The Extra

  • Review
By – June 29, 2016

In The Extra, award-win­ning Israeli nov­el­ist A. B. Yehoshua mov­ing­ly por­trays a woman’s strug­gle for inde­pen­dence amid famil­ial expec­ta­tions and oblig­a­tions. Torn from her idyl­lic, sec­u­lar life as a harpist in the Nether­lands, Noga is sum­moned to Jerusalem to main­tain her child­hood home. There she clash­es with her broth­er about pres­sur­ing their moth­er into assist­ed liv­ing. While in Israel, Noga also reflects on grow­ing up sur­round­ed by an insu­lar Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty, and on her con­ver­sa­tions with her neigh­bors about her more sec­u­lar prac­tices. Par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing is see­ing the man who divorced her when she refused to have chil­dren — and who, though remar­ried, still loves her, and is still bit­ter about her deci­sion. As she attempts to recon­nect with her fam­i­ly and past while retain­ing her inde­pen­dence, Noga begins to ques­tion her pre­vi­ous deci­sions and revis­it her plans for the future,.

Through­out the nov­el, Yehoshua explores the rela­tion­ship between per­son­al agency and famil­ial oblig­a­tions. Noga’s brother’s exten­sive involve­ment in her life in Israel, includ­ing arrang­ing her trip, deter­min­ing its length, and pro­vid­ing for her a job as a movie and tele­vi­sion extra, leaves Noga strug­gling to retain a sense of inde­pen­dence. While her dis­com­fort is ame­lio­rat­ed some­what by small changes that she makes to the apart­ment in Jerusalem, she only tru­ly feels in con­trol after she speaks to her for­mer hus­band about their past and regains con­fi­dence in her pre­vi­ous deci­sions — par­tic­u­lar­ly her deci­sion not to have chil­dren, even though it meant los­ing the man she loved. As Noga’s auton­o­my increas­es, her rela­tion­ships with her fam­i­ly strength­en. Yehoshua indi­cates that the con­cep­tion of famil­ial duty as a hin­drance to per­son­al auton­o­my is in fact mis­guid­ed, and that stronger and health­i­er rela­tion­ships with loved ones is enhanced by a strong sense of self and con­fi­dence in one’s decisions.

These themes of inde­pen­dence and rela­tion­ships are tied togeth­er by the con­cept of per­for­mance. This is epit­o­mized by the idea of peo­ple act­ing as per­form­ers, who must both serve as the cen­tral char­ac­ters of their own nar­ra­tives and as extras” in each other’s lives. Yehoshua’s style of short, semi-inde­pen­dent and very loose­ly orga­nized chap­ters effec­tive­ly con­veys this mes­sage by cre­at­ing a sense of Noga’s life as a series of scenes, leav­ing the read­er feel­ing like an audi­ence. Inter­spersed through­out the sto­ry are Noga’s mus­ings on the sound of her music and its role — and hers — in the orches­tra, like inter­ludes or the back­ground of a show. As Noga rec­og­nizes at the end of the nov­el when she wants per­form a spe­cif­ic musi­cal piece that sym­bol­i­cal­ly con­nects her to her moth­er, some­times it is not easy to sep­a­rate real­i­ty from artis­tic presentations.

Read­ers who enjoy delv­ing into the inter­sec­tions of art and lit­er­a­ture, or who are inter­est­ed in the dif­fi­cul­ties of con­trol­ling one’s tra­jec­to­ry while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly remain­ing respon­sive to friends and fam­i­ly, will appre­ci­ate the ideas put forth in Yehoshua’s lat­est piece. While some may be less gripped by the novel’s loose struc­ture and Noga’s rather assum­ing con­jec­tures about the moti­va­tions and natures of those around her, oth­ers may find insights about self-aware­ness and human rela­tion­ships in Noga’s expe­ri­ences as a lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive extra.

Edyt Dick­stein is a grad­u­ate of the Joseph Kush­n­er Hebrew Acad­e­my in Liv­ingston, NJ and is study­ing at Har­vard University.

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