Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Year’s best American novel

’Tis the season, as Christopher Benson says, for best-book lists. At First Things, Benson compiles his own list, which has a distinctly Christian flavor. Marilynne Robinson’s zinging Absence of Mind did not nose into his top twelve, but earned a mention as a “notable book.” It was, I think, better than that. Outside this disagreement, though, I am grateful to Benson for recommending books that I mostly had not heard of.

Tomorrow on Jewish Ideas Daily I give an accounting of the year in Jewish books, which aims to achieve much the same effect. Yesterday Juliet Linderman of Jewcy beat me out of the gate, reeling off the titles of Jewish hipsters’ favorite novels of 2010. Not one title makes both of our lists, although Linderman describes Joshua Cohen’s Witz as “also of note” while I enroll it among the year’s best.

The best American novel of the year, Jewish or otherwise, was Steve Stern’s gut-busting and surprisingly truthful fourth novel The Frozen Rabbi. I was unable to review it when it first came out, although Mark Athitakis had time before his wife gave birth to their first child to praise it.

As so often the case with contemporary novels, The Frozen Rabbi is told in alternating chapters. In one set of chapters, starting in 1889, the Hasidic tsaddik Eliezer ben Zephyr tumbles into a pond, where he is suspended in a state of frozen animation while he is bundled, in a series of plausibly improbable adventures, across Europe and into the New World. In the second set of chapters, set at the present time, a teenager named Bernie Karp, “[o]verweight and unadventurous,” finds Rabbi Eliezer in the basement freezer of his Memphis home, where an electrical storm knocks out the power and thaws the Boibiczer Prodigy, jarring him out of his ice-cold time machine and into a spiritually hungry age, sputtering Yiddish. Before long, Rabbi Eliezer learns English, after a fashion, and proves more than happy to feed the local hunger. He sets up as a shopping mall kabbalist, a more authentic Michael Berg. The patter is more authentic too, and twice as funny as anything Madonna thinks she believes.

When Bernie, who is startled into Jewish seriousness by Rabbi Eliezer’s defrosting, confesses that he has begun to experience mystical visions, the rabbi replies:

     “Sweetheart . . . visions I dispense here [at the kabbalah center] like shalachmones at Purim; it ain’t so special, the visions.” Then sotto voce, “But I don’t tell to my congregation this.”
     The note of confidentiality heartened the boy enough to ask the first of his laundry list of questions: Did the rabbi’s “congregants” ever bring back any, um, like gifts from their meditative flights?
     “What are you kidding?” The rabbi was incredulous, or anyway pretended to be. “What you think, dveykuss, which you call conscious, is a cruise ship to the Bahama? Conscious . . . ness? is the end of the line; you get yours and you’re a satisfy customer, end of shtory.”
And so it goes. Bernie’s faith deepens along with his Jewish literacy, while Rabbi Eliezer becomes alienated from the Orthodox Judaism of his first, fresh life. “If this ain’t Gan Eydn”—if postmodern America is not Paradise, he asks—“what is?”

The rabbi is the most unforgettable evangelist ever drawn up in American literature. (I want to hear no more references to Elmer Gantry.) But what is so surprising about The Frozen Rabbi is that, while Stern plays the part for laughs, he also has something arresting to say about the Jewish religious experience in the abundant consumer culture of the American present. Although not himself (apparently) a religious Jew, Stern understands just how countercultural, just what a dissent from the “Gan Eydn” of the shopping mall, religious Judaism is. He also notices what is happening in the actual world around him, where a younger generation returns to the Jewish seriousness discarded so carelessly by an older generation.

Bernie is a genuine mystic, trapped (as the rabbi puts it) “between this side and the other.” Naturally, then, things end badly for both of them, although not tragically. No one grieves over their ends. The family is embarrassed, while Bernie’s girlfriend feels only a lingering fatigue. “When’s the tragedy begin?” she asks herself, speaking perhaps for the reader. The tsaddik tries to explain: “There ain’t no world but this one and it’s already half in the crapper.” Neither of the two available options—being too much in the world and not in it enough—will redeem the soul that is restless for liberty.

The Frozen Rabbi is funny and pointed from first to last, because Stern is such an accomplished mimic. He knows the languages of Hasidism and hucksterism like a native speaker, but he also recognizes the phrases of the struggling mystic, who cannot fully credit his own experiences: he is able to write straightforwardly in a religious language, without parody or excess. The war between those languages, which I have argued elsewhere is perhaps the natural form of modern Jewish fiction, is what raises The Frozen Rabbi above any other American novel of the past year.


Lane Eliezer said...

Did you notice how it's almost exactly the same as Lewisohn's The Island Within? The same phenomena addressing the same themes: relics from the past--books, rebbes--crop up in order for a young pisher to reexamine his contemporary times in light of the Jewish past.

I love it. It's gonna be my MA thesis.