The Imaginary Jew
This is, of course, the eternal Jewish situation: poised between the sea and a pursuing host, praying for deliverance. And not just literally. Chabon shoves his Jews up against the edge of the world because that's where Jews always are. "But there was always a shortfall, wasn't there?... Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth...Zion and Jew. They called that shortfall 'the world.'" And so in this story, too, the father's impossible demands for perfect obedience: Abraham's of Isaac, God's of the Children of Israel. And so also the disillusioned melancholy, the mordant humor: "Like most of his mother's compliments, it was convertible to an insult when needed"; "'What my husband tells me,' she says, making it sound rhetorical, like the title of a very slim tract"; "his body emits a weary sound, a Yiddish sound, halfway between a belch and a lamentation"; "It's Messiah.... What else can you do but wait?" The Yiddish Policemen's Union is about no Jews who have ever lived, but it is one of the best novels in English about what it means to be a Jew, and how it feels.
In fact, the book is so good not despite taking place in an imaginary world but because of it. Chabon has gotten into trouble before when he's tried to re-create a historical situation he hasn't experienced himself. Kavalier & Clay, which lists more than forty consulted sources in its "author's note," never succeeds in making its world seem more than secondhand. This is obviously a minority view--the book was a huge bestseller--but never for one minute did I believe its characters were fully real. The materials may all have been there, painstakingly assembled, but as with the golem who appears in its pages, the magic formula was missing that would quicken them to life.
I mention this only because the same problem besets Englander's new work. The Ministry of Special Cases also lists a healthy number of sources in the back, seeks to re-create a time and place of which its author has little or no firsthand knowledge and feels, to me at least, imaginatively dead. Englander has said that he didn't spend much time in Argentina researching the book, and I believe him. The story concerns a Jewish couple searching for their teenage son, who has been "disappeared" by the regime, and given its subject matter and its author's reputation, I wouldn't be surprised if it receives rave reviews. But though the streets and the buildings are all, undoubtedly, accurately described, there's little sense of the human world they once represented. The novel focuses so narrowly on Kaddish, Lillian and their son, Pato, that the social milieu in which they live--which is much harder to work up from books than other kinds of historical particulars but is ultimately what gives a character specificity and depth--remains unrealized. We don't know how this world smells or sounds, can't feel the weight of the characters' histories, never find out who Kaddish and Lillian's friends are, or ever were. Aside from a couple of minor figures, the characters remain one-dimensional, the whole situation largely schematic.
The Jewish and Argentine parts of the story are also essentially unrelated. Kaddish is an hijo de puta, a son of a whore, and a child of Buenos Aires's old Jewish underworld, and as such he is shunned by the respectable members of the community. But those upright citizens, or at least the ones who also have underworld roots, do have a use for him: They pay him to chisel their forebears' names off their tombstones, lest anyone start drawing unwelcome connections. When one of his customers, a plastic surgeon, can't afford the bill, he pays by giving Kaddish and Lillian free nose jobs. The symbolism is not hard to decipher: These Jews are all chipping away at their identities, effacing their Jewishness so as to fit the profile of gentile, anti-Semitic Argentina. But Pato's disappearance, though Englander seems to want us to read it as a parallel effacement, has nothing to do with any of that. He's not arrested because he's Jewish, he's arrested because he's a leftist, and Kaddish and Lillian are not stymied in their pitiable efforts to retrieve him because they're Jewish either. Nor is their response to the tragedy significantly inflected by their Jewishness, though Englander makes some largely symbolic gestures in that direction (including the choice of Kaddish's name). The two parts of the story exert little creative pressure on each other.
Another difference between these two novels is their language. In literature, style is the main transmission cable of imaginative force. Whether a novelist can conjure feeling and compel belief rests less on what he or she tells us than on how. Chabon's vivid style is charged not primarily by his alert diction or tight syntax or ear for idiom or even by his keen sense of humor but by his prodigious talent for simile and metaphor. Consider the following passage, in which the figures of speech have been italicized:
He stands by the window, watching the sky that is like a mosaic pieced together from the broken shards of a thousand mirrors, each one tinted a different shade of gray. The winter sky of southeastern Alaska is a Talmud of gray, an inexhaustible commentary on a Torah of rain clouds and dying light. Uncle Hertz has always been the most competent, self-assured man Landsman knows, neat as an origami airplane, a quick paper needle folded with precision, impervious to turbulence. Accurate, methodical, dispassionate. There were always hints of shadow, of irrationality and violence, but they were contained behind the wall of Hertz's mysterious Indian adventures, hidden on the far side of the Line, covered over by him with the careful backward kicks of an animal concealing its spoor. But now a memory surfaces in Landsman from the days following his father's death, of Uncle Hertz sitting crumpled like a wad of tissue in a corner of the kitchen on Adler Street, shirttails hanging, no order to this hair, shirt misbuttoned, the dwindling contents of a bottle of slivovitz on the kitchen table beside him marking like a barometer the plummeting atmosphere of his grief.
The density of figuration is unusually high even by Chabon's standards, though not by much. Its brilliance is not unusual at all. The most elaborate of these figures, "Talmud/Torah," grows out of the novel's thematics, but the rest take their range from everyday experience (Chabon is clearly someone on whom nothing is lost) and seem to come to him (but undoubtedly only seem to) as easily as breathing. Each radiates implications and associations--Uncle Hertz's persona as artfully self-fashioned; Uncle Hertz as an unclean, cunning beast; the snot and tears of grief--that amplify the literal, linear sense of the passage. This is how Chabon gives his writing its reach, by continually unfolding half-conscious extensions of feeling and meaning in every direction.
Englander's prose, by contrast, is prostrate. Sometimes it's not even grammatically correct. Dangling participles are a specialty of his; this sentence manages to pack in both a dangling participle and a misplaced modifier: "The table itself was upholstered in fine leather and padded, so that in jotting down the names twice Kaddish's pen poked through." (What exactly do book editors do these days?) More often his writing is simply clumsy or unclear or flat. After more than 100 pages of clanking preliminary exposition, the novel does finally start to wake up with Pato's disappearance, especially in a series of confrontations in which Kaddish and Lillian vent their rage, sometimes improbably, at figures of authority. Englander's writing gets better at this point, too, as if he'd finally reached the part that interests him.
But he also violates, late in the game, the novel's point of view--which had been confined after Pato's disappearance to one or the other of his parents--in order to convey certain information about the young man as well as to inject a spurious note of lyricism into the proceedings. This isn't just a technical matter; the story's dramatic tension had depended on our sharing Kaddish and Lillian's ignorance of their son's fate, but then Englander decides to try to have it both ways. I don't think Englander's first book, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was nearly as good as everyone said--its two allegorical tales are strong, but its half-dozen stories of contemporary Orthodox life lead up, in my view, to some pretty feeble epiphanies--but it was certainly better than this. Given that it's been eight years since the previous volume, it's safe to assume that Englander ran into a lot of problems with the new book, and if so, many of them were never solved. The novel feels like it was written in handcuffs.