I began my Contemporary Novel course this year with “Writing American Fiction,” the 1960 essay by Philip Roth that argued that “the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality.” Watching the presidential debates on TV, Roth wrote of Richard Nixon, “Perhaps as a satiric literary creation, he might have seemed ‘believable,’ but I found...my mind balked at taking him in. Whatever else the television debates produced in me, I should point out, as a literary curiosity, they also produced professional envy.” My students nodded in recognition. “And now we have Trump!” they said, as if Roth might have written the same essay today. I was less certain. I told them that in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, Roth had said, “Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetuating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness,” and I wondered -- what if one of my students had written it last year, a piece of fiction that had described, exactly as it unfolded, the Trump campaign from the announcement of his candidacy to the Iowa primary, how would that have been received? Would I have read it with “professional envy?” Of the imaginary Reagan novel, Roth said, that writer “would have succeeded where Orwell failed, he would have seen that the grotesque to be visited on the English-speaking world would not be an extension of the repressive Eastern totalitarian nightmare, but a proliferation of the Western farce of media stupidity and cynical commercialism -- American philistinism run amok.” I imagine “Trump for President: A Grotesque” as a piece from my Advanced Writing Class. Its subtitle is “American Philistinism Run Amok.” As I take the pages out of my folder, rather than feeling “professional envy” I suffer a wave of professorial disappointment. The student is clever but her satirical eye untrained. She’s attacking her subject with a hammer. The premise is just too broad -- crude and adolescent. The details with which she draws her character -- the hair, the wife, the tan -- feel overblown and cartoonish. There’s no room for subtlety or irony. On page two, when the candidate announces that he wants to build a beautiful, classy wall across the southern border and have the Mexicans pay for it, I scribble in the margins “satire demands a lighter touch.” Definitely, there are parts of the story that I love -- that bit on page six, the doctor’s note that misspells “To Whom It May Concern,” and goes, “if elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” -- that’s a stroke of real genius, a sign of a writer with a gift. I will write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation to an MFA program. But the tweets -- “Hypocrite,” “the ultimate hypocrite,” “SAD!”, “SO SAD!”, “failed campaign,” “failed image,” “failed on the border” -- get tiresome. Sure, there are occasional flourishes of voice -- “he’s bottom (and gone) I’m top (by a lot)” -- but these are drowned out by the heavy-handed repetition, and on the page the gears of satirical invention are visible, the writer is telegraphing her intent. In conference, I wonder aloud if she’s found her true subject matter. Believe me -- I am not here discounting Trump’s genius with a tweet. But I’m arguing that his genius is not so much rhetorical as it is assaultive. Watching Trump on TV, I think not so much, “I wish I had written that,” but “Would it be possible to write that?” Maybe as a broad, post-modern, metafictional lark? But that’s what it feels like already. In 1993, David Foster Wallace wrote a much-cited essay questioning the efficacy of post-modern fiction in the television age. Television, Wallace argued, especially advertising, had swallowed up the hippest kind of irony that fiction writers had to serve. “What do you do when post-modern rebellion becomes a pop-culture institution?” he asked. "How can the idea of rebellion against corporate culture stay meaningful when Chrysler Inc. advertises trucks by invoking ‘The Dodge Rebellion’? How is one to be a bone fide iconoclast when Burger King sells onion rings with ‘Sometimes you gotta break the rules’? How can an Image-Fiction writer hope to make people more critical of television culture by parodying television as a self-serving commercial enterprise when Pepsi and Subaru and FedEx parodies of self-serving commercials are already doing big business?” He called this, “television’s institutionalizing of hip irony." But Trump, it seems to me, offers something even more cynical than hip irony: a televised, commercialized, self-serving, big-business parody incarnate, asking voters to support him in his revolution. As recently as Jeb Bush, political candidates cloaked their warmongering and racism in euphemism, the kind of thing that so outraged George Orwell: In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the political aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. It was Ronald Reagan’s gift to spin sinister euphemism into advertising cheer, like renaming the MX-missile “The Peacemaker.” (To which Johnny Carson suggested calling napalm “crazy foam.”) George W. Bush in his flight suit and “Mission Accomplished” banner turned the Reagan cheer into action-movie spectacle. But Trump’s act is beyond that. It’s reality television. A nasty finger pointing in your face. His words are for shouting, not for persuading, and not for indicating sense. He won’t let any Muslims in the country. He’ll round up the Mexicans; it’ll be just like Japanese internment camps and Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback! He cites fraudulent racist statistics concocted by white supremacist groups. He does a cruel impression of an old acquaintance’s crippling joint disease, and then denies ever knowing the guy (“despite having one of the all-time great memories.”) “Always exaggerate,” that was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s advice for bringing a character to life. But how could a writer exaggerate this? Trump’s pronouncements are real and unreal. On the one hand, he comes on as a straight-talker. On the other hand, no one believes a thing he says. “If you take what he says literally,” explains Bill O’Reilly, “he can be a frightening guy.” According to old Bob Dole, Trump could “probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.” He’s achieved his image as an honest, pragmatic, hard-headed businessman, and he’s done so by spouting hysterical, vicious lies. Trump’s not trying to fool anyone or to hide anything. He’s not ironic -- he’s not saying one thing and meaning another. His rhetoric is all-time big, like the gleaming brass façade of a multi-billion dollar skyscraper. The letters are all caps and gold-plated, and what they say is: TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP! How’s that for a mot juste? My imaginary student writer had a vivid, farsighted imagination, but her medium wasn’t up to her task. The writers’ tools -- subtlety, ambiguity, drama, or implication -- have no place in this world. More to the point: this world, this story, offers none of those things to my budding novelist. For example, let’s turn to page four of her story. See all the question marks and exclamation points I scrawled in the margins? When Trump calls Megyn Kelly’s vagina a “whatever” and then says by “whatever” he doesn’t mean “vagina,” that isn’t a double-entendre, not even a single entendre, it’s not an entendre at all -- the pronoun doesn’t refer to anything, he’s just expressing disgust, maybe feigned disgust, maybe it’s just for show of some kind of locker-room machismo, and the show of machismo feels “honest” because of its flagrant gynophobia -- Jeb Bush is way too low energy to talk like this, Hillary Clinton too much of a politician. “Whatever!” The syllables are full of meaning, but meaning without relation to words. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents,” Roth wrote in 1960, “and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” But in the case of Trump: if you wrote the actuality, even if you had predicted it a year in advance, the story would have come off as contrivance, the dialogue flat, the drama cringe-worthy and unimaginative -- whatever. A half century after “Writing American Fiction,” it’s as if reality itself has turned to cliché. The first means of transportation was fear, so said Mel Brooks’s 2,000 Year Old Man. And the first language, according to Brooks, was Basic Rock. Trump’s language is Basic Cable, which is to my ear is more like Rock than it is like written English. The novelist’s best response? Maybe a piece of granite thrown through the screen. Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
In the fall of 2005, when my first novel came out, I was invited to speak to the Jewish Book Council, a group of representatives of Jewish community centers and synagogues from across the country. I was one of about 25 writers who were to stand before them that afternoon, in the first of two or three sessions they’d hold. We were all sorts of Jewish writers, corralled into a giant hall—a handwriting analyst who had written about the signatures of celebrity Jews, a young woman who had gone to China to teach English but had ended up starring in a soap opera there, and Ira Katznelson, the great Columbia University historian, who that year had written a book about racial inequality in 20th Century America. We were called up, one after another, and allotted two minutes each. They sat in front of us, mostly late-middle aged, mostly female, presumably Jewish, all of them with reading glasses and notebooks—the scariest possible bar mitzvah crowd, deciding whom to invite to speak to their particular audiences, in San Diego or Palm Springs or Shaker Heights. I was given an orange tag, not a red one, which meant I had to leave before hors d’oeuvres got served, and since my last name begins with B, I went early in the program. Usually I do pretty well in front of audience, but this time I blew it. Did I mention, when I got to the podium, that I had published a previous book of stories, or that the stories had won some big awards? Did I say that one of the awards I’d won had been Jewish? No. I told them I lived in Brooklyn, and I mumbled something about how my novel had been a labor of love, and how I hoped they would love it too, if they read it. Then I wandered past my seat (the only writer not to return to his seat), and went to the back where the wine glasses were (nobody else had touched a wine glass), and in full view of the ladies, downed a plastic glass of cheap Chablis. Still, I got a couple of gigs. Even now, a good half of the paid readings I get invited to are sponsored by Jewish organizations. In fact, Jewish readers took interest in me even before they had read me. When my first story was published in Zoetrope, there was an item about it in the Jewish Daily Forward, in their Walter Winchel-esque “Knickerbocker” gossip column, “Gabriel Brownstein has published a story.” —the assumption being (I guess) that their readers were rooting for a guy with my name. Even non-Jews take interest in me as a Jew. About 90% of the time I get book reviews assigned, the authors of the books are Jewish. I’m not complaining—those books have been good—but had my father dropped the second syllable of his last name, no way would you see my by-line on an article about Singer or Roth. “Are you a Jewish writer?” That’s the big question—the question every Jewish writer gets asked when he stands before a Jewish crowd. It’s a question about allegiance, I guess, about identity—and because the answer is so obvious (my last name is Brownstein, I’m sitting in a synagogue basement, hawking a book) it feels a little bit needling, posed with a raised eyebrow, and the eyebrow I imagine is my late Great Aunt Henya’s, drawn in an orange pencil to match her permanent’s rinse. I’ve worked out different replies. The rim shot: “No, I’m a Korean gynocologist.” Or “Yeh, yeh,” with the flap of the hand (Yiddish being the only language where a double positive is a negative). But the fact is inescapable: Were I to convert to Catholicism and to renounce the pen for dentistry, that would only make me a more interesting Jewish writer. As a kid, I’ll admit it, I thought of them like an all-star team, The American Jews—Saul “The Sultan of Swat” Bellow roaming right, Bern “the Iron Horse” Malamud at first, Grace “Pee-Wee” Paley, the slick-fielding shortstop, and in center my hero, Phil “The Jersey Clipper” Roth. All I wanted, maybe starting at about fifteen, was to be a utility infielder on that squad, maybe a pinch runner, but certainly to wear the uniform. And that uniform was never the long black coat and yarmulke. Alexander Portnoy wanted to be “just a center fielder,” not a Jewish center fielder. None of my heroes took the field with a big YIDDLE on their chest, or played for the home team. And that’s what drew me to them—their ambiguity, their irony, the same things, it turns out, Cleanth Brooks liked about literature. My team by now has won so many championships that their influence is pervasive. Everyone wants to wear the cap. It’s not just Updike with his Beck books. Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, acknowledged his debt to Bellow and Roth. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is over-populated with brilliant, superreal Jewish caricatures—the assimilated Larchmont housewife, the downtown hippy, the neo-con sage—Franzen (not a Jew) even has a Jewish identity rediscovery subplot. Some of my favorite recent Jewish short stories have been by non-Jews, like Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,“ about a New York painter’s colonoscopy, or Anthony Doerr’s beautiful requiem for a dying Holocaust survivor, “Afterworld.” Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting article in the Nation about the state of contemporary Jewish letters. He noted that the Jewish subcultures that spawned the great Jewish-American writers of the midcentury are all gone, and that it’s no longer possible to be a Jewish-American writer as Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Paley were, moving from the margin toward the center while embracing both. The Jewish writers of my generation whose subject is most overtly Jewish—Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander—tend to write historical fiction, and they seem not to be following the madcap assimilationist comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint but more the elegiac lyricism of Cynthia Ozick, as in The Shawl—a search for something lost, a search for authenticity. But that search for authenticity is not what I love. It’s not that I’m ambivalent about being a Jewish writer, but that the kind of Jewish writer I am is ambivalent. I’m more attuned to the dissonant chord than to mournful harmonies, and reading Ozick—ah, she’s so brilliant, nobody’s smarter—I can get uneasy. In the Puttermesser Papers, for instance, a character begins riffing on Yiddish, with its only one word for knife: “By us, we got only messer, you follow? By them they got sword, they got lance, they got halberd . . .. Look it up in the book, you’ll see halberd, you’ll see cutlass, pike, rapier, foil, ten dozen more. By us, pike is a fish.” And it’s feels like a sermon not a story, as if the character is mouthing the author’s beliefs, by us we’re gentle, by them they’re mean, and this for me shades quickly toward Ozick’s politics, the kind of Zionism that brooks no irony or ambiguity, or much sympathy at all for the other guy’s sufferings or cries for justice. What happens when Jewish fiction becomes identity fiction? Here we come to the difficult thing at the heart of this essay and the heart of contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, i.e., fiction about the Holocaust. Here, irony and ambiguity seem out of place: I may find my ethnicity comic, but Nazis most certainly won’t. Ozick’s "The Shawl" is not the first piece of fiction by an American-born Jew to re-imagine the horrors of the camps, but it is one of the most influential. And “The Shawl” is beautifully written, six-pages long and composed as if in a trance. A mother watches as her child is thrown against the electrified fence of a concentration camp: “And all at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and her balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the voices went mad in their growling.” In direct contradiction of Theodore Adorno’s dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Ozick turns Auschwitz into poetry. Her writing, in some ways, is the antithesis of the flat-eyed, clear-eyed prose of Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz chronicles the awful banality of the place, and examines the daily bleakness of mass slaughter with his clinical chemist’s eye. As a writer you can’t help but be struck by Ozick’s audacity, but now, thirty years after “The Shawl,” it’s become habitual. Everybody turns Auschwitz into poetry—serious writers like Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Englander, and less serious writers and film-makers and TV-show producers, all the way down to Holocaust kitsch like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A world-wrenching mind-boggling horror—a set of horrors that no one can wrap their mind around—has become a genre, holocaust fiction. And like the Jewish comedy that I so love, the field’s open to everybody. I can hardly go two semesters of creative writing classes (at a Catholic school, natch) without getting a concentration camp story. And yet when I taught Survival in Auschwitz recently in a graduate literature course, my students didn’t much like the book. So dry, they said. So bleak. It was missing something. In most Holocaust stories, they said, you got that little ray of sunshine, of redemption—the triumph of the human spirit. Bellow, of course, didn’t much like being categorized as a Jewish writer. He was uncomfortable with Isaac Beshevis Singer (“too Jewy”) and joked that he, Malamud, and Roth were the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American letters. The great Jewish writers of the 50s saw identity and history as unsteady things. Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” ends with its hero running from rabbinical studies toward love, and the old matchmaker, Salzman, muttering prayers for the dead. The viewpoint in Roth’s late great Israel novels—The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—is doubled, two Roths, split identities, the whole concept of authenticity set ablaze. Perhaps in the work of contemporary historical Jewish novelists we’re seeing a counter-reaction, an attempt to put that fire out and reclaim all that was lost. Maybe people are done reading about ambivalent Jews. After all, you can be a Jewish writer these days, a Jonathan Lethem or a Joan Silber, and not really write that much as a Jew at all. Meanwhile, the very best of the current Jewish writers who write on Jewish themes, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman, have managed to leap the dichotomy between the old ironists and the new earnestness largely through the sheer force of human comedy. American-Jewish fiction remains rich in potentialities—infinite numbers of stories to be written about family, history, assimilation, Zionism, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, ideology, and power—no wonder people are still interested. I went to a conference not too long ago on Asian American writers, and “Are you an Asian American writer?” the writers were asked. For me, it was a little trip through the looking glass, and I wondered: Is this how it goes all over the country? You invite a panel of writers, troop them up under the fluorescents, and then ask, “For us or against us?” David Henry Hwang, the playwright, had a good answer. He said that for years he had resented the categorization, but in time he had come to terms with it. You have to get categorized, he said, one way or another—Jewish writer, gay writer, women’s writer, sex writer, what have you. He talked of friends, fine playwrights with unspectacular careers, who had never been categorized, and said, look, that’s why they never took off. You need to get categorized in order to succeed. Truth is, these days, any writer who gets any attention should count himself lucky. A reader, somewhere, from some reason, is thinking of you—that alone should be cause for a happy dance. So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a Jewish writer. Invite me to your community center, please! (Image: Seychelles Island-1, from zeevveez's photostream)
Two very good and very similar novels came out within months of each other in the summer of 2010: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment. Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction. While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation. In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds. In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees. In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism. Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty. And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money: in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance. As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era. Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage. Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto. (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.) Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral. These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war. Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received. Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector. They marveled at its intelligence and grace. It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.” Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot: “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily. And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype. Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman. Why such a big gap? I’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?) A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition. (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.) I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors. It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.” (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.) But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects. As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved. Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness. If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss. Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book: it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release. But the book was part of that noise. Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly. It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions. And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar. As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.” And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot. As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.” Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly. As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she's a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.” Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters. The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash. He’s just a lot louder than she is. Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman. He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is. He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck. Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT. The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career. When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls. In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out. (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen: For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them. Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size. The cabinets were stocked with books. Not a dish or cup in sight. Only books. Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets. Not a single pot or pan. Just books. She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator. Books there as well. George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running. Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe. He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold. Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery. He opened the book at random: Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c. He had never tried to roast a carp. But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed: He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately. The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little. Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else. It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way. He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy. The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain. He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged. Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice. He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it. He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement. Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel. When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers. (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.) When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve. Franzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism. In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis. He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore. Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic. Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism. And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise. In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume). But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid. Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt. Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books. Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other. In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions. In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel. After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war. In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father. They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself. Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s. For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives. In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light. Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work. In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic. And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth. Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads. Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.” Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap. At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world. Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view. Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic. At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts. This final section succeeds movingly. But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom. Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners. Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes. Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident. He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose. David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells. Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries. That’s some kind of triumph.