The most lasting stories are the ones that transcend circumstance–geography, culture, even linguistic and temporal idioms. An amazing, mind-blowing story about a refrigerator salesman will read as an amazing, mind-blowing story about a refrigerator salesman even in cultures that have no refrigerators, salesmen, or an economic system. Granted, some of the details may be hard to follow (as they are in any instance; I just read a book about Muslim prayer not knowing what salaatul-Ishaa was [it’s the time of the morning when it’s okay to start praying])–but the emotions should ring true, on some level at least, no matter the context that they’re presented in.
Gidon Rothstein’s new book, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel, attempts to do just that. It’s not that he’s stripping Biblical stories of their context and time period. Instead, he’s rewriting those stories in contemporary, or contemporized, versions–creating the literary equivalent of cover songs, if you will.
Its subtitle, Untold Tales of the Prophets, is telling, if not entirely accurate (stories hail from the Torah and other early writings, including Greek histories). What Rothstein is doing is creating simple and purposeful anachronisms: colloquial English being spoken by Israeli prophets and handmaidens; a family dinner amidst the tumult of the Israelites fleeing their slavery in Egypt. The conceit is a clever one, and the characters that Rothstein selects for his portrayals are well-planned and thoughtful. His stories have overtures of clichÃ©. The interaction between parents and children is nearly always endearing, lecturing (“You should do this”) or disbelieving (“You did this?”), and the dialogue between a man about to die and his loving family, sincere though it may be, is stiff and at times, though infrequently, painful to read.
What Cassandra lacks in style, it more than compensates for in mood. The first story, “You Can’t Change Human Nature,” opens with a family dinner. “Experts claimed family dinners brought everyone closer,” it begins. “They said all the fighting and commotion would pay off in the unbreakable fellowship forged among those who had shared that table.”