The Imaginary Jew
There is one respect in which Englander's book has the advantage over Chabon's, and that has to do with the writers' choices of genre. Chabon has spoken frequently about his love of "genre" fiction--horror stories, ghost stories, spy stories and so forth--and it is clearly part of his project to reclaim those forms for serious literature. His last four works all make use of such forms: the hard-boiled detective story here, the genteel detective story in The Final Solution, the adventure story in Gentlemen of the Road and the fantasy story in Summerland, a novel for young adults. There are also strong genre elements in Kavalier & Clay. A born storyteller, Chabon handles the conventions in each case with practiced skill, and in at least two cases, here and The Final Solution, he succeeds in endowing his adopted forms with the significance of high art.
But the new novel also shows the limits of his project. Throughout its history, the novel has refreshed itself by drawing from the well of popular fiction. Cervantes appropriated chivalric romance, the airport novels of his day, in founding modern European fiction with Don Quixote. Jane Austen began her career by rewriting the Gothic and sentimental novels of the late eighteenth century. James Joyce makes use of popular forms at several points in Ulysses. The appropriation of genre conventions infuses serious fiction with the energy and exuberance of popular writing. It reconnects high art with the novel's eternal source in sheer readerly pleasure, serving as an antidote to academic effeteness, snobbish fastidiousness, solipsistic introspection and arid formal experimentation. No wonder the practice largely stopped with Joyce--most novelists since have been too nervous about being taken seriously to be seen trafficking with low forms--and no wonder Chabon wants to revive it.
The difference between him and Cervantes, Austen and Joyce is that the older writers all made use of popular forms in the spirit of parody. They didn't simply reproduce them; they rewrote them so as to appropriate their energy while simultaneously marking their limitations. In each case, they used the falsifications of ossified conventions--the improbability of chivalric romance or Gothic fiction, the emotional mendacity of sentimentalism--as a springboard to a reinvigorated realism. The novel has continually renewed itself not by embracing genre fiction but by arguing with it. Here, Chabon lets himself get trapped by it. The novel's plot keeps you turning the pages, but because the conventions of its chosen genre are so firmly established, its surprises are entirely predictable: The dick will run afoul of his superiors but press ahead nevertheless; the dick will fall into the bad guys' clutches but get rescued at the last minute; the dick will solve the murder, and turn his life around, in the final chapter. The profundity of Chabon's exploration of Jewish themes remains after the novel is over, but as with any detective story, the appeal of its plot evaporates once you learn how it turns out. And in the last chapters, because of the conventions Chabon has imposed on himself, his story gets away from him. Once the dimensions of the plot Landsman uncovers expand from the local to the geopolitical, the detective framework can no longer contain them, and the biggest events, which necessarily happen offstage, simply cease to seem real.
There's a more fundamental problem with Chabon's generic choice. Because the novel's plot moves are prescribed by its genre, the characters' choices are similarly prescribed. Freedom of will and uncertainty of fate, the constitutive features of the novel's existence as an arena of moral reflection--the constitutive features of any serious narrative art--are absent. The outcome is fixed rather than open, and the story drives the characters instead of the reverse. (It's no accident that, as Chabon has pointed out elsewhere, the common characteristic of all genre fiction is a strong plot.) But in The Ministry of Special Cases, the very essence of Kaddish and Lillian's situation is that they don't know how events will turn out, or even how to influence them. They wake up every day having to decide what to do to try to get their son back, and they don't even know if their efforts will make things worse. This is the novel's one strength: the sensitivity with which it traces the agonized process by which a mother and a father, individually and often at cross-purposes, try to wrest a child, or at least an answer, from a faceless and brutal bureaucracy.
This is not, as I noted, a particularly Jewish dilemma, and I half wonder why Englander felt the need to make his characters Jewish at all, especially since, given their estrangement from both the Jewish community and Jewish tradition, there's so very little that's Jewish about them. As for Chabon, it is telling that the rich complexity of Jewish meanings he manages to develop in an invented Jewish Alaska he has not thus far shown any faith in being able to locate in contemporary Jewish America. His novel is a stunning act of imagination, but it underscores all too clearly the extent to which American Jewish experience, insofar as it possesses the kind of density necessary for it to function as a substrate for fiction, is receding, precisely, into the realm of the imaginary.