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Montreal Mystics: An interview with Sigal Samuel

Mysticism meets modern-day life in Sigal Samuel's debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End. A Montreal native, Samuel offers a first-hand description of the local demographic of the multicultural, multilingual Mile End neighbourhood, where the novel is set: it’s a mix of Hasidic Jews, readily identifiable by their black coats and fur hats, and trend-devouring, scruffy haired hipsters. Like the Mile End itself, Samuel’s novel plays host to characters of varying secular and spiritual beliefs.

The Mystics of Mile End explores the principles of Kabbalah, an old form of Jewish mysticism based on the mythical Tree of Life, through the trials and tribulations of a close-knit cast of characters. David, the Meyer family patriarch and a professor of Jewish mysticism, starts to think that God is speaking to him through his heart murmurs. His daughter, Samara, follows suit when she becomes preoccupied with ascending the Tree of Life; her younger brother, Lev, watches his sister’s frenzied attempts with concern. All the while, Mr. Katz, a Hasidic neighbour, is constructing a literal biblical Tree of Knowledge, made of toilet paper and dental floss, in his front yard; Mr. and Mrs. Glassman, another set of neighbours, are unfurling belief-inflected family problems of their own.

With wit and wisdom, Samuel narrates the transformation of the most secular and sceptical of minds in the pursuit of meaning, answering her novel’s central question: what does mysticism look like in a modern day urban setting?

Katrya Bolger: The Mystics of Mile End is set in a famous Montreal neighbourhood, described in the novel as "half-hipster, half-Hasidic Jew.” How does the setting, known for its mix of secular and spiritual society, help drive the plot of the novel?

Sigal Samuel: I think setting the novel in Mile End, when you have a neighbourhood that itself is almost a metaphor for this battle between religion and secularity, the battle between different cultures, different languages, different modes of living in the world, just by virtue of having your scene play out there, you’re almost imbuing them with these questions. It helps to have the supporting cast like the neighbours be in this milieu because you have a character like Mr. Katz who is sort of on the margins. He’s Hasidic but he’s an outsider to his own community. You also have a neighbour like Mr. Glassman who is a religious Jew but has some atypical things going on in his life. You have all these characters who are insiders and outsiders at the same time, and I think that’s true of the main characters, the Meyers, as well.

KB: The novel features four individual yet overlapping perspectives, moving from Lev to David to Samara and finally, to the Mile End itself. How did you manage navigating each character’s voice?

SS: It’s funny because I remember when I first decided to adopt this approach of having these multiple voices, one friend said to me, “Okay, I see how you might be able to capture Samara’s voice—you were once a female undergraduate student. I can see how you can maybe capture Lev’s voice since you were once an eleven-year-old kid. How are you going to capture a male middle age curmudgeonly professor’s voice? You’ve never inhabited that perspective.” And in fact, that was the easiest and most fun voice for me to do. That might be in part because I had a dad who was professor so I sort of had his voice in the back of my head at the time. I think that it’s really fun for a writer to inhabit multiple perspectives, especially when they’re really dissimilar from our own perspective, because they kind of let you see the world through different eyes.

KB: Why did you choose to tackle each perspective in the order that you did, starting with Lev’s voice as a child and graduating to the perspective or character of the Mile End itself in the last section?

SS: I like how you put that—graduating. It wasn’t at all an obvious choice for me but in retrospect, it’s kind of obvious. The decision to start with Lev, this eleven-year-old boy, that really came because the book later falls into some really complex intellectual territory. It delves into some mysticism, some really abstract ideas about religion and culture, and language and silence, and so opening the book with this young perspective—this perspective of a kid who doesn’t really know much about any of these topics—allows him to function as an audience proxy. He’s sort of like a way to bring the audience in slowly, dip your feet in the water and get a first glimpse of this world. And then, once you’ve seen it through his innocent eyes, you can see it through perspectives that get darker and darker, and we get further and further into this family’s obsession for climbing the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Because David and Samara’s sections are so obsessive, it starts to feel a little bit claustrophobic because you’re entering their world of madness. And I think it’s refreshing to have the last section completely out of it and kind of do this broader lens, this wider perspective shot, of the neighbourhood itself. That’s how you can take a breather from being inside one increasingly insane narrator’s head and see things from a bird’s eye view.

KB: Meaning is pursued in the context of Kabbalah, Judaism and the ascent up the Tree of Life. For those unfamiliar with these concepts, can you provide a quick summary of what they are and explain why Kabbalah is deployed as a framework for the characters’ quests?

SS: Basically, Kabbalah is something that would be attractive to you if you’re the sort of person who finds religion interesting but you’re not interested in following hundreds of minute commandments that are going to govern every aspect of your life. So if you’re more interested in the intellectual or metaphysical questions, like how did the universe come to be in the first place, what does it mean to be here on this Earth, the Tree of Life is a concept meant to answer the question: how did the world come to be? The basic idea is that divine light was funnelled down through ten qualities of God (like mercy, wisdom, beauty) that make up the Tree of Life. As light filtered down, it gave rise to the physical world as we know it. The Tree of Life is basically a blueprint for creation and the idea is that this is how we got from the design up there to the physical reality down here. If you want to get back to the divine, you have to climb that tree and go backwards. And so I think that’s a really productive idea for the right kind of mind, the right kind of person, and I can see how you might become obsessed with that if you have a certain temperament. When I was kid, my dad was a professor of Kabbalah, so I was familiar with the Tree of Life from a young age. I was always into categorizing my own friends on the Tree of Life so I thought it would be interesting to play out this question of what would happen if, you know, regular people like you and me in 2015, in a contemporary urban setting, actually tried to take this medieval religious idea and follow up on it.

KB: The novel’s characters increasingly seek out the presence of God in various signals. For example, David speculates that God speaks to him via his heart murmur. What were you trying to achieve in getting readers to perceive signals on both a literary and religious level, and blurring the line between the scientific and the real, and the somewhat unverifiable nature of religion? Was that deliberate?

SS: It was definitely deliberate. There’s mysticism but also science in this book, which might have to be something to do with the fact that I wanted to be a theoretical astrophysicist as a kid. So you have a character like David, this atheist patriarch of the family, who is becoming obsessed with the idea that his heart murmur is actually God speaking to him, which of course is an inconvenient idea if you don’t believe in God. But the funny thing is, he is always making fun of his son’s best friend, Alex, who is a diehard scientist. Alex is involved in studying extraterrestrial intelligence. David’s always mockingly saying to Alex, “Are you still waiting for ET to call?” But of course, he is also essentially waiting for the same thing: they’re both waiting to hear a big, booming voice from the sky—some kind of invisible, unverifiable voice. And for Alex, that would come from the stars, from some alien civilization. For David, this would come from some divine source. But they’re both essentially waiting to hear a message from some intelligent life beyond themselves. So the joke is kind of on David, because he’s making a joke of somebody who’s after the same thing as he is.

KB: There are a series of narrative moments that emphasize silence, as exemplified by Lev and Samara’s relationship. What function does silence serve in this novel? Why did it figure so heavily as a motif?

SS: I’m really interested in the relative power of language versus silence. It is a heavy motif in the traditional Jewish texts that I grew up with—so for example, one of the Talmudic quotes that appears in the book is this saying: A word is worth one coin, but silence is worth two. Another Rabbinic quote says, “There’s nothing better for the body than silence.” So I really wanted to explore and question those ideas in this book, because in this family, this fictional family, every character is sort of a lonely, too-intelligent, silent character. They all keep silent exactly when they should be speaking to each other. And I think that if you’re falling prey to a seductive idea, whether it’s religious, artistic or any sort of idea like that, there is this tendency to isolate yourself, to think that the best way to pursue this idea is in seclusion. And I sort of wanted to ask this question of what is the value of doing these kind of holy quests or missions if it’s going to mean leaving behind or shutting out everyone who loves you.

KB: Throughout the novel, the reader re-visits the character Mr. Katz, a Hasidic Jew, who attempts to recreate a makeshift biblical Tree of Knowledge with random household items. This seemed to point to a major theme in the book about the state of modern day mysticism. How did you see the role of Mr. Katz in bringing out this theme?

SS: Mr. Katz is building this mystical tree on his front lawn out of toilet paper rolls and dental floss and plucked leaves that he’s taken from real trees and painted green. And it’s sort of absurd, right? It’s a contemporary art installation gone awry. Going back to the initial question that I wanted to explore in this book—what would it look like if contemporary urban people tried to climb the tree of life, tried to explore mysticism—this is an answer to that question taken to absurd lengths. Here is one absurd articulation of what that might look like, it might look like this somewhat unhinged Hasidic man trying to very physically, literally re-create this mystical Tree of Life out of trash. And I think he is one emblem of what could happen if you tried to do this. Other characters in the book like Samara and David offer more intellectualized answers as to what it might look like. And I think that this question is one that might appear in other modern novels—for example, in JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, the characters are basically trying to take hold of a mystical idea and make it real in their lives in a contemporary setting. There, you have these very intellectual, abstract responses to what that would look like. In my book, I wanted to have some of that, but also, a huge range of what that might look like.

KB: What projects are you working on now?

SS: There are two things that I’m currently working on that are decently different from one another. One of them is a children’s book called Infinity Hotel which is about a young boy named Zeno who goes to a hotel and discovers that it has an infinite number of rooms. It’s designed to challenge our intuitions about infinity and it’s based on a real paradox in math, which goes back to the nerdy mathematician of my young years, I guess. And the other thing that I’m thinking about is setting a novel partly in India, which is actually where my grandmother is from and where I recently visited on a reporting trip. So I’m toying with setting a book there because ironically, after writing The Mystics of Mile End, I discovered that an ancestor of mine was a famous Kabbalist in Mumbai. So that’s sort of percolating in my mind and hopefully, I can follow up on that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

#Canlit disclosure: Maisonneuve Associate Editor Andrea Bennett is a former school colleague of Sigal Samuel’s. 

Katrya Bolger is a writer and recent graduate from McGill University. Her work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, Laval Families Magazine, Hysteria Feminist periodical and more. She is a former Maisonneuve intern and a Montreal Press Club volunteer.