The Imaginary Jew

The Imaginary Jew

Two new novels, by Michael Chabon and Nathan Englander, recharge the modern Jewish experience with a sense of the exotic.


American Jewish experience is not what it used to be, and neither is American Jewish fiction. During the three decades after World War II, American Jews were still making the trek from city to suburb, working to middle class, immigration to assimilation. The old country was still fresh in memory, its accents and attitudes still potent in their hold over feeling and expression. Anti-Semitism was still pervasive, the Holocaust a recent event, Israel a source of unmitigated pride. The American Jewish writers who emerged during those years gave form to those experiences (and to those of a still earlier time, the prewar decades during which they had grown up) with a power and virtuosity that brought them to the front rank of American letters: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick and, in authorized translation, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

But over the past three decades, the dense particularity of American Jewish life has, outside the Orthodox community, largely disappeared. No one speaks Yiddish anymore, or even English that sounds like Yiddish. There may be suburbs with a lot of Jews, but there are no Jewish suburbs as there were once Jewish neighborhoods. With Jews as senators and governors and Ivy League presidents, the wounding, binding sense of exclusion has melted away. Communal institutions remain strong, traditions are still cherished, but American Jewish experience is now, by and large, simply American experience. Jewish mothers don’t say “Ess, ess” anymore; they say, “Do you want me to call Sophia’s mom to make a playdate?”

While there are young Jewish writers aplenty, no important voice has emerged to speak about contemporary Jewish life. Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, perhaps the finest recent novel by a young Jewish writer, is not about being Jewish at all; it’s about the quintessentially American subject of race. But there have always been Jewish writers who have chosen to speak about things other than being Jewish (most notably, in the Bellow-Roth generation, Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger). What’s really telling about the current state of Jewish fiction is that even those prominent young writers who do speak about Jewish experience don’t speak about contemporary experience.

In other words, they don’t speak about their own experience. The most celebrated of these authors are probably the two under review here and Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated reaches back to the Holocaust and the grandparental generation (as does Daniel Mendelsohn’s acclaimed recent memoir The Lost). Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is set in New York and Prague during the war; his new novel, a work of counterfactual history like Roth’s The Plot Against America, in an imaginary Jewish autonomous region in the Alaskan panhandle. About half the stories in Nathan Englander’s PEN/Malamud Award-winning For the Relief of Unbearable Urges are set in the Orthodox world of his youth, but the two strongest are allegorical tales of European persecution, and his new novel takes place in Argentina during the “dirty war” of the late 1970s.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but the phenomenon does cry out for explanation. It’s hard enough giving reasons why someone chooses to write something, let alone why he chooses not to, but Chabon’s work offers a clue. The narrator-protagonist of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, is the son of a Jewish gangster. The narrator-protagonist of his second novel, Wonder Boys, is a gentile married to a Jew, and his account of her family’s Passover Seder draws its brilliance and wicked humor from his outsider’s defamiliarizing gaze. Chabon’s detective novella The Final Solution centers on the relationship between a young German-Jewish refugee and Sherlock Holmes. Gentlemen of the Road, the tale just serialized in The New York Times Magazine, follows a group of adventurers in the tenth-century Jewish kingdom of the Khazars. It’s safe to say that Chabon likes his Jews exotic or, more to the point, wants to recharge Judaism with a sense of the exotic, a sense that the horizon of Jewish experience is wider than the boundaries of middle-class American life. As for Englander, who grew up on Long Island, he recently quipped in an interview about his new work that “in terms of personal experience, my only other option was to set this novel at the Roosevelt Field mall.”

My own experience tells me that American Judaism has long been beset by a deep sense of banality and inauthenticity. To the usual self-contempt of the liberal middle class is added the feeling that genuine Jewish life is always elsewhere: in Israel or the shtetl, among the immigrant generation or the ultra-Orthodox. Jewish culture as lived by the non-Orthodox tends to feel bland and thin even to its practitioners–the last, worn coins of a princely inheritance. (To those who have fled Orthodox backgrounds, like Englander and myself, that very different milieu tends to feel, for all its traditionalism, spiritually dead.) The most visible of the current generation of self-consciously Jewish novelists appear to be avoiding their own experience because their own experience just seems too boring. What is there to say about it? Better to write about a time or place where there was more at stake.

That’s certainly what Chabon does in his remarkable new novel. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union invents an entire world out of whole cloth, one almost comparable in scope to the Republic of Costaguana in Conrad’s Nostromo, though Chabon’s models were more likely the science fiction he’s talked about having loved since he was a kid. The district of Sitka, we’re given to understand, was set up in 1940 as a refuge for Jews fleeing Hitler. Since then, it’s maintained uneasy relationships with the Alaska Natives, with American Jews and with the American government itself, since the settlement was only ever intended to be provisional. But with Israel, in this universe, having lost its war of independence, the Sitka Jews, forbidden from entering the United States proper, have nowhere else to go. In their sixty years of existence, they’ve built up a complete Yiddish-speaking society on their narrow strip of gloomy coast. Since this is a hard-boiled detective story, we tend to see that society’s underside: cops, gangsters, hookers and junkies; historical events like the Shavuos Massacre and the Synagogue Riots; Sholem-Aleykhem Park and Max Nordau Street; the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria and Bronfman U.

Reading the novel is like wandering through a dream where the State of Israel has been crossbred with Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles and 1930s Warsaw. We encounter the familiar Jewish sociology of Yekkes vs. Galitzers (Jews from Germany vs. those from Polish Galicia), the religious semiology of needlework yarmulkes vs. velvet yarmulkes vs. black hats. A cop is a “shammes” (watchman), a detective a “noz” (nose), a cellphone a “Shoyfer.” The slang for “fellow” is “yid.”

The wit and brio of Chabon’s inventiveness are unfailingly delightful, but he’s also playing a deeper game. Sitka is Chabon’s laboratory for creating something that never had a chance to exist in the real world: a modern Jewish society that embodies the spirit of traditional European Jewish life–its language, its mentality, its ways. Israel was founded as a historical break with Diaspora (hence, among other things, the revival of Hebrew as an alternative to Yiddish), and its establishment as a haven and beacon created a discontinuity of experience within the Diaspora itself. Even the Diaspora is no longer the Diaspora. But in Sitka, it is. Chabon’s model world is an arena for exploring the Jewish psyche under conditions of purity and pressure that don’t exist in real life.

For Sitka’s Jews aren’t just ghettoized and concentrated; they are also on the verge of expulsion. The novel is set on the eve of “Reversion,” when the district will go back to Alaskan control and its 2 million Jews will be left scrambling to find the next land of exile. The story begins in classic hard-boiled fashion, when a dead body is discovered in the flophouse where Detective Meyer Landsman, our embittered but oddly noble antihero, has been making love to a bottle of slivovitz since splitting with his wife. But as Landsman starts to pull on that one thread, the whole story of Sitka and Reversion begins to unravel. The anonymous corpse turns out to be connected to a sect of ultra-Orthodox gangsters, in turn connected to a series of shady operators and shadowy figures intent on finding a Messiah to lead the Jewish people out of Alaska and into the Promised Land.

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.

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.

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