Closer to Truth: On Nicole Krauss’s ‘Forest Dark’

When, “midway upon the journey of our life/[He] found [himself] within a forest dark,” Dante Alighieri went epic, envisioning a descent into hell, a spiritual purgation and eventual transcendence. When the two central characters in Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s first novel in seven years suffer their own life crises, they head to Israel, search for meaning and for immanence, and wind up in the desert. Like the poem from which it borrows its title, Forest Dark is also epic, though in its own way: quiet, eerie, touchingly inchoate. It is an epic of loneliness, a testimony of and to longing that remains unfulfilled. The novel is bifurcated, telling, in alternating chapters, the stories of Jules Epstein—not so long ago a high-powered and wealthy law firm partner, of late a retired philanthropist looking for the right cause—and Nicole, a successful novelist plagued by writer’s block and a silently failing marriage. (It is perhaps in poor taste, but impossibly tempting, to observe that Nicole’s situation evokes Krauss’s own, given her well-documented divorce from Jonathan Safran Foer, who published his post-divorce novel Here I Am last year. It also seems important to note that, whereas Foer dealt with his hurt feelings by imagining the destruction of Israel in his book, Krauss deals in altogether more human and humane troubles.) [millions_ad] Krauss’s great innovation is that the two strands never explicitly intersect, instead running parallel, provocatively echoing each other through places and objects and ideas without ever meeting. Both Jules and Nicole spend stretches of time at the Tel Aviv Hilton, the Brutalist “rectangle on stilts that dominates the Tel Aviv Coast.” (A series of increasing close-ups of the hotel appear early in the novel.) Nicole means to write a book about the hotel (or else set at the hotel or else inspired by the hotel), a place that holds “a kind of mystical aura” for her, the place from which she imagines she might be dreaming the entirety of her daily life. But the book refuses to be written, and so Nicole takes off from her Brooklyn home, leaves behind the husband who disappoints her and to whom she is a disappointment, leaves behind the two young sons who otherwise keep her tethered, in the hopes that, in Israel, at the Hilton, she will be able to focus and finally write. Jules, for his part, intends to use the Hilton as headquarters, a base from which to award the remains of his fortune (the $2 million left over after a giving spree that has alarmed his lawyer and alienated his son) to some worthy institution or another in honor of his parents’ memory. Neither remains at the Hilton, attention caught by quixotic projects, presented by fateful encounters. For Jules, the thread begins back in New York, when, at an event for “some fifty people representing the American Jewish leadership” to confer—which is to say, have a three-course meal—with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he meets Rabbi Menachem Klausner. His last name, Klausner informs a reluctant-to-engage Epstein, marks him as one with lineage that can be traced back to the dynastic line of King David. Once in Israel, Jules reconnects with the rabbi, spending a night at Gilgul, Klausner’s retreat in Safed, the mystical desert center for Kabbalah studies. There he meets a beautiful woman, the rabbi’s daughter, Yael, who impresses him more than the rabbi’s disquisitions on the finite and the infinite.  Yael, it turns out, is working on a film about the life of David, “the most complex, fully wrought, and fascinating character in the whole Bible.” (That Jules’s first view of Yael—she’s emerging from a bath—replicates David’s initial vision of Bathsheba is an effective coincidence.) And suddenly, Jules is “new again to everything—new to the blazing white light off the waves, to the crying of the muezzin at dawn, new to the loss of appetite, to the body lightening, to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry.” Nicole, for her part, becomes involved with Eliezer Friedman, possibly a former Mossad agent, possibly a retired professor of literature, certainly a man who relates a nearly impossible-to-believe story about Franz Kafka. Friedman claims to have access to the works hoarded, in a cat-infested apartment, by Eva Hoffe, daughter of Max Brod’s lover Esther, inheritor of Brod’s estate, jealous possessor of a priceless trove of Kafka’s manuscripts.  In the least outlandish of his proposals, Friedman suggests that Nicole prepare an ending to an unfinished Kafka play, which is scheduled to be made into a film. How all of this turns out is not really the point. Krauss has always been a writer interested in the hidden, spiritual dimension of things, and her work concerns itself with the mystical, the metaphysical, the mysterious. The secret inner life of people, places, and objects preoccupies her far more than the directly observable. In her last novel, Great House, a writing desk served as a totem, imbuing the lives of the individuals who posses it at various moments with the possibility of grace and tempting them with damnation. In Forest Dark, she goes even more abstract, working less towards a climax than an epiphany. The novel starts out with a great deal of texture, with meticulously arranged details; it presents, initially, as a keenly observed and reported chronicle of two accomplished but unfulfilled lives. But as it progresses, and especially as it nears the end, it abandons any pretense of interest in connecting threads and cause-and-effect payoffs. This could be annoying, perhaps, but Krauss’s great, fearless gift is to work a motif until its essence reverberates throughout. Thinking about an improbable story Friedman relates, Nicole compares the tale to the conventional, accepted one and finds that “the one Friedman had drawn struck me as having the more beautiful shape—more complex, but also more subtle, and so closer to truth. In light of it, the familiar story now seemed clumsy, overblown, and steeped in cliché.” And so too of Forest Dark: it is beautiful and complex but subtle and so closer to truth. It is perhaps not particularly believable, but it is elegant and shimmering, a slant of light shining long enough to make us wonder.

The Girls’ Guide to War: Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Pre-pub buzz had Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, the intriguingly if somewhat cumbersomely titled The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, as a The Things They Carried--Mean Girls hybrid. If you are finding it just a little difficult to picture a Venn diagram where a novel-in-stories about the Vietnam War intersects with a Tina-Fey-penned movie about the travails of high school girls, consider this: both war and high school are marked by a strange blend of ennui and nearly unbearable stress, of existential dread and petty banality. (But, yes, it’s also true that only one of these makes you ponder the cruel betrayals of fame and fortune vis-à-vis a once fresh-faced, plucky, promising Lindsay Lohan.) High school may be war, but, ultimately, if one must cast The People of Forever in pop culture terms, the book is mostly reminiscent of the Lena Dunham-created HBO show Girls. With its episodic structure, its unfolding in seemingly standalone stories actually bound together by insistent echoes, and its cast of recently-graduated young women — three, in the case of Boianjiu’s novel, to Dunham’s show’s four — pretending to a maturity, a certainty, they neither possess nor successfully imitate, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes as its subject rites of passage, looks at transient but fraught moments in a transitional time. And, like Dunham’s fictional(ized) stand-in Hannah Horvath, Boianjiu may well be the voice of her generation or, at least, a voice of a generation. Boianjiu’s generation is comprised of the young women who, having completed high school, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Army service provides the backdrop for much of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, though the book has little to do with the business of war. There are, to be sure, eruptions of violence — a male soldier is very nearly decapitated, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and Israel’s subsequent 2006 war in Lebanon are integrated into the plot, and the novel’s third section explores the peacetime aftershocks of armed conflict, for “when the boy soldiers returned from the war they tortured the girl soldiers who waited for them” — but for the most part, the book may well be set in the Brooklyn of Girls. Yael, Avishag, and Lea, the three friends who split narratorial duties and narrative focus, are mostly bored, biding their time at checkpoints, like wasting time in dead-end internships, waiting for their real lives to begin. I don’t mean to make light of the very grave, very deadly geopolitical concerns that are necessarily the background of a novel with its gaze firmly fixed on life in Israel, on life in the Israeli army. But these concerns are mostly background in The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which reads, above all, as a coming-of-age story. We meet Yael, Avishag, and Lea when they are still in school, a “caravan of a classroom” in a tiny village on the Lebanese border. (Boianjiu herself grew up in such a town.) Like any students on the verge of graduation, the girls are tempted to ignore the lecture, to pass notes and fantasize about parties and crushes, to speculate about whose house might be without parental supervision long enough to host those parties and entertain those crushes. The lecture at hand is about the “PLO, SAM, IAF, RPG children,” Syrian submarines and Palestinian children trying to shoot RPG rockets at Israeli soldiers and burning each other instead, but, as a sub-chapter heading tells us, “History Is Almost Over.” These young women, like young women everywhere, believe that the past stops with their present, that their futures will be different and special and lovely. And this is of course terrifying. Army notices are sent out. The girls prepare for service. Yael becomes a weapons instructor, responsible for training other soldiers in the art of marksmanship. (An editorial by Boianjiu in last Sunday’s New York Times revealed that this was her own position during her two years of IDF service. I mention this fact mostly by way of noting that Yael, who bears the heaviest load of the narration, seems closest to the author herself, serving as ego in the triangulated configuration of herself and the imperious Lea and the depressive, impulsive Avishag.) Lea checks documents at a West Bank checkpoint and desperately tries to enter into the history and experiences of the men trying to cross. Avishag serves as a guard overlooking the border. All three pretend at being grownups, at being tough, and all three remain vulnerable, become more vulnerable. They flash back to their childhoods, their conventionally troubled families, to which all three return, however briefly, after the completion of their service. The girls’ reunion becomes a momentarily idyllic return to the safety of childhood configurations, a respite not from war — which is after all a kind of existential truth in their lives — but from the need to pose as confident, as capable. Only about twenty when they leave the army, the girls are poised on the threshold of a world that does not seem to them quite real, and they postpone their entrance by retreating into old patterns, old games. The author herself is still very young, only twenty-five. She is also the youngest recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, selected for that honor by the novelist Nicole Krauss. Boianjiu has something of Krauss's sensibility, her interest in intersecting lives, the seams where unexpected connections are exposed. In The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Boianjiu showcases a lovely sort of simplicity, allowing the girls’ voices to ring true, to ring young and innocent and sad. In this, she strikes no false notes: Yael and Lea and Avishag are just different enough from each other to be interesting, just similar enough to be believable friends. The book falls apart near the end, asked to bear a burden it has not convincingly built to. It becomes, too suddenly, with too little warning, about war, and it loses sight of the characters who helped us make sense of all that has come before. But, for those moments when Yael and Lea and Avishag and their splendid, troubled, mundane lives are slowly developing in front of us, a strip of photo-booth pictures coming into a precision and a clarity, we fully believe in their existence and their sense of that existence.

Speaking of Anne Frank…

The title of Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories unmistakably references Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (on which: more later), but it is the question articulated by that title, the matter of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank that I want to take up first. The subject of Anne Frank — if we may take her somewhat unnerving appearances as a fictional character as a form of evidence — is, for certain writers, a singularly tempting one. Part-muse, part-rival, she storms the late-twentieth, early-twenty-first century novel, an improbable survivor testifying to human cruelty and human resilience, the full range of human experience borne on her shoulders. There she is, posing as Amy Bellette, the intriguingly-accented, large-eyed seductress of Nathan Zuckerman’s wildest erotic dreams and fantasies of filial duty in Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer. And here she is, again, holed up in an upstate-New York attic, foul-mouthed, decrepit, toiling on a novel and making a neurotic man’s life hell in Shalom Auslander’s recent debut novel Hope: A Tragedy. What do these manifestations of the paradigmatic child-martyr tell us about her and about us? If these fictional examples are anything to go by, it is mostly that when we talk about Anne Frank we are not talking about Anne Frank at all. When we — and by “we” here I naturally mean Next-Big-Thing Jewish authors, men reaching for the height of their creative powers — talk about Anne Frank, we seem to be invoking a wide swath of anxieties, a whole megillah of insecurities, real and imagined angst that has everything and nothing to do with Anne Frank herself. Still, she has the tendency to lend gravitas to the proceedings at hand, to signal that whatever else is being discussed, it is serious indeed. In the title story of Englander’s collection, for example, when the narrator and his wife and their guests, a Hasidic couple visiting from Jerusalem, decide, after smoking some pot, to play “the Anne Frank game,” the reader knows that something portentous, something Terribly Significant, is coming. That game, a.k.a. “the Righteous Gentile Game,” a.k.a. “Who Will Hide Me?,” involves ascertaining, “in the event of an American Holocaust, ...which of our Christian friends would hide us.” (Curiously, Solomon Kugel, the hapless hero of Hope, enjoys a one-player version of the game, his thoughts on the topic of who might hide him and his family — and what he ought to bring along to the business of sitting out a genocide — forming a sort of refrain through the novel.) In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” the two couples — our narrator and his wife Deb, her former schoolmate Shoshana and her husband Mark — decide to up the ante, to imagine each other as the (possibly Righteous) Gentiles, and the “Anne Frank Game” becomes a dubious session of marital therapy, a process for working through neuroses by forming new neuroses still. Like Raymond Carver, to whom he is admittedly, unabashedly indebted, Englander mines the intersection of the stunningly obvious and the subtly but potently implied. The tension of his best stories, as in Carver’s best stories, resides in the fissures that slowly open up in the fabric of what had been assumed with little thought, with no reservation. Invoking Anne Frank — her innocence, her belief in the fundamental goodness of people — heightens the tension to a nearly unbearable degree; that Englander walks the fine, fine line between manipulation and genuineness, that he manages the strain of his material, positions him as Carver’s rightful heir. Such genealogy matters. Anne Frank, I would wager, resonates with writers because she is a writer, the author of one of the twentieth-century’s most indelible works. It is her voice — uncalculated, authentic, a voice on the cusp of learning something significant about itself — her ability to command our attention, her power over us, that we are talking about when we talk about Anne Frank. (It is no coincidence, surely, that both Roth and Auslander imagine their respective Anne Franks as writers.) Anne Frank — at least the idealized Anne Frank — speaks to our better selves, and she speaks to our writers’ desire to say something meaningful, something immortal. (This last concern is explored in “The Reader,” one of the more opaque stories in the collection, a perhaps-too-literal allegory about the relationship that exists between the portentously identified Author and the sole determined reader who appears, angel-like, at stops on the Author’s promotional tour for his latest.) Englander announced himself as the Great Practitioner of the Short Story with his first collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. At once profoundly sad and terribly funny — amusingly despondent? dejectedly comical? — the stories in Urges considered the absurdities and indignities of contemporary life at an empathetic remove. In Anne Frank, Englander builds on his earlier accomplishment, masterfully honing in on the tiny details and producing a finely drawn vision of lives colored by shame and despair and longing and the barely concealed, terrifying capacity for impotent rage. Neither wallowing nor fleeing, Englander suggests that none of us is truly “righteous.” Which is perhaps why we talk — and talk and talk — about Anne Frank, endlessly hoping to satisfy some unbearable urge.

The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World

Emigration is not unlike love: its true course never did run smooth. You envision the free world filled with beauty and wonder, and then you see it, the West, and it is lovely, yes, tantalizing, but also cruel, withholding, a stern, ingrate mistress, possessed of a stony heart, an unyielding temperament. Even near, this free world is ever out of reach, just beyond your grasp. In this way, The Free World, David Bezmozgis’s first novel, which depicts the late-Seventies’ exodus of Soviet Jews and their first forays into the world of the title, is first and foremost a story of unrequited, even doomed love, a testament to a passion at once thrilling and damning and impossible to fulfill. Bezmozgis has already proved himself a poet of the immigrant experience, ever attuned to its star-crossed-lovers dimension. In Natasha, his much-acclaimed (and deservedly so) collection of stories, he charted the disappointments attendant on realizing the dream of escape beyond the Iron Curtain, acutely observed the crushing weight of freedom. Now, in this new novel, he hones in on the first exposure to the West and the moment it ceases to captivate and its hold on the immigrant’s imagination begins to chafe. The problem, as far as his narrators live it anyway, is that freedom—political freedom, social freedom, personal freedom—does not actually free you from yourself. The escape is always mostly geographical and maddeningly superficial. Oh, sure, the surface is nice, the perks are good: one character in The Free World, watching porn for the first time, suddenly “grasp[s] the full extent of Soviet deprivation.” “If Russian men were surly, belligerent alcoholics,” he realizes, “it was because, in place of natural, healthy forms of relaxation, they were given newspaper accounts of hero-worker dairy maids receiving medals for milk production.” So the Free World is not without its enticements. But these enticements have a price, and it is this price that fascinates Bezmozgis. In this, he is, of course, hardly alone among chroniclers of the immigrant experience, and The Free World is not inconsistent with the storied tradition of the immigrant novel. But Bezmozgis does offer an interesting departure in shifting the focus: his concern is with neither departure nor arrival but the in-between space, the often prolonged sojourn some Soviet immigrants were forced to take in Italy, which served as a way-station between their former homes and their yet-to-be-settled-on new ones. (Largely because the destination on their exit visa was Israel, though few wanted to go there—a country, pre-peace-treaty-with-Egypt, ever on the verge of war—a number of the emigrants wound up in Italy, awaiting permission to enter the US, Canada, or Australia, sometimes for many months at a time.) The Free World devotes itself to examining this in-between, mining the tension and anxiety inherent to limbo. Our entrance point to this particular circle is the Krasnansky family: Samuil and Emma, their son Alec and his wife Polina, and another son, Karl, along with his wife Rosa and their two young boys, and The Free World is divided among three perspectives—Alec, Polina, and Samuil’s. The Krasnanskys have left Riga, Latvia, with vastly different motivations, expectations, and goals; they disagree about where they should go and about how to get there, and these disagreements quickly solidify, under the pressures of their uncertain existence, into resentments, and each Krasnansky responds by becoming more and more him- or herself. Samuil, an ideologically committed Communist, who resents his restlessly ambitious sons for deciding to try their luck in the West and making it impossible for him to remain in Riga, takes to working on his memoirs, retreating into his past in order to hold on to the dignity the immigration agencies seem determined to take away. Karl, always a wheeler and dealer, becomes involved in an auto-shop of questionable legality. Alec, with a tendency towards shiftlessness and a penchant for womanizing, finds himself working at an agency for his fellow immigrants, helpless to stave off the temptation of women, while his wife Polina feels herself increasingly alienated from her husbands’ family, to which she has always been an outsider. The Kransnanskys may be free of Soviet authority, Bezmozgis seems to be saying, but they are not free of each other. They are not free of the terrible burdens of the family and the self and the histories that keep them ever tethered to identities they long to discard. This might make the novel sound far more ponderous than it is. The Free World is often a funny book, its observations finely drawn and frequently amusing, its vision of the characters clear-eyed but generous. It is also a sincere book, less antic and perhaps more insightful than the work of Gary Shteyngart, a fellow chronicler of the Soviet-immigrant-in-the-West and co-inductee of the “20 Under 40” New Yorker list. With this novel, Bezmozgis makes clear that the beauty of the stories collected in Natasha was no fluke and that his talent is immense. In The Free World, he offers up something at once familiar and fresh, at once comforting and discomfiting. There is finally no such thing as the free world, and this makes us suffer, but our literature is all the finer for it.

Chosen: Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question

Much has been made of Howard Jacobson’s “Surprise!” Booker Prize win earlier this month, largely because The Finkler Question, his eleventh novel, is unapologetically comic, a book brimming with moments that inspire laughter. Humor is its modus operandi, its raison d’être. It bristles and overflows with set-ups and punchlines, with observations and jests. That this never becomes tiring or tired is reason enough to award Jacobson literary prizes aplenty. But the very headlines inspired by the mere fact of a comedic novel taking home Britain’s highest literary prize belie the very many strengths of the work, the way its comedy bleeds into tragedy, the way it plays with pathos and longing and devastation. Though Jacobson once dubbed himself the “Jewish Jane Austen” in jest—and largely as a refutation of the “British Philip Roth” label, which has somewhat awkwardly stuck to him (really, the “Jewish Martin Amis” strikes me as far more accurately descriptive)—there really is something to that comparison. The Finkler Question is a novel of (occasionally bad) manners, one that, in turning a penetrating eye, an alert ear, and a mordant pen on contemporary mores, lovingly ridicules what it accurately chronicles. What The Finkler Question chronicles are the intersecting lives of three men: old, school friends, Julian Treslove (disgruntled former BBC employee and current celebrity double, though he is the double of no particular celebrity) and Sam Finkler (pop-philosopher, author of The Existentialist in the Kitchen, and frequent television guest), and their onetime history teacher, Libor Sevcik (Czech émigré and former Hollywood gossip reporter). Finkler and Libor have recently been widowed; they also happen to be Jewish. Treslove, neither widower nor Jew, experiences his exclusion from both states as a serious lack indeed, having aspired, his entire life, to tragedy, to the sort of monumental loss that concludes the “popular Italian opera” he is drawn to. Julian knows he is in love with a woman when he can see the aftermath of her—his marriage proposal and her acceptance, the home they would set up together, the drawn rich silk curtains leaking purple light, the bed sheets billowing like clouds, the wisp of aromatic smoke winding from the chimney—only for every wrack of it—its lattice of crimson roof tiles, its gables and dormer windows, his happiness, his future—to come crashing down on him in the moment of her walking past… she passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love—consumptive, wet-eyelashed. But such is not the lot of Julian Treslove, who instead consistently finds himself unceremoniously dumped by the sickly-looking women whose lives he intends to make better before the romantic finale, the soaringly-sung death thrall. As he dines with his two friends at Libor’s house, Treslove feels discomfiting envy. An outsider at this feast of mourning, he wants simply to belong. Treslove’s chance comes when, melancholically walking home, he is assaulted, “pushed… face first against a shop window, told… not to shout or struggle, and relieved… of his watch, his wallet, his fountain pen and his mobile phone.” But it is the assailant’s parting words that truly trouble and traumatize. “Your jewels,” Treslove thinks he hears. But no, that cannot be quite right. “You Jules,” then, an attempt to cower him further by darkly noting that his identity is known. No, no, still. “You Ju,” the assailant said. “You Ju.” He has been, Treslove concludes, the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. No matter that he, Julian Treslove, is not, technically, a Jew. What technicalities—the ways of thinking and being and feeling—make one a Jew becomes, then, the central question of the novel, as Treslove, his account of events dismissed by his friends, becomes determined to explore the nature of Jewishness, though, in honor of his friend Finkler, the first Jew Treslove had ever known, he privately refers to Jews as “Finklers.” (“He would have liked to tell his friend this. It took away the stigma, he thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself.”) As Treslove ponders the mysteries of being Jewish—how is it, for example, “that Jews didn’t have to mention the Holocaust in order to have mentioned the Holocaust”? Are they perhaps “able by a glance to thought-transfer the Holocaust to one another”?—Sam Finkler has his own crisis of self to tend to, having enthusiastically committed himself to the cause of the ASHamed Jews, whose shame is officially directed at Zionism (Finkler speaks of “Palestine,” or even, for good measure, “Canaan”), though the group’s rhetoric increasingly blurs the line between Zionism and Jewish identity. When, then, does a Jew become an anti-Semite? And, if he can be one, why can’t a Gentile be a Jew? Some British reviewers have suggested that the novel’s concern with Jewishness is merely cover for a larger concern with the self. Writing about the novel in the Observer, Edward Docx concludes that “Jewishness” is here “a metaphor for human culture in general.” This is true in so far as The Finkler Question is finally interested in the way a particular personal identity intersects with the larger world and in what it means to be an outsider in the very worlds that we expect to be most welcoming. But it also seems false to deny the particularity of the way in which such issues are explored in The Finkler Question. For one thing, there is Jacobson’s own identity, which, despite his lack of religious feeling, he has repeatedly identified as Jewish: “What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence,” he remarked in a 2004 interview with Tablet Magazine. “I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don’t know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that’s what shapes the Jewish sense of humor, that’s what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness.” There seems to be, for Jacobson, a personal concern with what it means to be a Jewish writer, especially in a country that has given rise to a number of anti-Israel boycotts, measures that Jacobson has publicly opposed, and it is this concern that gives The Finkler Question so much of its energy, its frisson. Having said that, it would indeed, be unfortunate to reduce the novel to identity politics, or, rather, to any one set of identity politics, given Jacobson’s enthusiasm for poking fun at the highmindedness brought to discussions of what it means to be anything. And anyway, what the novel is about is hardly half as important as how it goes about being about anything. The Finkler Question is never portentous, never precious. It swells with laughter and with sorrow, and you are glad to be its reader, whatever your identity.

The New Normal: Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow

It is the summer of 1970, a “hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer," and Keith Nearing—twenty-year-old University-of-London-student (English Literature), occupying “that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—takes up residence in an Italian castle, accompanied by his girlfriend Lily—“5’5”, 34-25-34," also a fellow student (law), on-again after a brief but fraught respite initiated by Lily’s desire to “act like a boy”—and Lily’s best friend, the nobly-born and enticingly-named Scheherazade—“5’10”, 37-23-33," only very recently transformed from an unremarkable, bespectacled do-gooder into a swan-necked, amply-bosomed goddess. And because vital statistics, as Keith well knows, are destiny, his own fate seems already determined: he will feel bound to Lily, bound by gratitude and compatibility and history; he will desire Scheherazade, desire her madly, greedily, recklessly. This is the basic premise of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, and it is a simple premise really: a love triangle powered by youthful lust and a suitably exotic locale. Then again, maybe not so simple, for Keith is, of course, “a K in a castle," which lends the proceedings an air of ominous possibility. And there is the matter too of the time, the historical context, the summer of 1970, portentous beginning of the Age of Narcissus, the self-reflective, self-absorbed, seemingly endless “All and Now” follow-up to the Age of Aquarius, whose tentative stirrings have given way to full-on revolution. (You know how sexual intercourse began in 1963, sometime around the release of The Beatles’ first LP? Well, by the time we get to our castle in Montale, The Beatles have broken up.) And revolutions, well, revolutions are…complicated, cutting a swath of collateral damage, and The Pregnant Widow—subtitle: “Inside History”—chronicles the sublime chasm between world orders new and old, the “long night of chaos and desolation” that must pass “between the death of the one and the birth of the other.” (This vision of destruction comes courtesy of the philosopher Alexander Herzen, whose observation that “the departing world leaves behind it, not an heir, but a pregnant widow” also lends the novel its title.) Here then are the clauses of the Revolutionary Manifesto, as documented after-the-fact (though the bulk of the book focuses on the crucial summer, the narrative reaches into the present-day): “There will be sex before marriage.” “Women, also, have carnal appetites.” “Surface will start tending to supersede essence." Sex will be separated from feeling, much like feeling was long ago detached from thought, and sex will also be separated from thought. How Keith will navigate the new normal, find his footing on terrain much longed for but little understood, furnishes the narrative’s true interest. This is not so say that The Pregnant Widow is preoccupied with Big Ideas at the expense of development and action; there is, in fact, much by way of plot. The castle—property of Scheherazade’s thirty-year-old uncle, Jorquil (“it was that kind of family”)—is equipped with wings and turrets and a pool, where the newly beautiful, newly liberated Scheherazade sunbathes topless and learns to love her own reflection, but it quickly grows crowded. As the summer gets underway, Keith, Lily, and Scheherazade are intermittently joined by Whitaker and Amen, an older English expat and his eighteen-year-old Libyan boyfriend; by the Scheherazade-admiring Adriano, a dashing aristocrat, who also happens to be 4’10”; by the Dakotan divorcee Prentiss, who has in tow her recently adopted twelve-year-old Mexican daughter, Conchita, and her grossly obese helpmate, Dodo; by the Sphinx-like Gloria Beautyman—“5’5”, 33-22-37”— whose riddle is concealed behind a body joining a dancer’s upper half with a bottom that earns her the nickname “Junglebum;” by Timmy, Scheherazade’s erstwhile boyfriend, returning from a stint in Jerusalem, where he had gone to convert the Jews; by Rita, known as “the Dog” (because “she reminds you of a dog”), a proud warrior of the Sexual Revolution. These interlopers lend the novel a Dickensian texture, an impression further abetted by their tendency towards resonant if improbable names (though this is of course also quite consistent with Amis’s typical style) and memorable quirks. They take in the sights and the swimming, the splendid dinners and the lovely grounds, and, in return, they full-heartedly immerse themselves in castle life, sometimes aiding, sometimes impeding Keith’s schemes to seduce Scheherazade without hurting the suspicious Lily. Will Keith succeed? Perhaps the more pertinent question is, will Keith survive? Will Keith—literally the orphaned son of a pregnant widow, his father having died in a car accident on his way to the hospital, his bereaved mother quickly following in childbirth—emerge intact, integrated in thought and feeling? Will he master and navigate and accept the new ideology, the new world order his moment in history makes him heir to? Armed with nothing more than the English literary canon, Keith at first seems to stand little chance. Clarissa, he surmises, is boring, with its “one fuck in two thousand pages," its heroine who must die of shame. But Keith’s reading and Keith’s experiences finally prove that revolutions in sex, like revolutions in literature, change only the surface, the wording, not the import, and though The Pregnant Widow could never be confused for, say, an Austen novel, there is something old-fashioned about it. Perhaps it is its sincerity, a real attempt to tell some essential truth, a truth at once of its time and timeless. Perhaps it is its investment in its characters and its worldview. Or its quiet humor, funny and cutting and sly. Or its intelligence, its knowingness, which never seems pretentious or irrelevant. Which is a long way to say that there is much to recommend it. A great deal has been said, in recent reviews of The Pregnant Widow, about Amis’s return to form, his artistic success after a series of disappointments. (Indeed, there was some surprise when the book was conspicuously left off the Man Booker Prize longlist.) Like Philip Roth, to whom he has been compared since the beginning of his career, Amis seems to be initiating his sixties by embarking on an ambitious, historically-minded project with keen insight and masterly sentences. But this is, of course, speculation. Something more definitive then: The Pregnant Widow is a stunning book; it contains within it all that is best in the English novel.

Paper Routes: Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists

The focus of Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfectionists is the men and women immersed in the day-to-day of an unnamed English-language, Rome-based newspaper. Founded in 1953 by a wealthy Atlanta businessman named Cyrus Ott, for reasons that remain a mystery to his family some fifty years on, the newspaper has fallen on hard times. Buffeted by the Internet (and tragically lacking a website well into 2007!), hemorrhaging money, the paper is financially controlled by people who take no interest in it and run by people who are, as the title rather generously observes, “imperfectionists.” Their imperfections are meant to serve the narrative as a propeller. The territory lying between journalistic idealism, the youthful desire to perfectly capture the world in order to help make that world perfect, and journalistic reality, filled with exigencies and disappointments and countless compromises, together rendering the ideal moot, is ripe and practically begging for novelistic treatment, and Rachman, a correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, according to his book-jacket bio, captures the lay of the land, in prose that is fittingly functional, dispensing, for the most part, with unnecessary flourishes, efficiently doling out pertinent particulars with a simplicity that is so striking as to be deliberate. He fills his fictional paper’s newsroom with editors and copyeditors and reporters, then follows their tangled, intersecting lives out into the streets of Rome and beyond, through a succession of chapters—really, short stories—unfolding in the present tense, interspersed with brief past-tense accounts of significant moments in the paper’s history. We begin in Paris, where Lloyd Burko, Paris correspondent, desperately searches for a story. This will be the story that restores his career, earns him desperately needed rent money, and brings back his wife, who has slowly begun moving her things across the hall to the apartment of her new lover. The quest yields nothing by way of an article, but it does produce a revelation that might change Lloyd’s life and his understanding of himself. Back in Rome, we proceed to obituary writer Arthur Gopal, assigned to interview Gerda Erzberger, an Austrian intellectual recently diagnosed with cancer and refusing treatment. Arthur, whose "overarching goal at the paper is indolence," is the son of a famed reporter, and, rather than competing with his father’s legacy, he dedicates himself to mediocrity, complacently allowing himself to be bullied by the paper’s culture editor. Arthur’s conversation with Gerda, and the phone call that interrupts that conversation, radically alters his world and sets off a chain reaction that will reverberate through the newsroom. Business reporter, Hardy Benjamin, makes quick sense of the financial news but has trouble with her personal life. After she encounters a young aimless man, the two embark on a tentative courtship, though an accidental revelation compels Hardy to examine her romantic expectation. Corrections editor Herman Cohen, grammar warrior and producer of the monthly Why? newsletter, which chronicles the most egregious of errors to have made it into the paper, welcomes an old friend, a visit that forces him to reevaluate his past and his present. Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson discovers her husband is having an affair and reconnects with an old lover, forcing her to confront her romantic history without the comfort of revision and evasion. In Cairo, having recently quit his doctoral program in primatology, the stringer-hopeful Winston Cheung struggles to file a report while competing with a seasoned newsman for the position, only to learn some unpleasant truths about the profession. I could go on, as the book does, but the pattern should, by now, be clear enough. Each chapter-story begins with a protagonist stuck in a limbo of sorts, unhappy but not desperately so, unsure about the exact progression that has led him or her to this particular place. Some unexpected event, some surprising encounter, some sudden recognition later, the protagonist acquires a more astute comprehension of the situation, a readjustment that inevitably relates back to the paper, usually validating the series of choices that have, almost imperceptibly, led to this moment. In the meantime, other characters, merely lurking background as shadows in one story, wait for the chance to become protagonists of their own tales, to explain lives otherwise just barely sketched. Some of the stories are more successful than others in conveying the final insight, though most fall somewhat short of the Joycean epiphany that is the prototype. (The most compelling of the chapters in this respect is, to my thinking, the story of the paper’s CFO Abbey Pinnola, who finds herself seated next to a recently fired employee on a long plane ride; the ensuing account of their tentative flirtation is genuinely revelatory, its conclusion unexpected in the best possible way, simultaneously surprising and, in hindsight, inevitable.) The short stories are meant to tie together through collision of characters, the intersection of themes, the classical unities of time and place; under the auspices of these commonalities, they are, we are lulled into believing, something greater than the sum of their parts. But where this is true in Dubliners, whose deceptively delicate particles, when assembled together, produce a surprisingly robust total, this is rarely the case in The Imperfectionists. The characters—coming in and out of focus, growing more or less important—do not really develop, and the new information we glean about them from story to story is not always illuminating. The change in perspective tends to come off as artificial, lazily telling what was not convincingly shown. Individually, as a short story, each chapter leaves just enough unsaid: we know something of a character’s experience as it is experienced, asking us to imagine beyond the story’s parameters. The revelations in subsequent chapters, matter-of-fact as they are, do little to truly complicate our perceptions. Presumably intended to magnify, the accumulation of detail, in the form of minor references to characters we thought we knew, instead reduces and flattens, unconvincingly extending the storyline. This is particularly glaring in the final summing up, a last entry in the newspaper’s history amounting to a perfunctory conclusion. I suppose the recent popularity of the stories-as-novel has quite a bit to do with decreased attention spans, allowing readers to pick up and put down the book as needed, all the while believing they are engaged in novel-reading. Or else it is a translation of hypertext into physical text: each character, no matter how minor on this page, has a full story, just a page-turn away! Given that Rachman is clearly concerned with the impact of the web on the traditional newspaper, it seems fitting that he adapt his writing to internet possibility, but, for this reader anyway, the aptness of the adaptation cuts both ways. Yes, it extends the novel’s cultural lease, but something—something intangible but very, very important—is lost in the accommodation. Is a newspaper still a newspaper on the Internet? the newspaper’s staffers ponder. Is a novel-in-stories still a novel?