Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
Netherland is a good book, and much has already been written, here and elsewhere, to that effect. Its central conceit, that of the New York City immigrant subculture of cricket, provides a fresh perspective on a city about which so much has already been written, and the parallel story, of the dissolution of lonely Hans van der Broek’s marriage, often cuts with the immediacy of real, unmitigated loss. But, and of course there is a but — and perhaps it’s only due to my predilection for stories that come at me “like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky,” as Stephen King put it in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 2007 — there is a deep problem with Netherland, and it’s that the book more often exemplifies rather than illuminates the central dilemma that draws its attention, the modern challenge of an individual trying to author a coherent story for his own life.This is the problem facing Hans van der Broek as he surveys post-9/11 New York from his rented two-bedroom apartment in the eclectic Chelsea Hotel. His wife Rachel has decamped to London, taking their young son Jake with her. Her reason for leaving is ostensibly fear of another terrorist attack but really the problem is with Hans who seems barely present, wrapped in a malaise of his own divining. In Rachel’s absence Hans falls into the subculture of city cricket. He’s taking his suitcase out of the trunk of a taxi cab when he spies the driver’s cricket bat lying in the wheel well. He inquires as he pays, and the next Saturday he’s standing on a field on Staten Island, the only white man on a team of immigrants from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other former colonial tracts. Reading Hans’ conversation with the cab driver, I was struck by the improbability of the social engagement that results. The divide between driver and passenger in a New York City cab is typically absolute and O’Neill presents their conversation as something like Alice’s rabbit hole, a whole new world revealed in plain sight. By contrast with Alice’s journey, though, Hans’ is fairly low stakes. He is a tourist, not an adventurer in this new world.Hans becomes a regular on the cricket pitch, through which he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant with an entrepreneur’s interest in cricket, though no real talent for the game. Chuck dreams of building a cricket stadium on deserted waterfront property in Brooklyn, thereby restoring New York – and America – to its cricket roots and making himself rich at the same time. Hans takes quickly and casually to Chuck, explaining, “Because his deviousness was so transparent and because it alternated with an immigrant’s credulousness… I found all the feinting and dodging and thrusting oddly soothing.” Hans finds Chuck’s presence soothing, but not important. He has time on his hands with his family across the pond, and in that context, Chuck is a convenient diversion, a placeholder. There is never anything Hans has to learn from Chuck, or accomplish with him in order to get his life back on track. Such tenuous relationships are not the stuff of great literature, and absent real stakes in the story, the character of Chuck Ramkissoon is more inventive than artful.Much the same is true of the rest of the architecture of Netherland, which comes across as contrived and clever more often than real and human. Certain problems are established at the outset of the book – a murder and a de facto divorce – but there is little effort throughout the narrative to explore them, unravel them, or even, often enough, to address them. Instead, Hans flits episodically through life in New York and remembrances of his childhood. Netherland is a character study more than a story and the central challenge facing the character is that he’s been unable to craft a coherent story for his own life, one fortified with governing values, purposeful action, and consequential relationships. What’s true in life turns out to be true in novels, too. It is hard to have a good one without those things.In one particularly well-wrought episode from the book, Hans is approached in a Manhattan diner by Danielle, a fleeting acquaintance from his former life in London. The two go on a date and then pass a romping night together in Hans’ apartment. Danielle has no precursor in the story, nor any legs. She appears and disappears and at the end of her section, I wrote in exasperation, “Is it possible to deepen an understanding of the character without deepening the plot?” In Netherland the events are connected only through Hans, as he experiences and remembers them. This leads, in Hans, to a sense of vertigo and groundlessness, tethered as he is only to himself. In me as a reader, it led, quite frankly, only to boredom. My intellect was engaged and my aesthetic sensibilities stimulated, but at almost no point in the book did I really care about what was happening.Halfway through the book, Hans takes shoeboxes of old photographs to a woman named Eliza who arranges photo albums for a living. She says to Hans, describing her work, “People want a story. They like a story,” to which Hans replies, “A story. Yes. That’s what I need.” Tantalized by O’Neill’s writing and very often drawn in by the creativity of his sets, I was filled with optimism as I read this. A story was all that remained to redeem Netherland, just as it was all that remained to rehabilitate Hans. But unfortunately, the story never comes, and the lasting impression of Netherland is a thought, an idea, not a feeling, and it is not for such things that I read novels.See also: Garth’s take on Netherland
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel richly rooted in its conservative northern Nigerian context, yet it is a novel that asks universal questions — is it possible to change someone you love, possible even to challenge the rules of who can be loved and why? On the surface, the novel is the story of Hajiya Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and her affair with a man 30 years her junior — Reza, the so-called “Lord of San Siro.” Reza is a drug dealer who longs for a better life, but is kept back by his flaws, despite Binta’s best efforts to bring him up out of the criminal underworld. But the novel goes beyond a tragic love story and proves not just a biting critique of Nigeria’s political structures but also of its cultural, religious, and gendered norms, challenging what a woman can and can’t do within a conservative society.
The novel unfolds with its focus on Binta, whom we discover has lost her domineering husband to the violent battles between Christians and Muslims in Jos. She longs for a love she has never had in all her years, for unmet desires both sexual as much as relational. With her husband, she “had always wanted it to be different;” she had always wanted “a license to be licentious.” When she makes advances toward her husband and tries to take control of the bedroom, she is punished — “He pinned her down and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” The moment Binta attempts to stretch the boundaries of female agency in her society is the moment she is pushed back into her supposedly proper place.
In many senses, the novel is a cycle of transgressions and consequences for Binta, and as we follow her affair with the young Reza — a thief who appears in Binta’s home and nearly assaults her, and with whom she falls in love — we are left with a desire to see her circumstances change, and yet we feel a sense of dread knowing that the norms she fights against are too entrenched.
Perhaps it is this common bond of transgression that unites the two lovers — Binta and Reza. But it is the desire for bettering their circumstances that works against their relationship and ultimately pulls them apart. Binta wants to take Reza, the gang leader and fixer for a local politician, and turn him into the man she hoped her deceased son, Yaro, would have become had he not been gunned down by police years before: “She was inching closer to his redemption — her redemption, to making him a better person.”
Reza, at the same time, is trying his hardest to distance himself from his mother, who abandoned him in childhood and left his father to become the “whore of Arabia.” When Binta begins to remind Reza of his mother, he meets his lover’s motherly interventions — when she pays his school admission fees, when she quells his temper — with indifference (Freudians really would have a field day with this novel). And it is only when Binta and Reza free themselves from the attachments of who they want each other to be, that they enter the full throes of their sexual relationship. But these moments are only fleeting bits of passion before relational expectations re-enter their lives, exerting force once more over their attempted subversions.
If the characterization of Binta and Reza at times stalls — when Binta becomes an embittered observer of the scenes around her and Reza a temperamental, ineffectual leader obsessed with his own jaded outlook on life — it is the characterization of many of the side characters that carries the novel through some of its slowest parts. Among these characters is Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her aunt after losing her entire family to the Jos religious riots. Fa’iza’s struggle to overcome this trauma, years later, is a major subplot in the novel, including a riveting moment when Fa’iza confesses that she can no longer remember the face of her deceased brother. Ironically, Fa’iza is more prepared than her aunt to face the further trauma that occurs toward the end of the novel, and her “disquieting” calm helps Binta realize there is “nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the same.”
Other strong side characters include Mallam Haruna, a suitor who perpetually invades Binta’s home life to sit near her, listening to his radio and providing a running commentary on the presidential campaign of Muhammadu Buhari as it plays out. The author wisely uses this character to weave in some of the strongest political criticism in the novel, a place where fact and fiction merge. At the same time, Haruna becomes a character the reader learns to hate because of his social maneuvering and rumormongering that ironically prove crucial to the plot of the novel. It is Mallam Haruna after all who first notices Binta and Reza’s trysts, and it is the same man who weasels his way into the presences of certain people of power who prove the catalysts for the novel’s climactic trauma.
And it is also with Haruna that Binta exerts her strongest resistance to the gendered norms of her society. When Binta is repeatedly subjected to criticisms by neighbor women responding to rumors spread by the jealous Haruna, Binta shuts down her suitor’s advances with a bold declaration: “Just allow me to whore myself to whomever I please.”
Sure, Ibrahim’s novel has all the tropes of a romance novel — forbidden love, suppressed desire, sexual exploration (Danielle Steel even gets a mention in the novel) — but what makes this novel so special is its rootedness and resistance to a place the author clearly loves and knows and yet feels frustrated by. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel that questions the conditions of African women within an Islamic context just as Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter does while maintaining the same riveting plot points that could be found in a novel by Helon Habila, Ibrahim’s compatriot. We will be reading Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his future work not only for what he teaches us about place, but for the ways in which the norms of that place are challenged, and the ways we create expectations for one other — expectations that may prove helpful or tragic, or paradoxically the same.
J. Robert Lennon, a highly undervalued writer and one of the great pessimists of our time, has just released a collection of short stories culled from the past 15 years, a period that spans most of his career. He’s a writer’s writer, the kind of guy that isn’t really famous but has published dozens of stories, gets reviewed everywhere, and has a small cadre of intense fans (of which I am one). He grew up in New Jersey and teaches now at Cornell, and his fiction is often set in small, not particularly bucolic northeastern towns.
Lennon’s appeal is, in part, his conversational writing style — his stories are full of the kind of devastation that sneaks up on a reader between witty observations and one-liners. Like the other great pessimists — Stanley Elkin, Leonard Michaels, and Lorrie Moore among them — Lennon’s sense of humor serves him well, and even his most serious work is absent of authorial brooding. Instead, a jittery anxiety pervades Lennon’s work, and his oeuvre reads like a guide to all of the things that can go wrong for, or within, a person.
His new collection of stories, See You in Paradise, exhibits the best of his tragicomic style. The pieces in the book have been published in magazines as diverse as The New Yorker and Weird Tales. Because they cover so much of Lennon’s career (roughly from the publication of his second novel, The Funnies, until the publication of his most recent, Familiar), See You in Paradise is a bit of a literary grab bag of his evolving style. While some stories, like “Farewell Bounder,” follow a well-trod narrative arc, others, like the list-based “The Accursed Items” eschews linear narrative altogether.
I came to Lennon via Mailman, a maximalist novel about a paranoid, perverted mail carrier whose version of going postal involves opening, reading, and archiving the letters on his route. “The way he sees it,” writes Lennon, “his job is to deliver the mail, to bring it from the P.O. to his customers and from his customers to the P.O. This task he reliably accomplishes each day. What happens to the mail in the interim is nobody’s beeswax but his own.”
As a result, Mailman (for that’s what he’s called throughout the book, even though we glean from dialogue that his name is Albert Lippencott) possesses a masterful knowledge of the townspeople. This goes awry when grad student Jared Sprain commits suicide and Mailman realizes that he still has the intercepted letter that might have saved the young man’s life. What’s more, a woman on his route is onto him. In the coffee house in the middle of town, she confronts Mailman and demands answers about his creepy behavior. During their confrontation, Mailman’s manic thoughts intrude:
“I want you. To tell me,” she says, leaning over the table a little and her tanktop falls forward revealing her breasts which he can’t help looking at, which looking she notices and does nothing about and even maybe smiles, seeing that she is right about him, he’s not only a loose wheel, a hothead, a live wire, but is also a sexual predator who takes every opportunity he can to look down girls’ shirts—which is true! He does, he looks! But he’s no predator! He does not in any way connect his aggressive (yes!), violent (it’s true!) feelings against the mailboxes at 200 Kueka to the really-very-nice-to-look-at breasts of this very angry girl herself of which the breasts are a part! Sex and violence are not in any way joined in his worldview!—and she wants him to tell her, she says, “what you were doing…in Jared Sprain’s mailbox. After midnight.”
For Mailman, the “burden” of bearing witness to and absorbing the secrets of the townspeople sends him spiraling into literal madness (characters in Lennon’s fiction often experience change, but rarely for the better). He uses his considerable linguistic dexterity to illustrate Mailman’s scattered mind — his near-stream-of-consciousness interludes are reminiscent of those in Stanley Elkin’s Franchiser — which helps the reader understand Mailman’s anxieties. Mailman both acknowledges and denies his perversity (he cops to peeking down this woman’s shirt, but his bigger problem is that he has a crush on his actress sister). It’s a deft move, like that of a liar who confesses many small sins in avoidance of the larger transgression.
The Guardian called Mailman Lennon’s “application to be regarded as a Great American Novelist,” but the book set off a rough patch in Lennon’s literary career. Mailman was well-received by critics but never caught on, and his next novel, Happy Land, was shelved by his publisher at the last moment due to libel concerns — the main character bore a strong resemblance to American Girl founder Pleasant Rowland. After publishing four books in eight years, Lennon’s career went into a slump, and it was six years between Mailman and his next novel.
He returned with a new set of anxieties, first exhibited in his gothic post-war novel, Castle. His tone had shifted somewhat from his earlier comic fiction, but J. Robert Lennon’s universe was still one in which characters do not trust themselves. They start out ineffective, insecure, or, sometimes, in the case of the deranged Mailman in Mailman, insane, and then find themselves living in worlds where reality shifts, or seems to shift, before their eyes. In Castle, Eric Loesch returns to his hometown, after a long absence, and buys a 600-acre plot of land. In the process of fixing up the dilapidated house that stands on the property, he discovers that there is a castle right in the middle of the land. His deed reveals that this portion of the property is owned by somebody else — only nobody can tell him who. That is one mystery to be solved; the other is the mystery of Eric Loesch himself, an unreliable narrator whose past shifts the second half of the book into a radically unexpected place.
There is a literal shifting of reality in Lennon’s masterwork, Familiar, where Elisa Macalister Brown’s life jumps tracks as she drives home from the gravesite of her difficult teenage son. She finds herself, mid-road trip, in different clothes, a different body. When she returns home, her marriage is different, her job is different, and the man with whom she was having an affair is only a platonic acquaintance. What’s more, her son is alive and grown, although their relationship is no less strained than it had been in the other version of reality, where he had died. In her first life, Silas’s death was both a tragedy and a relief, and she remained close to her older son, Sam. Now both sons are estranged from the parents, lost to a world of gaming on the other side of the country. As the details of Elisa’s life unfold — both before and after the threads of her personal history diverge — readers are left wondering less about which universe is the true one, and more about which version of Elisa and Silas’s relationship is accurate — who tormented whom? (Side note: If you want to scare yourself about raising children, Familiar is an excellent way to do so.)
These themes are echoed somewhat in the opening story of See You in Paradise. In “The Portal,” a family finds an unkept portal in the woods behind their house. At first, this is an occasion for antics; when the family walks through, they find themselves in a parking lot just across town. Told in the first person, it’s a great conveyer for Lennon’s trademark conversational voice, and, at first, the portal is a quick vacation for a family that gets along easily. But, much like in Donald Barthelme’s “I Bought a Little City,” the narrator’s simple-minded optimism quickly gives way to something darker. Each time the family reenters the portal, they are transported into more disturbing worlds, and soon the other worlds are manifestations of each family member’s baser fantasies. Inevitably, their real-world selves change as well; the kids are preteens when the story opens, but with every adventure they inch further from their parents, until at last they are immersed in teenage sulk. With the seams of their family structure stretched, they finally give up on the portal, and togetherness, completely: “The kids were too busy indulging their new selves and quit playing make-believe out in the woods,” Lennon writes. “And Gretchen and I were lost in our private worlds of self-disgust and conjugal disharmony.” It feels like the end of the story, but Lennon keeps going, pushing past the plot and trading the true magic of the portal for the magic of happy relationships and intact families, riffing on who has them and who doesn’t.
A different type of family dynamic is at work in the title story, “See You in Paradise,” when Brant Call, alumni magazine editor and blandly nice guy, gets involved with the daughter of a rich alumnus. Through sheer inertia, they become an item. Lennon brilliantly employs the passive voice to describe their courtship, as in, “Brant and Cynthia were seen around together, holding hands and smooching on benches.” Brant gets an offer from Cynthia’s father, a chance to man his company’s offshore headquarters in exchange for permission to marry Cynthia. Brant isn’t sure he even wants to be with her, but decides to take the offer. The headquarters is a junky hut in the middle of nowhere, and once he arrives he is, more or less, alone. Brant is a cipher, and without anyone to lead him, he settles into what can generously be called piggish depravity. And things go downhill for him from there.
One of his funniest stories in the book, “The Future Journal,” follows Luther, an elementary school science teacher, after he abruptly quits his job. At one point, he sings “in the operatic style,” about having quit:
I finally got fed up with BSE
I quit my job, albeit cowardly
Ne’er again shall I have to say this:
Plants make food through photosynthesis!
He is the buffoon: he quits by telling his girlfriend, a fellow schoolteacher, to give his boss the shove on Luther’s behalf; he writes checks at a fast food restaurant; he tries, in a kind of post-outburst panic, to meditate, but falls asleep. It’s the kind of silliness that is filled with pathos — if I were a matchmaker of literary characters, I might fix Luther up with Lorrie Moore’s Agnes from “Agnes of Iowa.” Luther’s mini-breakdown leads him to his ex-wife’s house, where he visits his beloved young daughter. Like most of Lennon’s characters, Luther’s affability is tinged with menace — he sneaks into the house, where he surprises his daughter in her room. Their reunion is sweet, and after everyone has gone to bed, Luther sneaks back out.
[T]here was no noise and little light. The master bedroom door was shut. I wanted to go in, I wanted to see my ex-wife sleeping, but of course I didn’t. This is just not something people do. I tippy-toed down the stairs and out the door. No alarm, of course. They are convinced they are safe, and they’re probably right. The world is not as dangerous as we like to think.
Whether it’s in “No Life,” where an infertile couple visits potential adoptees, or “Ecstasy,” when a young babysitter finds out the children’s parents have been killed, the stories here are very much about familial love, and all the things can go wrong for, or in, a family. And it’s the anxiety of parenthood — not of making mistakes, but of a parent’s crushing love and the vulnerability it exposes — that stands out most in this exceptionally readable, devastating collection.
Very few religious texts ever leave the place of worship. If you consult the Kol Nidre any night other than on Yom Kippur, it sings a little less powerfully. It seems inappropriate and off-putting to read over the Passion at any time beyond Easter. The line between holy writ and popular lit is drawn in stone, pitting our reading inclinations tablet against text, and so your choice becomes one of either total secularity or total Orthodoxy. So the stories that compel us are limited to their moment of application — Yom Kippur transforms into a fast and break-fast, and Easter turns into a celebration of bunnies and chocolate. Only one form of religious storytelling is ever permitted to bleed into the secular space — the Haggadah, the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and the book of prayer to accompany the Passover Seder.
This story gains new complexity and unanticipated fluidity in The New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. Foer and Englander’s edition is less a makeover than a workout — by opening up the Passover story, giving stiff words new flexibility, and prodding the text’s eternal questions, they have given readers, both devout and secular, a newly rich and provocative text, one that can be enjoyed long after the afikomen is found. The book is classically laid out, with Hebrew text on the right-hand page (gorgeously illustrated in texturally rich watercolor by the Israeli typographer Oded Ezer) and Englander’s translation on the left. At the top runs a timeline from Mia Sara Bruch, a scholar of Jewish history at Stanford University, charting the history of the Jews from 1200 BCE to present day, from the moment of the actual diaspora’s commencement to the reading of the Haggadah today, creating a throughline of historical relevance for the reader. Some readers may feel the text is wanting for a transliteration, but its book is an engaging read despite its absence. I found myself turning the pages in all directions, searching my years of Hebrew school for a language I’ve forgotten, and lost myself in the experience of the text.
The New American Haggadah’s strengths are especially prominent in the commentary dispersed throughout the text. Each major portion of the Seder is accompanied by four perspectives — Middle-East historian Jeffrey Goldberg (“Nation”), director of the Center of Jewish Studies, Nathaniel Deutsch (“House of Study”), novelist and scholar Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (“Library”), and novelist Lemony Snicket (“Playground”). These contrasting voices bring out the multitudes of questions and quandaries inherent in the Passover story, and by secularizing the commentary, giving it over to political, liturgical, literary, and elementary analysis, they have made this into a vitally relevant piece of philosophical inquiry. Goldberg’s “Nation” contributions are especially vital, contextualizing the Seder as a moral code that we as global citizens have tried (and failed) to uphold. (Sharp eyes will immediately scan the text for his take on the Israel-Palestine quagmire.) And Snicket’s witty asides bring the perfect amount of snark to the text — it will keep the antsy adolescent attendee entertained throughout the Seder while keeping them engaged with the evening’s message. (Especially great is the retort to that ever-condescending narration of the Four Children — Snicket offers, as an antidote, “The Four Parents.”) Ending the Seder with Snicket’s Seinfeldian examination of the bizarre Aramaic song, “Chad Gadya,” lets you leave the table with a belly laugh — made even more enjoyable after the required four glasses of wine.
What makes this volume such a pleasure to read, and what makes it the best book of modern religious thought in recent memory, is its demand that dialogue be a central part of worship. “Tonight is the night,” Goldstein says, “that we sanctify storytelling,” and nowhere is this more clear than in Englander’s translation, framed with the essence of narrative-in-community in mind: “Adonai” becomes “Lord God-of-us, King of the Cosmos.” The latter half is a bit grandiose, but the first part is spot-on. The voice of the storyteller-as-representative of the audience is central, and the translation of the Seder’s outline suddenly clarifies why each part is crucial — reading each stage as one line of dictation, “Sanctify and wash; dip split and tell; be washed and bless the poor man’s bread; bitter, bundle, and set down to eat; hide it and bless; praise it; be pleased.” Prayers are translated leniently, as if preparing for the not-so-adherent Jew, i.e. if you fail to dispose of all the leavened bread in your house, it’s no big whup. And he lets the beauty of the language flow, turning prayers into poems. In a prayer for compassion, the plea is to “rescue and recover them — delivering them from gorge to meadow, from darkness to light. Break them free of their shackles and lead them on to salvation. Do it with speed and in our days, and let us all say, Amen.”
Within each newly framed line, however, is a question — not one of the four questions, not even the major one, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” The question is the ambivalence of our worship: how, in a universe where chosen people were forgotten and made to toil under the yoke of slavery, and where their exodus came only at the price of further slaughter and plagues of suffering, do we believe and enact justice as spiritual citizens? The question of how to be good in a world that has not been good to us, colors Ezer’s powerfully violent illustrations for the 10 plagues. And yet these unanswerable questions do not defeat us as readers, but emboldens us. Ambivalence is empowering, for it demands that we debate and engage with our faith. In Englander’s translation on the Shema, the holiest of prayers; he says, “Blessed is the One that is Space and the Source of Space, the One that is the World but whom the World cannot contain…” In the complexity of our devotion are the unanswerable details of how we maintain faith. The most provocative sequence, in which a single illustrated word vibrates in pale green and which Englander translates to “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?,” made me run to several different books in attempting to find the exact Hebrew transliteration, all to no avail. Yet in the searching for the transliteration, I felt more connected to the Passover story than ever before.
As Foer notes in his introduction, “Here we are, as night descends in succession over all of the Jews in the world, with a book in front of us.” No other holiday is so centered on storytelling, so focused on the power of narrative and the responsibility that narrative bears. And so this night becomes a living narrative, and so each time we gather around the Seder table to tell it, we imbue it with new possibility. “Here we are,” Foer says, “individuals remembering a shared past and in pursuit of a shared destiny. The Seder is a protest against despair.” Though we may wish to parcel out our moments of religious contemplation, leaving the big questions for the synagogue, The New American Haggadah makes worship a radical act of intellectual inquiry. Goldstein says, “It is the intimate spaces that the unwelcome and necessary revelations come, and we withdraw from those intimate spaces at our peril.” By bringing old stories and new questions together at the Seder table, we ask the unwelcome questions, and the revelations come in multitudes.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.