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.”