Commentary Magazine


Topic: American Jewish literature

Review: The Tyranny of Grief

Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (New York: Pantheon, 2012). 336 pages.

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but some ways are more familiar than others. In Joshua Henkin’s third novel in 15 years, political and religious differences are the weapons of choice, but the real source of family unhappiness is emotional tyranny. Compared to it, mere differences of opinion and belief shrink into insignificance.

The World Without You, which is being released today, is about a large Jewish family of four children. “Three,” says David Frankel, the father of the brood. “We had four children,” explains Marilyn, the family matriarch, “but one of them died tragically in Iraq, you’ve probably heard of us, we’ve been on TV.” A year after the death of Leo — the youngest, the only son, who was covering the Iraq war for Newsday when he was killed — the Frankels and the sons-in-law and the grandchildren, also including Leo’s widow Thisbe, have gathered at the family’s summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, on the July 4th weekend for a memorial service and the unveiling of the grave stone.

Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from getting to know each member of the family. Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people. The World Without You weaves from one Frankel to another, effortlessly filling in backstories, stitching past to present, exposing old wounds and lingering tensions. It is a tribute to Henkin’s skill that the narrative never flags. The action of the book is in the characterization.

The three Frankel girls are (in birth order): Clarissa, a 39-year-old ex-cellist living in Brooklyn, “home to the world’s greatest population explosion,” who is desperate to have a child before it is too late (“We need to have sex right now,” she is prone to telling her husband when the home ovulation kit says the time is ripe); Lily, a “lawyer for government whistle blowers” who lives in Washington and dreams of prosecuting President Bush for war crimes; and Noelle, a stunning redhead who was unashamedly promiscuous in high school, but who turned to Orthodox Judaism while on a trip to Israel, where she now lives with her husband and four sons. “My sister the Hasidic Jew,” Lily sneers: “The rabbi’s wife” — although her husband is not a rabbi and they are not Hasidic.

The center of the family is Marilyn, an attending physician at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. A Bush-hating liberal who has written 24 anti-war op-eds since her son’s death, Marilyn has “become a mascot for the left.” When President Bush invited her to the White House, she made a public scene about not going. “She wouldn’t allow her son to be used that way,” Henkin writes, channeling Cindy Sheehan, “to become an instrument in the service of the war.” As a doctor, she is a woman of high principle; or a “fanatic,” as her daughter-in-law thinks of her. She believes that sales reps for pharmaceutical companies deserve a special place in hell, for example, and “makes a point of not prescribing any medication that’s been pressed too forcefully on her.” If the medicine might benefit her patients, too bad for them!

With Marilyn in the lead, the Frankels are a family of good secular Jewish liberals. Even their shampoo is politically correct:

A nail file sits on her mother’s nightstand. Beside it is a bottle of No-Poo. It’s shampoo without shampoo, from what Noelle understands, the idea being that shampoo leaches out your hair’s essential nutrients, though the one time she tried it, she found that in addition to leaching out essential nutrients shampoo also leached out dirt.

Noelle is the hold-out. Becoming Orthodox, she found herself “peeling back layers of herself, molting an identity she had wanted to molt for years and hadn’t realized she was capable of molting.” Proud to be a Jew and grateful to the Jewish state that gave her “finally something she could claim as her own,” Noelle has struck out in a different direction from the rest of her family. She cast an absentee ballot for Bush from 6,000 miles away — “and not just once, but twice!” For a family that “holds all fifty million people who voted for him responsible for Leo’s death,” this is heresy. The number of the Iraq war dead is continually updated on a tiny chalkboard next to their phone. “Leo hated that war,” the Frankels reassure one another. Naturally, then, when a fight breaks out among the sisters, the heretic finds herself under attack. “You and Amram, too,” Lily shouts at her sister, “living in your warmongering country, practicing your delusional religion.” “It’s your religion, too,” Noelle says. “It most certainly isn’t,” Lily replies.

And she is right. The Frankel family religion is the Frankel family — the daughters who attended Yale and Princeton (leaving out Noelle, who did not go to college), the brilliant high-achieving sons-in-law, a Nobel Prize-caliber neuroscientist and one of “D.C.’s best young chefs” (leaving out Noelle’s husband Amram, who graduated from SUNY Oneonta and is jobless at the moment), the family’s competitive thirst to do whatever necessary to triumph at board games and tennis, the books and photos and sporting equipment and musical instruments and Williams Sonoma cookware and children’s names carved into the open rafters of the summer house in Lenox, the fun-loving beloved son and brother whose early death has driven the family onto the rocks. “[T]hey’ve made a life out of being indignant,” Noelle observes. Leo’s death is the ultimate indignancy.

If the class setting is familiar, Henkin does something unusual with it. With great subtlety, he reveals that the Frankels’ grief over Leo, as deep and sincere as it is, is not the source of the family’s dysfunction. Marilyn chooses the weekend of her son’s memorial to announce that she has decided to leave her husband after 42 years of marriage. Not because of anything he has done — except perhaps that he does not talk as often as she thinks he should — but because he is not sufficiently upset over their son’s death. Noelle praises her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know,” but it is David’s very understanding that Marilyn cannot forgive. She demands authority over the family’s grief. Any emotional response that fails to meet her standards is subject to interrogation and banishment.

The British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett may be the great archivist of family tyranny, but Joshua Henkin has written a novel that will appeal to a contemporary American audience which identifies tyranny with the state instead of private lives. One measure of how well he has succeeded is that, when Marilyn is right about something, not for a minute do you rack up her success to superior moral and political views.

The narrative strategy in The World Without You is what I have described elsewhere, in praising Zoë Heller’s The Believers, as a strategy of narrative disinterest. Henkin has no dog in the Frankel family fight. Although the reader will have a favorite, he does not. There is no central character through whom he filters perception and dissembles his own loyalties and values. The Bush-bashing that has become so commonplace in recent American fiction is never given the author’s voice. Henkin is not one of the Frankels; he has no stake in the outcome of their disagreements and dysfunction. He has only a good deal of affection for them, and a good deal of pity, and the confidence that his reader will come to feel about them much as he does. About that, he is right.

Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (New York: Pantheon, 2012). 336 pages.

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but some ways are more familiar than others. In Joshua Henkin’s third novel in 15 years, political and religious differences are the weapons of choice, but the real source of family unhappiness is emotional tyranny. Compared to it, mere differences of opinion and belief shrink into insignificance.

The World Without You, which is being released today, is about a large Jewish family of four children. “Three,” says David Frankel, the father of the brood. “We had four children,” explains Marilyn, the family matriarch, “but one of them died tragically in Iraq, you’ve probably heard of us, we’ve been on TV.” A year after the death of Leo — the youngest, the only son, who was covering the Iraq war for Newsday when he was killed — the Frankels and the sons-in-law and the grandchildren, also including Leo’s widow Thisbe, have gathered at the family’s summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, on the July 4th weekend for a memorial service and the unveiling of the grave stone.

Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from getting to know each member of the family. Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people. The World Without You weaves from one Frankel to another, effortlessly filling in backstories, stitching past to present, exposing old wounds and lingering tensions. It is a tribute to Henkin’s skill that the narrative never flags. The action of the book is in the characterization.

The three Frankel girls are (in birth order): Clarissa, a 39-year-old ex-cellist living in Brooklyn, “home to the world’s greatest population explosion,” who is desperate to have a child before it is too late (“We need to have sex right now,” she is prone to telling her husband when the home ovulation kit says the time is ripe); Lily, a “lawyer for government whistle blowers” who lives in Washington and dreams of prosecuting President Bush for war crimes; and Noelle, a stunning redhead who was unashamedly promiscuous in high school, but who turned to Orthodox Judaism while on a trip to Israel, where she now lives with her husband and four sons. “My sister the Hasidic Jew,” Lily sneers: “The rabbi’s wife” — although her husband is not a rabbi and they are not Hasidic.

The center of the family is Marilyn, an attending physician at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. A Bush-hating liberal who has written 24 anti-war op-eds since her son’s death, Marilyn has “become a mascot for the left.” When President Bush invited her to the White House, she made a public scene about not going. “She wouldn’t allow her son to be used that way,” Henkin writes, channeling Cindy Sheehan, “to become an instrument in the service of the war.” As a doctor, she is a woman of high principle; or a “fanatic,” as her daughter-in-law thinks of her. She believes that sales reps for pharmaceutical companies deserve a special place in hell, for example, and “makes a point of not prescribing any medication that’s been pressed too forcefully on her.” If the medicine might benefit her patients, too bad for them!

With Marilyn in the lead, the Frankels are a family of good secular Jewish liberals. Even their shampoo is politically correct:

A nail file sits on her mother’s nightstand. Beside it is a bottle of No-Poo. It’s shampoo without shampoo, from what Noelle understands, the idea being that shampoo leaches out your hair’s essential nutrients, though the one time she tried it, she found that in addition to leaching out essential nutrients shampoo also leached out dirt.

Noelle is the hold-out. Becoming Orthodox, she found herself “peeling back layers of herself, molting an identity she had wanted to molt for years and hadn’t realized she was capable of molting.” Proud to be a Jew and grateful to the Jewish state that gave her “finally something she could claim as her own,” Noelle has struck out in a different direction from the rest of her family. She cast an absentee ballot for Bush from 6,000 miles away — “and not just once, but twice!” For a family that “holds all fifty million people who voted for him responsible for Leo’s death,” this is heresy. The number of the Iraq war dead is continually updated on a tiny chalkboard next to their phone. “Leo hated that war,” the Frankels reassure one another. Naturally, then, when a fight breaks out among the sisters, the heretic finds herself under attack. “You and Amram, too,” Lily shouts at her sister, “living in your warmongering country, practicing your delusional religion.” “It’s your religion, too,” Noelle says. “It most certainly isn’t,” Lily replies.

And she is right. The Frankel family religion is the Frankel family — the daughters who attended Yale and Princeton (leaving out Noelle, who did not go to college), the brilliant high-achieving sons-in-law, a Nobel Prize-caliber neuroscientist and one of “D.C.’s best young chefs” (leaving out Noelle’s husband Amram, who graduated from SUNY Oneonta and is jobless at the moment), the family’s competitive thirst to do whatever necessary to triumph at board games and tennis, the books and photos and sporting equipment and musical instruments and Williams Sonoma cookware and children’s names carved into the open rafters of the summer house in Lenox, the fun-loving beloved son and brother whose early death has driven the family onto the rocks. “[T]hey’ve made a life out of being indignant,” Noelle observes. Leo’s death is the ultimate indignancy.

If the class setting is familiar, Henkin does something unusual with it. With great subtlety, he reveals that the Frankels’ grief over Leo, as deep and sincere as it is, is not the source of the family’s dysfunction. Marilyn chooses the weekend of her son’s memorial to announce that she has decided to leave her husband after 42 years of marriage. Not because of anything he has done — except perhaps that he does not talk as often as she thinks he should — but because he is not sufficiently upset over their son’s death. Noelle praises her father for being “the voice that understands there are things you can’t know,” but it is David’s very understanding that Marilyn cannot forgive. She demands authority over the family’s grief. Any emotional response that fails to meet her standards is subject to interrogation and banishment.

The British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett may be the great archivist of family tyranny, but Joshua Henkin has written a novel that will appeal to a contemporary American audience which identifies tyranny with the state instead of private lives. One measure of how well he has succeeded is that, when Marilyn is right about something, not for a minute do you rack up her success to superior moral and political views.

The narrative strategy in The World Without You is what I have described elsewhere, in praising Zoë Heller’s The Believers, as a strategy of narrative disinterest. Henkin has no dog in the Frankel family fight. Although the reader will have a favorite, he does not. There is no central character through whom he filters perception and dissembles his own loyalties and values. The Bush-bashing that has become so commonplace in recent American fiction is never given the author’s voice. Henkin is not one of the Frankels; he has no stake in the outcome of their disagreements and dysfunction. He has only a good deal of affection for them, and a good deal of pity, and the confidence that his reader will come to feel about them much as he does. About that, he is right.

Read Less

Passover in Fiction

Passover starts in an hour or two. Jewish families everywhere will arrange the seder plate, turn down the heat on the matzah-ball soup, and set a Haggadah in front of each seat — more likely than not, the Maxwell House Haggadah. Ever since Abraham Cahan described the holiday as a “feast and a family renuion which form the greatest event in the domestic life of our people,” Passover has been a fixture on the American Jewish literary calendar.

The theologian and novelist Arthur A. Cohen explains why in The Tremendum (1993), his book on the Holocaust:

The Passover Haggadah commands that every Jew consider himself as though he had gone forth in exodus from Egypt. The grammatical authority of of the Haggadah makes clear that this is no metaphor, whatever our wish to make apodictic language metaphoric. The authority is clear: I was really, even if not literally, present in Egypt and really, if not literally, present at Sinai. God contemplated my virtual presence then, thirty-odd centuries ago. The fact that history could not prevision and entail my presence is irrelevant.

Cohen goes on to argue that what is true for Sinai is true a fortiori for “the death camps,” and perhaps that is so: but the literary and moral imperative derives from Passover. Jewish fiction adopts this apodictic mandate. For it places the reader at far-flung and distant events of Jewish life — really, if not literally.

Cahan explicitly invokes the grammatical authority of the Haggadah in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). The Yiddish poet Tevkin, although a “free-thinker since his early manhood,” celebrates Passover every year as an expression of his Zionism. Raising the first glass of wine, he tells his children (who are treating the seder as a joke) that “Scenes like this bind us to the Jews of the whole world, and not only to those living, but to the past generations as well.”

Cahan’s poet insists that the seder is not a “religious ceremony” but a “national custom.” Over the years, however, the significance has deepened for him. “He was bent upon having a Passover feast service precisely like the one he had seen his father conduct,” the book’s narrator observes, “not omitting even the white shroud” — the kittel worn by the master of the seder for at least ten different reasons. “Father looks like a Catholic priest,” his Communist son cries. Undaunted, Tevkin lowers the first glass of wine and says: “This is the Fourth of July of our unhappy people.” At the end of the seder, Eastern European Jews used to shout “Next year in America!” instead of “Next year in Jerusalem!” In The Rise of David Levinsky, the next year has come.

Allusions to Passover are not uncommon in American Jewish fiction — David Schearl learns the words to Had Gadya, one of the seder’s concluding songs, in Call It Sleep (he is his parents’ “one little goat”), Augie is caught by the gangsters he tried to double-cross just as the synagogues are letting out on the first night of Passover in The Adventures of Augie March (“I was not permitted to pass by,” he remarks), Frank Alpine makes atonement for robbing Morris Bober’s store in The Assistant (“After Passover he became a Jew,” the novel concludes) — but full-length seders are fairly rare.

“Passover has always been my favorite holiday,” says the narrator of Isaac Rosenfeld’s novel Passage from Home (1946). The reason Bernard likes it so much is that he gets to drink four cups of wine — “and it was to wine, rather than the history of my people,” he says, “that I owed my sense of reverence.”

The day before Passover, “when the house was undergoing the annual cleaning in preparation for the feast,” Cousin Willy comes to visit. Strictly speaking, Willy is not really a cousin; even more strictly, he is not even a Jew. He is a “hillbilly” from Tennessee; he had been a “miner, a newspaperman, a sailor, and had seen the world.” He and Bernard are fast friends. Willy slips him extra cups of wine.

“The first of the ‘four questions’ asks why this night of Passover differs from all other nights of the year,” Bernard says. But the real question was: “how did this Passover differ from all other Passovers of all other years?” The Haggadah furnishes a “lengthy answer” to the first question. Bernard’s answer to the second is shorter: at ten years of age, he gets drunk for the first time. In the middle of the seder, he rises unsteadily to his feet and tries to explain the true meaning of the holiday, but the words spill out “thick and silly, ending in a laugh.” Many years later, apparently writing an autobiographical novel, he recalls the moment as the beginning of his life as a sensualist:

[I]t occurred to me that this holiday, which we celebrated in such worldly fashion with chopped liver and gefülte fish and chicken soup floating a thick scum of yellow fat, the droplets winking like the glass grapes — even the matzoh had such a lively, freckled brown face — this holiday, I suddenly felt, was something my family could not understand, a celebration not even of this earth, its meaning lying beyond the particular individual. . . . It was an event only I could understand.

For Rosenfeld, in short, the holiday commemorates both a personal deliverance and the acceptance of a literary rather than a religious obligation: to tell the story of the young American intellectual, “sensitive as a burn,” whose independence from Jewish tradition is narrated in language deeply embedded within the tradition.

I am going to pass over in silence the wacky 65-page interfaith seder in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), because I have treated it at length elsewhere, in order to conclude with a writer I much prefer. Dara Horn’s third novel, All Other Nights (2009), may be the first American novel to acquire its theme and structure from Passover.

Horn’s title comes from the first of the four questions — the same question Isaac Rosenfeld turned back onto himself. Horn turns the question back onto history. Her novel, the story of a Jewish spy in the Confederacy during the Civil War, finds the place where Jewish history and American history are knotted together — namely, in the experience of slavery.

Jacob Rappaport begins his career as a spy at a Passover seder in New Orleans. Every moment of the service has a double meaning for him. The meal is served by slaves while Southern Jews “sang the Hebrew hymns thanking God for freeing them from bondage.” His host, a Confederate patriot, recites the imperative passage: “In every generation . . . each person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.” The Southerners around the seder table smile and nod, confident they will soon “come out of” bondage to the North. “Pour out Thy wrath on the nations that do not know Thee,” Jacob’s host drawls slowly, drawing out the words with passion. To which the assembled company responds: “Death to the Union! Death to Lincoln!”

In every generation, Horn implies, the imperative of freedom must be followed, because in every generation, the Jews must free themselves again — from their ignorance of their own religion, from their dependence upon other people’s thinking, from the mental slavery that holds them in irons. Next year in America! Next year in Jerusalem! Hag kasher v’sameyah!

Passover starts in an hour or two. Jewish families everywhere will arrange the seder plate, turn down the heat on the matzah-ball soup, and set a Haggadah in front of each seat — more likely than not, the Maxwell House Haggadah. Ever since Abraham Cahan described the holiday as a “feast and a family renuion which form the greatest event in the domestic life of our people,” Passover has been a fixture on the American Jewish literary calendar.

The theologian and novelist Arthur A. Cohen explains why in The Tremendum (1993), his book on the Holocaust:

The Passover Haggadah commands that every Jew consider himself as though he had gone forth in exodus from Egypt. The grammatical authority of of the Haggadah makes clear that this is no metaphor, whatever our wish to make apodictic language metaphoric. The authority is clear: I was really, even if not literally, present in Egypt and really, if not literally, present at Sinai. God contemplated my virtual presence then, thirty-odd centuries ago. The fact that history could not prevision and entail my presence is irrelevant.

Cohen goes on to argue that what is true for Sinai is true a fortiori for “the death camps,” and perhaps that is so: but the literary and moral imperative derives from Passover. Jewish fiction adopts this apodictic mandate. For it places the reader at far-flung and distant events of Jewish life — really, if not literally.

Cahan explicitly invokes the grammatical authority of the Haggadah in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). The Yiddish poet Tevkin, although a “free-thinker since his early manhood,” celebrates Passover every year as an expression of his Zionism. Raising the first glass of wine, he tells his children (who are treating the seder as a joke) that “Scenes like this bind us to the Jews of the whole world, and not only to those living, but to the past generations as well.”

Cahan’s poet insists that the seder is not a “religious ceremony” but a “national custom.” Over the years, however, the significance has deepened for him. “He was bent upon having a Passover feast service precisely like the one he had seen his father conduct,” the book’s narrator observes, “not omitting even the white shroud” — the kittel worn by the master of the seder for at least ten different reasons. “Father looks like a Catholic priest,” his Communist son cries. Undaunted, Tevkin lowers the first glass of wine and says: “This is the Fourth of July of our unhappy people.” At the end of the seder, Eastern European Jews used to shout “Next year in America!” instead of “Next year in Jerusalem!” In The Rise of David Levinsky, the next year has come.

Allusions to Passover are not uncommon in American Jewish fiction — David Schearl learns the words to Had Gadya, one of the seder’s concluding songs, in Call It Sleep (he is his parents’ “one little goat”), Augie is caught by the gangsters he tried to double-cross just as the synagogues are letting out on the first night of Passover in The Adventures of Augie March (“I was not permitted to pass by,” he remarks), Frank Alpine makes atonement for robbing Morris Bober’s store in The Assistant (“After Passover he became a Jew,” the novel concludes) — but full-length seders are fairly rare.

“Passover has always been my favorite holiday,” says the narrator of Isaac Rosenfeld’s novel Passage from Home (1946). The reason Bernard likes it so much is that he gets to drink four cups of wine — “and it was to wine, rather than the history of my people,” he says, “that I owed my sense of reverence.”

The day before Passover, “when the house was undergoing the annual cleaning in preparation for the feast,” Cousin Willy comes to visit. Strictly speaking, Willy is not really a cousin; even more strictly, he is not even a Jew. He is a “hillbilly” from Tennessee; he had been a “miner, a newspaperman, a sailor, and had seen the world.” He and Bernard are fast friends. Willy slips him extra cups of wine.

“The first of the ‘four questions’ asks why this night of Passover differs from all other nights of the year,” Bernard says. But the real question was: “how did this Passover differ from all other Passovers of all other years?” The Haggadah furnishes a “lengthy answer” to the first question. Bernard’s answer to the second is shorter: at ten years of age, he gets drunk for the first time. In the middle of the seder, he rises unsteadily to his feet and tries to explain the true meaning of the holiday, but the words spill out “thick and silly, ending in a laugh.” Many years later, apparently writing an autobiographical novel, he recalls the moment as the beginning of his life as a sensualist:

[I]t occurred to me that this holiday, which we celebrated in such worldly fashion with chopped liver and gefülte fish and chicken soup floating a thick scum of yellow fat, the droplets winking like the glass grapes — even the matzoh had such a lively, freckled brown face — this holiday, I suddenly felt, was something my family could not understand, a celebration not even of this earth, its meaning lying beyond the particular individual. . . . It was an event only I could understand.

For Rosenfeld, in short, the holiday commemorates both a personal deliverance and the acceptance of a literary rather than a religious obligation: to tell the story of the young American intellectual, “sensitive as a burn,” whose independence from Jewish tradition is narrated in language deeply embedded within the tradition.

I am going to pass over in silence the wacky 65-page interfaith seder in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), because I have treated it at length elsewhere, in order to conclude with a writer I much prefer. Dara Horn’s third novel, All Other Nights (2009), may be the first American novel to acquire its theme and structure from Passover.

Horn’s title comes from the first of the four questions — the same question Isaac Rosenfeld turned back onto himself. Horn turns the question back onto history. Her novel, the story of a Jewish spy in the Confederacy during the Civil War, finds the place where Jewish history and American history are knotted together — namely, in the experience of slavery.

Jacob Rappaport begins his career as a spy at a Passover seder in New Orleans. Every moment of the service has a double meaning for him. The meal is served by slaves while Southern Jews “sang the Hebrew hymns thanking God for freeing them from bondage.” His host, a Confederate patriot, recites the imperative passage: “In every generation . . . each person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.” The Southerners around the seder table smile and nod, confident they will soon “come out of” bondage to the North. “Pour out Thy wrath on the nations that do not know Thee,” Jacob’s host drawls slowly, drawing out the words with passion. To which the assembled company responds: “Death to the Union! Death to Lincoln!”

In every generation, Horn implies, the imperative of freedom must be followed, because in every generation, the Jews must free themselves again — from their ignorance of their own religion, from their dependence upon other people’s thinking, from the mental slavery that holds them in irons. Next year in America! Next year in Jerusalem! Hag kasher v’sameyah!

Read Less