“There’s inevitably something terribly contrived about the standard novel,” bemoaned W.G. Sebald.
“You can always feel the wheels grinding and going on.”
What a treat it is, then, for the inquisitive reader to meet an experimental novel. So it is with great anticipation that the intrepid reader approaches Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, an inventively constructed novel, printed inversely from each side; the reader must literally turn the book over and start again from the other side to complete the story.
Ostensibly, The Canvas is a mystery told from the alternating perspectives of Jan Wechsler and Amnon Zichroni, whose tale—or tales—meet in the middle, structurally and thematically.
Wechsler’s story unfolds from one end of the book. In a suitcase mysteriously left at his doorstep he uncovers, among other items, Masquerades, a book written by a “Jan Wechsler.” Masquerades, an arousing exposé, questions the account of Minsky, a memoirist who gained fame writing about his family’s struggles during the Holocaust. Is the author of Masquerades the same Wechsler, or is there an author with the same name? As Wechsler dives into the mystery, his memory and notions of self-identity unravel.
From the other side of the book comes Zichroni’s story. Zichroni is a devout, Orthodox Jew and a psychiatrist with the divine gift of being able to read other people’s memories. His talents come into question with one patient, Minsky. The very same Minsky ripped apart by “Jan Wechsler’s” Masquerades. Zichroni wonders if he may be to blame for Minsky’s downfall.
In the middle, the narratives meet, but the connections between Zichroni and Wechsler remain blurry. From Zichroni:
I didn’t comprehend just how much the tide of malice had taken on a life of its own, and how irrational it had become, until I found myself in the media’s crosshairs. When they began to claim that I had treated Minsky and invented the memories in his book for him and with him, I grasped once and for all that this whole matter was not, as everyone vociferously claimed, about documenting the truth.
. . . In all of this there was a hero, who was more than happy to bask in his success, and in general recognition that he deserved the credit for bringing Minsky to justice. That was Jan Wechsler, who had gotten the witch-hunt rolling.
As a reviewer, I’ll go no further with the connections between Wechsler, Zichroni, and Minsky. More links are revealed throughout both accounts, but discussing them risks spoiling the suspense. Much of The Canvas is precisely about wending one’s own way through the stories and drawing conclusions accordingly.
Stein’s novel is an invitation to the reader to partake in a particularly interactive experience. A note at the beginning of both stories notifies the reader: “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel.” The main paths of Wechsler’s and Zichroni’s stories are clear enough. The branching and intertwining side-stories, however, are a challenge to parse.
“You can follow the narrative on one side until you get to the middle of the book, then flip it over and continue reading from the beginning of the other side,” suggests the author’s note. Or, “to follow one of the side-trails, turn the book over after each chapter, and continue reading where you left off before.”
I chose the latter strategy, beginning with Zichroni Chapter One, then Wechsler Chapter Two; Zichroni Three, and Wechsler Four (and so on). When I reached the middle of the book I read the alternate chapters: Wechsler One, Zichroni Two, etc., until again I reached the middle and thus, the conclusion.
The Canvas is a mystery, but not in the whodunit tradition. There is a crime, or a suggestion of a crime, at the center of the story, but one is less concerned about who is at fault and more engaged in discovering just how the stories of Wechsler and Zichroni interweave. The mystery is only the vehicle by which Stein delivers a Kafkaesque tale that constantly toys with memory, truth, and identity. Zichroni wonders: “What . . . is the value of a truth that kills, compared to a truth that allows a person to live?” Wechsler, too, struggles for a grip on reality: “I’m a liar, or I’m completely insane. What else am I supposed to think?” Indeed, what is the reader to think?
Wechsler’s tale is more interesting than Zichroni’s because Zichroni’s cultural and personal experiences can sometimes feel remote. For example, reconciling his religious practice and a medical treatment was “as great a paradox as the one Elisha ben Avuya is said to have once faced.” It is an esoteric reference, in character for Zichroni but demanding of the casual reader. A glossary of Ashkenazi, Yiddish, and Hebrew words and Jewish legal terms is included for those not familiar with Zichroni’s culture, but too often the words I looked up were not included. The omissions may be frustrating for some readers.
That’s not to say half of The Canvas is inaccessible. The major plot lines are easily picked up in Zichroni’s narrative without needing deep knowledge of Orthodox Jewish culture. And literary flourishes do surface occasionally. Take, for example, this look into the psyche of a young Zichroni:
Was there anything about me that shimmered? There was no trace of brilliant cut to be found. I had no color. I felt like a magnifying glass, nothing more than a simple convex piece of glass over the tightly printed lines of a Talmud page.
Much of the memorable text, however, teases the mystery and heightens the mental fragility of the two main characters. “What had I done when, and why?” Wechsler asks himself. “The way things are, I’ll never have any certainty or find out the truth, and from now on, I’ll have to live day in, day out with the fear that maybe I’m a murderer, and my guilt just hasn’t been uncovered yet.”
What happened between Wechsler and Zichroni? Each chapter tantalizes with suggestive and scattered clues. But the mystery remains stubborn, in part because its resolution hides behind a trick of perspective.