The debut by Israeli writer Gilad Elbom is a seemingly straightforward comic novel, full of fashionable markers of a first time novelist such as a self-conscious first person narrator whose story begs to seen as the writer's autobiography. Don't be fooled.
Confessions of sexual depravity and obsessions with heavy metal music pepper the story, as do light-hearted meditations on structural linguistics, but Scream Queens of the Dead Sea is a complex exploration into a culture saturated by excessive militarism.
Elbom opens Scream Queens by explaining that he is not writing in his first language, Hebrew, even though it was "good enough for God". He writes in English-which is crucially the language of the books motifs: the language of Black Sabbath and porn-queens, and crucially Robinson Crusoe. By the end of the book, English is seen as the language of escapism, of deceptive promises. In it, you are free to pursue happiness, but only pursue it.
Part of the charm of the book is the way it reads at first like fluff, full of ingenious but silly "who's on first" dialogue. It's a sort of Israeli-gone-wild story of coming-to-age story. Elbom was a soldier in the Israeli army and later as a nurse in a mental hospital in Jerusalem, and he uses these experiences as the backdrop to his obsessive meditation on Satanic poetry, porno stars and eccentric psycho ward patients, one of whom is a murderer that believes in nothing, especially nihilism.
Paradoxes like these leave the reader in a state of delighted distraction. The reader's defenses will be down when Elbom hits with his searing critique. For example, he argues that the loud colors and over-the-top outfits of porn stars serve the same purpose as soldier's uniforms: to erase identity, to facilitate the person's use as an anonymous object.
There's much more to Scream Queens of the Dead Sea than the Israel-as-madhouse metaphor. Like Gilbert Sorrentino and John Barth, Elbom deploys a little metafiction here, a little postmodern wordplay to send the story reeling into surprising directions. But it glides rather lightly by, in part because of the largely passive narrator. Elbom uses his Hamlet-like inactivity, this narrative "flaw" to produce something unexpected. The narrator's meditating on the mental problems of his wards negates their frantic outbursts; turn them into caricatures not of Elbom's own personal problems, but of Israel's problems. The narrator's own escapist tendencies are simply the product of too much entertainment.
What distinguishes Elbom's take is that he links the problem to the Israeli dependence on the US. It is not enough for an Israeli dissident simply to move to the US. The move would be nothing more than exchanging his Israeli identity for an American one and yet staying in Israel means choosing either apartheid or escapism of pop culture. This is comically depicted in the climax when the other characters effectively banish the narrator to America because they believe he'll enjoy being close to the origins of heavy metal music. But the music of heavy metal with its perverse but biblical allusions is like a photographic negative of the "authentic" Jewish identity.