In Search of the El Dorado of the Soul: A Review of The Snail’s Castle by Mark Gordon

The Snail’s Castle by Mark Gordon is contemporary literary fiction at its finest. It introduces Jungian theories about psychological individuation, gives voice to the bourgeois aspirations of immigrant Jews and makes ping pong matches seem as riveting as NCAA March Madness college basketball games. There is a refreshing intimacy about the characters which draws the reader inexorably into the mix. At 296 pages The Snail’s Castle is a pleasure to read. This is a no-brainer: five stars.

Meet Jake Milson, a Jewish 4th year English major at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in the 1960’s. In the opening pages of the book he is in bed with his girlfriend Rebecca. It’s Christmas break and his frat brothers have gone, save for his buddy Bernie, who is mucking about the yard watching blue jays. During the pillow talk, he looks over her bare shoulder and gazes at the photograph of Oxford University on his wall. The Hollingshead scholarship for excellence in English Lit is his ticket to Oxford. Hollingshead, Oxford and Rebecca are a package deal: his “guiding trinity.”  He is a straight A student, so winning the scholarship should be a slam dunk.

When Jake trudges over to campus with Rebecca and Bernie to check the results of their first term grades, he is horrified to see the C minus grade next to his name for the Creative Criticism class taught by the “boy-in-the-Eaton-catalogue” goyish professor Gregory Percival. Initially, he chalks the grade up to Percival’s anti-Semitism. That’s not the real reason. But what is? In very short order Percival deals Jake another humiliation. By Chapter 5 the reader gets pulled into Jake’s rapacious campaign to get the A.

There is a Faust/Mephistophelean quality to the rivalry between Jake and Percival. Enter the eerie book written by French author Louis Palandreau entitled The Snail’s Castle. The story is Kafkaesque. It haunts. It makes you think. It makes you want to bury it in your sock drawer. Or, maybe, you store it inside your fine mahogany desk, awaiting the right moment to pull it out and share it with a kindred soul. It debuts in Chapter 3 when Percival offers it to Rebecca. In chapter 8 Jake receives a copy. Palandreau’s book is a game changer.

While the narrator is primarily focused on Jake’s journey toward self-actualization, he checks in from time to time with the council of elders, i.e., the Jewish parents. They remind the reader that the college experience of Jake and his friends are groundbreaking, which ties into the cultural paradigm shifts of the 1960’s. “Where are those dreamy books going to get you?” says Bernie’s father in response to Bernie’s news about receiving top grades in mathematics and philosophy. “Into a lot of trouble, that’s what. Be a mensch. Go out and earn a living like everyone else.” In another scene Jake calls Rebecca’s house from the telephone booth. Her father answers and Jake introduces himself.

“Oh, the university boy. The one who keeps my daughter out all night. The one who tells her to be a rebel, not to marry, forget about kids. Is this the one I’m talking to?”

“Yes, sir, but …”

You either love Jake or hate him.  But you have to love the narrator. He reveals much without being irritatingly intrusive. From him we learn that Jake is president of his hardscrabble Jewish fraternity MUK (Mu Upsilon Kappa). He is “Poppa Milson.” Without skipping a beat the narrator shows us how Jake borrows fraternity funds, cuz ya know, he’ll pay it back from his gambling earnings. He counts cards so everything is fine. Right-o! The narrator explains how Jake puts in 16 hours of study time daily, and how much of that time is devoted to studying the background history and psychological profile of the professor. And then there is the narrator’s blunt sense of humor. It is the kind of humor that makes you both cry “ew!” and laugh nervously. Take for example a scene in which Rebecca’s mother orders Jake to remove his boots.  He demurs because his socks are wet. She dismisses his protests, and hands him a clean pair of her husband’s socks.

Jake felt squeamish as he sat in Mrs. Sloan’s kitchen and pulled on a pair of Shlomo Sloan’s argyles. They were much too big for him. But that was not the problem. He kept picturing Shlomo’s big toe and what it might look like. Perhaps it was calloused yellow from running around the furniture store. Perhaps the skin had flaked off it. Perhaps microscopic bits of the skin clung to the fibres of the sock, despite a thorough washing by his wife.

Jake had lost his appetite for taiglach.

Oy veh! The narrator takes us “there” because that’s where Jake goes. But what the narrator also demonstrates is how uncomfortable Jake is about delving into the shadows of his soul. Jake cleaves to the Oxford-Hollingshead-Rebecca mantra. But what is that ephemera that guides his soul? Is that why Palandreau’s Snail Castle gives him nightmares?

Jake is not the only one who struggles mightily. The college years by definition are a period of great personal transformations that may or may not go so smoothly. All sorts of issues get an airing in this book including homosexuality, feminism, classism, racism, tribalism and the elusive search for self-expression and acceptance. This book is rich and full of life. Settle into the nooks and crannies of The Snail’s Castle. Look past the meshugaas and enjoy the wonderful spiritual adventure.