When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
How to put this delicately? Philip Roth’s fifteenth novel, Sabbath’s Theater, is [email protected]#$ing filthy. Between its covers are dispensed volumes of bodily fluids that put your average Roger Corman flick to shame, and in its frankness about the attendant pneumatics – the ins and outs, the reservoirs and receptacles – the book makes Nicholson Baker’s “manstarch” look like so much marzipan, and The Rosy Crucifixion look like Make Way for Ducklings. Even Roth’s own earlier work starts to seem prim by comparison. Take, for example, the treatment of that Rothian hobbyhorse, onanism. In 1969, Alexander Portnoy’s violation of a piece of raw liver may well have been shocking. But in Sabbath’s Theater, published 26 years later, we watch the titular Mickey Sabbath visit a moonlit cemetery to jerk off onto his mistress’ grave. Not impressed? Consider that Sabbath’s efforts to commune with the late Drenka Balich are interrupted by a fellow mourner who has come to do the same (in all senses of the phrase). And that Sabbath sticks around to watch, and to snatch the bouquet on which his rival has climaxed.
Imagine then if someone had happened upon him that night, in the woods a quarter mile down from the cemetery, licking from his fingers Lewis’s sperm and, beneath the full moon, chanting aloud, “I am Drenka! I am Drenka!”
This is on page 78. The novel is 451 pages long.
Sabbath’s assignations may often approach the “top this” rhythm of vaudeville, but the sex in Sabbath’s Theater is also, as the mortuary setting here suggests, deadly serious. As in real life, lust is tangled up in a larger complex of forces encompassing morality, mortality, politics, history, and metaphysics…not to mention personal pathology. Mickey Sabbath is, at 64, a disgraced puppeteer and the last surviving member of his nuclear family. And in the wake of Drenka’s death, “Something horrible is happening.” He is rapidly approaching the end of his second marriage, and perhaps of his life more broadly. In the days that follow that overture in the graveyard, he will attend one friend’s funeral, proposition another friend’s wife, fight with his own wife, impersonate a homeless man, and contemplate suicide, all while maintaining a vigorous schedule of self-abuse. His trajectory, roughly, is King Lear’s – a comparison Sabbath’s Theater invites explicitly. But Sabbath, a triple-threat manipulator (i.e., by trade, inclination, and compulsion), can’t quite decide if he wants to play the potentate or the court jester.
His oscillations make the book excruciatingly funny, as real transgression often is. But they also license Sabbath – as madness licenses Lear and convention licenses his Fool – to voice painful truths, of the “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods” variety. Roth is monomaniacally committed to the perspective of his protagonist, and his free indirect narration (gravitating toward stream-of-consciousness) takes as its ground-note the proposition that, in the face of death, life is meaningless. But as Sabbath tests it, again and again, he somewhat bafflingly proves the opposite. In the love the novel lavishes on even the most sordid details, that is, and in the beautiful American idiom of its ire, Sabbath’s Theater amounts to a kind of perverse hymn.
This is not to say it’s pitched in a key all readers will respond to. Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” publisher Carmen Callil complained earlier this year, vis-a-vis her decision to resign in protest from the panel that had awarded him the Man Booker International Prize. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” She was exactly right, of course; she just couldn’t hear that she was describing Roth’s ambitions, rather than his shortcomings. (In a just world, all future editions of Roth’s novels would carry these sentences as a blurb.)
In recent years, Sabbath’s Theater has tended to get lost in the shadow cast by its more respectable successors. The late-innings Roth revival people love to talk about gets dated to 1997, when he brought forth the first volume of what the folks in marketing tell us we now have to refer to as The American Trilogy. Which, by the way: yuck. Yet if we ignore Roth’s self-conscious, not to say obsessive-compulsive, curation of his own oeuvre (“Kepesh Books” ; “Roth Books” ; “Nemeses” (?)), the picture is more complicated. Zuckerman Bound (1979-83) is phenomenal; William H. Gass called The Counterlife, from 1986, “a triumph.” According to Leaving a Doll’s House, the tell-all memoir written by his ex-wife Claire Bloom (and published in the U.K., not coincidentally, by Carmen Callil), Roth himself felt his 1993’s Operation Shylock to be his masterpiece. (It’s at least partly his disappointment with Shylock’s reception fueling Mickey Sabbath’s eloquent outrage). If there was any lull in Roth’s powers, it was the six-year period between The Counterlife and Shylock – no longer than the period separating Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. And let us not forget that Sabbath’s Theater won the 1995 National Book Award.
It may be easier for, say, Michiko Kakutani to empathize with American Pastoral‘s Swede Levov than to embrace the rebarbative Mickey Sabbath. But it would have been just as useful to group these two together as to repackage another Zuckerman troika. Levov and Sabbath are obverse sides of the same coin – the same story, approached from different angles. Indeed, Sabbath’s foil Norman Cowan – “that impressive American thing…a nice rich guy with some depth” – looks very much like a sketch for the Swede. Comedy and tragedy, rectitude and blasphemy, responsibility and freedom, love and rage, meaning and meaninglessness and all the extremes that threaten to rip apart American life…”on and on and on about the same subject,” yes, but what a subject! And whereas its formulation in American Pastoral feels like a departure (which, on Carmen Callil’s terms, is a good thing) the savage and profane Sabbath’s Theater – this face-sitting, breath-taking brute – is Roth’s most Roth-y book. Which is to say, his best.
In the fall of 2005, when my first novel came out, I was invited to speak to the Jewish Book Council, a group of representatives of Jewish community centers and synagogues from across the country. I was one of about 25 writers who were to stand before them that afternoon, in the first of two or three sessions they’d hold.
We were all sorts of Jewish writers, corralled into a giant hall—a handwriting analyst who had written about the signatures of celebrity Jews, a young woman who had gone to China to teach English but had ended up starring in a soap opera there, and Ira Katznelson, the great Columbia University historian, who that year had written a book about racial inequality in 20th Century America.
We were called up, one after another, and allotted two minutes each. They sat in front of us, mostly late-middle aged, mostly female, presumably Jewish, all of them with reading glasses and notebooks—the scariest possible bar mitzvah crowd, deciding whom to invite to speak to their particular audiences, in San Diego or Palm Springs or Shaker Heights. I was given an orange tag, not a red one, which meant I had to leave before hors d’oeuvres got served, and since my last name begins with B, I went early in the program.
Usually I do pretty well in front of audience, but this time I blew it. Did I mention, when I got to the podium, that I had published a previous book of stories, or that the stories had won some big awards? Did I say that one of the awards I’d won had been Jewish? No. I told them I lived in Brooklyn, and I mumbled something about how my novel had been a labor of love, and how I hoped they would love it too, if they read it. Then I wandered past my seat (the only writer not to return to his seat), and went to the back where the wine glasses were (nobody else had touched a wine glass), and in full view of the ladies, downed a plastic glass of cheap Chablis.
Still, I got a couple of gigs.
Even now, a good half of the paid readings I get invited to are sponsored by Jewish organizations. In fact, Jewish readers took interest in me even before they had read me. When my first story was published in Zoetrope, there was an item about it in the Jewish Daily Forward, in their Walter Winchel-esque “Knickerbocker” gossip column, “Gabriel Brownstein has published a story.” —the assumption being (I guess) that their readers were rooting for a guy with my name. Even non-Jews take interest in me as a Jew. About 90% of the time I get book reviews assigned, the authors of the books are Jewish. I’m not complaining—those books have been good—but had my father dropped the second syllable of his last name, no way would you see my by-line on an article about Singer or Roth.
“Are you a Jewish writer?”
That’s the big question—the question every Jewish writer gets asked when he stands before a Jewish crowd. It’s a question about allegiance, I guess, about identity—and because the answer is so obvious (my last name is Brownstein, I’m sitting in a synagogue basement, hawking a book) it feels a little bit needling, posed with a raised eyebrow, and the eyebrow I imagine is my late Great Aunt Henya’s, drawn in an orange pencil to match her permanent’s rinse.
I’ve worked out different replies. The rim shot: “No, I’m a Korean gynocologist.” Or “Yeh, yeh,” with the flap of the hand (Yiddish being the only language where a double positive is a negative). But the fact is inescapable: Were I to convert to Catholicism and to renounce the pen for dentistry, that would only make me a more interesting Jewish writer.
As a kid, I’ll admit it, I thought of them like an all-star team, The American Jews—Saul “The Sultan of Swat” Bellow roaming right, Bern “the Iron Horse” Malamud at first, Grace “Pee-Wee” Paley, the slick-fielding shortstop, and in center my hero, Phil “The Jersey Clipper” Roth. All I wanted, maybe starting at about fifteen, was to be a utility infielder on that squad, maybe a pinch runner, but certainly to wear the uniform. And that uniform was never the long black coat and yarmulke. Alexander Portnoy wanted to be “just a center fielder,” not a Jewish center fielder. None of my heroes took the field with a big YIDDLE on their chest, or played for the home team. And that’s what drew me to them—their ambiguity, their irony, the same things, it turns out, Cleanth Brooks liked about literature.
My team by now has won so many championships that their influence is pervasive. Everyone wants to wear the cap. It’s not just Updike with his Beck books. Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, acknowledged his debt to Bellow and Roth. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is over-populated with brilliant, superreal Jewish caricatures—the assimilated Larchmont housewife, the downtown hippy, the neo-con sage—Franzen (not a Jew) even has a Jewish identity rediscovery subplot. Some of my favorite recent Jewish short stories have been by non-Jews, like Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,“ about a New York painter’s colonoscopy, or Anthony Doerr’s beautiful requiem for a dying Holocaust survivor, “Afterworld.”
Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting article in the Nation about the state of contemporary Jewish letters. He noted that the Jewish subcultures that spawned the great Jewish-American writers of the midcentury are all gone, and that it’s no longer possible to be a Jewish-American writer as Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Paley were, moving from the margin toward the center while embracing both. The Jewish writers of my generation whose subject is most overtly Jewish—Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander—tend to write historical fiction, and they seem not to be following the madcap assimilationist comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint but more the elegiac lyricism of Cynthia Ozick, as in The Shawl—a search for something lost, a search for authenticity. But that search for authenticity is not what I love.
It’s not that I’m ambivalent about being a Jewish writer, but that the kind of Jewish writer I am is ambivalent. I’m more attuned to the dissonant chord than to mournful harmonies, and reading Ozick—ah, she’s so brilliant, nobody’s smarter—I can get uneasy. In the Puttermesser Papers, for instance, a character begins riffing on Yiddish, with its only one word for knife: “By us, we got only messer, you follow? By them they got sword, they got lance, they got halberd . . .. Look it up in the book, you’ll see halberd, you’ll see cutlass, pike, rapier, foil, ten dozen more. By us, pike is a fish.” And it’s feels like a sermon not a story, as if the character is mouthing the author’s beliefs, by us we’re gentle, by them they’re mean, and this for me shades quickly toward Ozick’s politics, the kind of Zionism that brooks no irony or ambiguity, or much sympathy at all for the other guy’s sufferings or cries for justice.
What happens when Jewish fiction becomes identity fiction? Here we come to the difficult thing at the heart of this essay and the heart of contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, i.e., fiction about the Holocaust. Here, irony and ambiguity seem out of place: I may find my ethnicity comic, but Nazis most certainly won’t. Ozick’s “The Shawl” is not the first piece of fiction by an American-born Jew to re-imagine the horrors of the camps, but it is one of the most influential. And “The Shawl” is beautifully written, six-pages long and composed as if in a trance. A mother watches as her child is thrown against the electrified fence of a concentration camp: “And all at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and her balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the voices went mad in their growling.” In direct contradiction of Theodore Adorno’s dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Ozick turns Auschwitz into poetry.
Her writing, in some ways, is the antithesis of the flat-eyed, clear-eyed prose of Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz chronicles the awful banality of the place, and examines the daily bleakness of mass slaughter with his clinical chemist’s eye. As a writer you can’t help but be struck by Ozick’s audacity, but now, thirty years after “The Shawl,” it’s become habitual. Everybody turns Auschwitz into poetry—serious writers like Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Englander, and less serious writers and film-makers and TV-show producers, all the way down to Holocaust kitsch like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A world-wrenching mind-boggling horror—a set of horrors that no one can wrap their mind around—has become a genre, holocaust fiction. And like the Jewish comedy that I so love, the field’s open to everybody. I can hardly go two semesters of creative writing classes (at a Catholic school, natch) without getting a concentration camp story. And yet when I taught Survival in Auschwitz recently in a graduate literature course, my students didn’t much like the book. So dry, they said. So bleak. It was missing something. In most Holocaust stories, they said, you got that little ray of sunshine, of redemption—the triumph of the human spirit.
Bellow, of course, didn’t much like being categorized as a Jewish writer. He was uncomfortable with Isaac Beshevis Singer (“too Jewy”) and joked that he, Malamud, and Roth were the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American letters. The great Jewish writers of the 50s saw identity and history as unsteady things. Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” ends with its hero running from rabbinical studies toward love, and the old matchmaker, Salzman, muttering prayers for the dead. The viewpoint in Roth’s late great Israel novels—The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—is doubled, two Roths, split identities, the whole concept of authenticity set ablaze.
Perhaps in the work of contemporary historical Jewish novelists we’re seeing a counter-reaction, an attempt to put that fire out and reclaim all that was lost. Maybe people are done reading about ambivalent Jews. After all, you can be a Jewish writer these days, a Jonathan Lethem or a Joan Silber, and not really write that much as a Jew at all. Meanwhile, the very best of the current Jewish writers who write on Jewish themes, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman, have managed to leap the dichotomy between the old ironists and the new earnestness largely through the sheer force of human comedy. American-Jewish fiction remains rich in potentialities—infinite numbers of stories to be written about family, history, assimilation, Zionism, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, ideology, and power—no wonder people are still interested.
I went to a conference not too long ago on Asian American writers, and “Are you an Asian American writer?” the writers were asked. For me, it was a little trip through the looking glass, and I wondered: Is this how it goes all over the country? You invite a panel of writers, troop them up under the fluorescents, and then ask, “For us or against us?”
David Henry Hwang, the playwright, had a good answer. He said that for years he had resented the categorization, but in time he had come to terms with it. You have to get categorized, he said, one way or another—Jewish writer, gay writer, women’s writer, sex writer, what have you. He talked of friends, fine playwrights with unspectacular careers, who had never been categorized, and said, look, that’s why they never took off. You need to get categorized in order to succeed.
Truth is, these days, any writer who gets any attention should count himself lucky. A reader, somewhere, from some reason, is thinking of you—that alone should be cause for a happy dance. So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a Jewish writer. Invite me to your community center, please!
(Image: Seychelles Island-1, from zeevveez’s photostream)