Strange Piece of Paradise

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

During the winter of 1938, more than a decade before he would hit his stride as a writer, the novelist, poet, and playwright Samuel Beckett was stabbed and left for dead on a Paris street by a casual acquaintance; doctors later determined that he owed his survival only to the thickness of his secondhand overcoat. In those days, French law provided for a victim to confront his or her assailant in the courtroom, and Beckett soon found himself in the odd position of sitting next to the man, making small talk while they waited for their case to be called. In time, Beckett would ask the man why he did it, only to be told that he simply did not know: “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur.” To a number of Beckett’s biographers and critics, that incident may well have launched the writer on the endless questioning that perplexes his readers and spectators to the present day, even as Beckett himself is said to have recalled the conversation as if he found it funny.

In truth, there is nothing funny about attempted murder, even as it remains almost unique among crimes in that it is difficult to prove and even more difficult to prosecute. In that respect, the young Beckett was lucky: There were witnesses and no doubt as to the identity of the perpetrator, but the question of motive, even in the case of an apparent mugging, was destined to remain a mystery that may have inspired Beckett’s best, if most unsettling, writings.

Along with the question of motive, the conundrum of attempted murder lies at the center of Strange Piece of Paradise, a text no less unsettling than Beckett’s projective fictions. On June 22, 1977, the author and her traveling companion were savagely attacked at their campsite by someone who drove over their pup tent as they slept and then dismounted from his vehicle, repeatedly striking both women with a strange hybrid weapon variously described as a hatchet and an axe. Incredibly, both Jentz and the woman she identifies as “Shayna Weiss” would survive, but only Jentz would retain any memory of the incident.

Even so, fifteen years would pass before Jentz, emerging from a post-traumatic state of denial, would develop a compulsion to hunt down and identify her would-be killer. Until then, a particular memory had lodged in her consciousness, as if frozen in time:The sound of screeching tires woke me. It was near midnight, and we had just gone to sleep. A stranger deliberately drove over our tent, then attacked us both with an axe. I saw his torso. He was a meticulous cowboy who looked like he had stepped off a movie set.

At the time of the attack, Terri Jentz was several weeks shy of her twentieth birthday, midway through her projected four years at Yale University, as was her friend identified as Shayna Weiss. Their plan was to ride their bicycles across the United States, west to east, along the BikeCentennial Trans-America Trail, a route mapped out the previous year in honor of the United States’ bicentennial. Just seven days into the trip, their ride was cut short by the random act of violence described above. Both women were more than a thousand miles from their homes, Jentz’s near Chicago and Weiss’s near Boston, yet within days both sets of parents were on hand to witness their daughters’ recovery. By a strange turn of fate, both women’s fathersone a businessman, the other an academicwere being sent to Moscow for several months in connection with their jobs. In 1977, the Cold War was near its height and Moscow a less than welcoming place for two young Americans in the process of recovery.

There, Jentz becomes more and more aware of an estrangement between the two young women that may well have begun in the hours immediately preceding the attack, now rendered irreversible by Weiss’s persistent amnesia. Not only does she not remember the attack, she has no desire to hear about it, least of all from Jentz, who feels compelled to share the experience. Tired of being badgered, Weiss repeatedly encourages Jentz to seek counseling. In time Jentz will do so, only to find disappointment bordering on disgust. Her male therapist, whom she compares to a weak doctor in an Anton Chekhov play, falls far short of even sharing her pain when he breaks down in tears at the merest hint of empathy. Thereafter, Jentz concludes, she will have to perform the healing process herself, even if it takes more than a decade to set the process in motion.

At the end of fifteen years of bravado and denial, during which she worked to find her voice as a writer, Jentz finds that her “shadow self,” shielded by denial, has emerged from the shadows angry and resentful, ready to take on the search for her would-be killer. Resolutely,...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Elle 21, no. 9 (May, 2006): 126.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 6 (March 15, 2006): 276.

Library Journal 131, no. 9 (May 15, 2006): 113-114.

Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2006, p. R3.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (May 14, 2006): 1-7.

Newsday, May 21, 2006, p. C31.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 9 (February 27, 2006): 44-45.