sneaking off to the Krishna temple, and Miriam sinking deeper into a life of crime, the Naumann family starts to disintegrate under the stress of their individual quests for enlightenment. "Bee Season" is a poetically evocative description of mystical states of mind, but it is also an engaging meditation on the sometimes contradictory nature of mysticism, and its relationship to the everyday life of a family. The foal of the mystic is on the one hand to achieve an unmediated personal communion with the divine, but on the other to lose herself in the oceanic feel of infinite connection. Mystical practice seeks to clear the mind of all the petty distractions of worldly life, yet it does so by boiling down the ineffable processes of cosmic order into a small, radically simplified, even banal set of symbolic objects, words, and rituals. Mysticism seems an intensely private phenomenon, yet in one way or another mystical symbolism is the glue that holds together every community of faith. Eliza's family deals with similar tensions, mediating uneasily the conflicting demands of privacy and community, struggling to preserve a sense of common origins and destiny out of the chaos of individual ambitions and day-to-day crises.
For Eliza, spelling becomes a metaphorical template on which she begins to map out these complexities. Like words composed from an alphabet, members of a family are novel rearrangements of a common fund of traits, memories and possibilities. Thus, Miriam's compulsive thievery is but an intense form of Saul's search for Tikkun Olam,a healing restoration of the world, while Aaron's arguments with Saul over the Hare Krishnas recapitulate, in saffron robes, an earlier conflict between Saul and his own stolidly assimilationist father. Through her improbable love affair with spelling, Eliza learns that we can see parts of ourselves in others the way we se the same letters in very different words, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes falling silent, sometimes crying out in a strange and discordant voice.