Sunday, May 03, 2009

Another novel about New York Jews

Disclaimer: Of all the possible uses of my non-orals-related reading time, I can't say a novel about 20-something Jewish college graduates of a Midwestern liberal arts school who've resettled in Brooklyn is high on my list, simply because no navel is that fascinating. So, this post is about the review of a novel I have not read and don't plan to. But the book itself doesn't really enter into it.


There's something about Liesl Schillinger's review of Joanna Smith ­Rakoff's "A Fortunate Age" that I find a bit strange. In the text version, Schillinger laments the absence of gays among the main characters; in the accompanying podcast, she does the same re: the lack of non-Jewish ones. While I agree with her that it's unlikely a group of Oberlin-to-Williamsburg friends would include neither gays nor gentiles, a novel about a group of friends is just that, a novel about a group of friends, not a perfectly representative cross-section of a segment of society. While my own straight, Jewish post-college existence probably includes more non-straights and non-Jews than vice versa, I don't find it so hard to believe things might arrange themselves otherwise, whether out of intentional insularity or things just falling as they did.

But what I can't tell is if Schillinger's critique is a pro-realism one - that such a group would not exist - or a moral one, that such a group should not be put into a novel In This Day And Age, particularly one selling itself as a modern-day version of one nearly a half-century older. In the podcast review, Schillinger suggests that Rakoff's choice to go the all-Jew route was either for political reasons or because an all-Jewish environment what she (Rakoff) knew. It seems to me that if Schillinger is willing to consider the latter, Rakoff can hardly be accused of painting an unrealistic portrait of the demographics of the social circle in her novel. The monotonous copying of details of one's own life into novel form might be tiresome, but it still counts as a realistic portrait of Life Today. But if Rakoff were making a political statement by making her novel all-Jewish and all-straight, what statement might that be? Is there a Hetero-Judaic Power Movement? No one's invited me to the meetings. I mean by this, if it's not clear, that one could perhaps accuse the novelist of failing to think beyond the obvious in her choice of making characters members of one marginalized group but not another, but not, it seems to me, of motives more involved than that.

My sense is that Schillinger is the one making a political statement. Or, if not a political statement, a politically-charged aesthetic one. An all-straight-and-Jewish novel is by definition provincial, I think is what she's getting at. But is diversity, in the college-admissions sense of a utopian community with representatives of each possible, recognized group, needed for a novel to be interesting? I mean, maybe Rakoff's novel is as dull as Schillinger seems to be implying. But would the addition of some gay ex-Mormons (or ex-gay Mormons) have made all the difference?


Miss Self-Important said...

I have this book, if you do decide to want it.

Miss Self-Important said...

By which I mean, I have it in order to get rid of it. Not just an FYI about my possessions.

Phoebe said...

Err, maybe? Is it any good, or have you not read it?

Miss Self-Important said...

Haven't read it. Looks as lame as you imagine it to be.

Jeff said...

I suppose anyone can read any book and get upset about how some details in it don't match the world as they see it.

Schillinger is upset that a group of seven friends does not have a gay person in it.

I on the other hand, am upset that one character is a New York City programmer who "works for, like, Google"... Google did not have an engineering office in NYC in the time frame of the novel. Who edits these novels? Do they not have continuity people on the payroll? The novel is ruined for me.

Phoebe said...

Maybe the point is that the character saying this is clueless/unaware of where Google has/had its offices?