'Swell' is teeming with brilliant anxiety
“Adults love a shock while preschoolers crave the same old.”
Jill Eisenstadt’s “Swell” is, in short, this excerpt. This line from the middle of the story is complicated, like the novel, yet oddly intuitive, like its dialogue.
The characters of “Swell” include adults who lost their way and hormonal teens trying to find theirs, all the while searching for the moments in which they all seemed to have lost touch with each other. Their lives have become routine, and none of them remember why they ever desired this routine in the first place. They’re all waiting to be shocked.
Thirty years after her debut novel, “From Rockaway,” Eisenstadt continues to set her tales in Rockaway, Queens, yet she keeps her “From Rockaway” characters at arm’s length, this time focusing on a new family: The Glassmans.
Centered around a conversion party (a celebration of one’s conversion to Judaism), the book is eccentric, and the story often relies on dialogue to explore the unsaid. With characters who don’t know themselves, much less their peers anymore, Eisenstadt allows readers to try and figure it out alongside them.
Sue Glassman moves her family out of their Tribeca apartment and into a beachfront house upon agreeing to grant her father-in-law’s wish, that she converts to Judaism. She eats her fig newtons and tries to be a good mother, but she’s tired. She’s tired of disappointing her family, tired of trying to please others and tired of being disappointed by those who can’t do the same for her. Dan Glassman, Sue’s husband, treads around her, wondering when she lost her vivacity and whether it could ever come back. He’s perfect until he’s not, just like every other character in the novel. Superficially ideal, their lives are disheveled to the point that daily interactions seem forced. Then there’s June and Kenny and Jake and Sage and everyone else — everyone who doesn’t quite know how to talk to the people they love.
Tim, the Glassman’s neighbor, started his story in “From Rockaway.” He’s an ex-firefighter and ex-lifeguard, and he’s trying his damnedest to convince the world he’s still a hero. The novel opens with him witnessing Rose, the 90-year old woman who used to live in the Glassman’s house, shoot her own son and get away with it. Escaping her retirement home, she returns to the Rockaway house the weekend of Sue’s party, and Tim feels responsible for protecting the Glassman’s from her. It’s twisted, sticky and entirely confusing, but I think that’s exactly how Eisenstadt wants us to feel.
“Swell” is just a piece of the lives of a family whose story is never going to end. Dan Glassman isn’t the only husband who’s terrified he doesn’t like his wife anymore, and Tim isn’t the only reformed alcoholic who’s screaming at a crowd of people he can’t seem to make listen to him.
These characters are important, but they’re not really. The details of their lives don’t matter because they may as well be our own. Eisenstadt show them to us in their rawest state. They make so many mistakes. They’re human, and they’re us. The Glassman’s could be any family, and we’re just watching their lives swell as ours do the exact same.
The whole novel is swollen — from Sue’s pregnant belly, the ever-rising tides the Rockaway home is built upon and the overflow of people gathered for the big conversion party. Most of all, the novel is swollen from uncertainty. It sits comfortably in the most uncomfortable position: lodged between anticipation and consequence. Each character tiptoes around the others, confident in his or her own convictions yet wholeheartedly unsure of what to do with them.
Rising, roaring, riveting — “Swell” is a steady read, slowly escalating until the pages start to teem with the anxiety of every character’s life bursting through its seams. It’s puzzling at first, and the sheer number of factors involved in the Glassman’s realm muddle the plotline, yet it’s written exactly how a story this large should be. It can’t be clear because life swells in the most unclear of ways. Carefully, gradually, Eisenstadt creates a world that mimics our own, brimming with the uncertainties of simply living.