Chabon, Safran Foer, and the Great Jewish American Novel

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Ari Hoffman

Fiction perennially plays with the early and the late, and always fancies itself a bit prophetic. As Adam Kirsch put it recently in The New York Times, “No matter how irrelevant hardheaded people may believe it to be, literature continually proves itself a sensitive instrument, a leading indicator of changes that will manifest themselves in society and culture.” Two especially adept wielders of these tools are Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon. Both of them published ‘big’ books in the last six months, the kind of books that show up on end of year lists and are mentioned in awards chitchat. Safran Foer’s Here I Am and Chabon’s Moonglow are both terrific exemplars of the contemporary American novel and important installations in the perennially bulging bookshelf of the Jewish American novel.

They have much to reveal about the circumstances of American Jewry. Chabon lovingly remakes the past and Safran Foer cheekily but anxiously peers into the future. Of course, it is not quite so simple as all of this. Chabon’s past is a memoir, which certainly shows a lot of literary leg. Here I Am has an almost photographic quality to its dialogue; it is painfully of this moment, the wit is razor sharp. And as has been mentioned, its future is not so much summoned from scratch as built out from the trends of the present.

Chabon, Safran Foer, and the Present of Jewish American Literature
Fast-forward a bit. Where are we now? Here I Am opens up an important space to consider the present moment and future trends. These are both novels that splashed into the larger literary world by perhaps the two most acclaimed Jewish novelists of their time. If there is a contemporary Jewish literature that matters on a large scale, Safran Foer seems like a primary culprit to write it. This is not to deny that there are bevies of other talented Jewish American writers working across a whole host of dimensions. But ever since Bellow and Roth came of age as not just Jewish writers but as major players on the national and international literary stage, it has been a peculiarity of Jewish American work that it plays out in a broad arena.

There are further gains to be reaped from thinking about these particular novels at this particular moment in time. They indicate a Jewish community at a crossroads, and they point back towards a fabricated yet idealized past and an anxious and uncertain future.

These two novels illustrate both the promise of the current project of Jewish American literature, and several of its fatal flaws. One looks to the future; the other surveys the past. One focuses on America, the other includes Israel as a major theater of action. However, neither presents a compelling account of the present, a fictional diagnosis that can in turn yield a prognosis and a plan for treatment. Chabon elevates nostalgia to an independent aesthetic, and Safran Foer provides a sharp edged preview of a not-so-distant-future. They are both slightly out of sync with their own time, a novelistic tactic that is also a strategic evasion. These two bold novels are over-inclusive of the Jewish American past and future and under-inclusive of our perplexing present.

Safran Foer’s Zionist (?) Epic
Here I Am is something very new in Jewish fiction, or at least in recent years. Not since Roth’s Counterlife has so much of the debates and conversations about Israel been admitted into the precincts of the novel. Their respective strategies, however, could not be more different. Whereas Roth holds an X-ray up to contemporary Israeli society and reveals a chorus of its voices and attitudes, Safran Foer adopts a different tact. He never actually moves the action of the novel to Israel. Instead, Israel is absorbed into the Jewish American context in two distinct ways. First, it is conveyed in news reports and televised speeches, reproduced in full and covering whole tracts of this very large novel. The effect is to make Israel both center stage and off-stage, which is not a bad description for how it often appears in the American eye.

What is truly interesting about Safran Foer’s counterfactual is how clearly it telegraphs the current anxieties of American Jews. He puts pressure on key points of tension in the relationship of American Jews to Israel, and keeps his thumb down just long enough to see how and in what way these ideas squirm. He accentuates the perennial balance between survival at any cost and the imperative to be a ‘Light Unto the Nations,’ a debate that seems to reproduce itself at each critical moment around Israeli security policy, erupting during the wars in Gaza as well as in a more focused and intimate way during the trial and conviction of Elor Azaria for shooting and killing an unarmed terrorist in Hebron. This weighing finds a kind of parallel in the ongoing debates around the possibilities of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Safran Foer extends this well-worn debate by raising it an octave. The matter in Here I Am is no longer the nature of Israel’s character, but the stakes and arithmetic surrounding its equation for basic survival. While we generally think of an ‘existential crisis’ as precluding the possibility of weighing and accounting, Safran Foer’s maneuver here is to show how this future moment of reckoning will be the instant where such debates over Israel’s character will continue as they were, with the same battle lines drawn and the same formations around identical pitched tents. As the epigraph Ben Lerner uses in his most recent novel 10:04 puts it, winking towards the position of the Talmudic sage Shmuel, “in the world to come everything will be the same, only a little bit different.” It is to his credit that Safran Foer has Israel make the choice to survive, but there is something both inevitable and depressing in how this choice precipitates drift among American Jews.

Israel wasn’t destroyed—at least not in the literal sense. It remained a Jewish country, with a Jewish army, and borders only negligibly different from before the earthquake … Maybe it was worse to have survived, if continuing to be required destroying the reason to be (539).

It is to Safran Foer’s credit as a novelist that his large novel does not come down too heavily on either side of these scales. Jacob is not quite sure how he feels, and throughout, Israel’s position is depicted sympathetically if not exactly fervently. The erosion of the physical terrain of the physical space forces the Bloch’s to wander through their own mental map of sympathies and allegiances. There is something strange about a novel about Israel that is able to imagine it most fully only in its destruction. Is contemplating the destruction of Israel an act of conjectured cruelty, or a sobering playing out of a plausible scenario? Seen from one angle, it seems most similar to the kind of war games and training exercises undertaken by militaries the world over: hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Jacob prepares for the worst, going to the airport in response to the Prime Minister of Israel’s call for Jewish men the world over to fly to Israel and aid the besieged country: “looking directly into the camera, and directly into the Jewish souls of all Jews watching, he conveyed the unprecedented threat to Israel’s existence, and asked that Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and fifty ‘come home.’” The repetitions of “Jews,” and the quotes around “come home” suggest a highly self-conscious spotlighting of the claims Israel makes, which are both highly pitched and highly contestable. Safran Foer’s highly hypothetical worst-case scenario is just plausible enough to call due all the promissory notes the Diaspora has made to the defense of Israel. To drive this point home, the book features a leaked memorandum by the Israeli government outlining strategic responses to the catastrophe that annotates the age-old dichotomy of homeland and diaspora with a realpolitik revision:

While the war has exposed a widening gap between American and Israeli leadership, and between American and Israeli Jews, Israel will, with the proper public relations campaign, culminating with a speech delivered by the prime minister, persuade 100,000 American Jewish men to come to Israel to support the war effort…the president of the United States could watch eight million Jews be slaughtered, but not 100,000 American Jews (287).

Lingering in the background of the response to this crisis are the bitter lessons learned during the last one, when the petitions to President Franklin Roosevelt to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz went unheeded: that failure has entered Jewish memory as a bitter reminder of general callousness to the fate of the Jews and the attendant need for Jewish self-defense. It is one of the resounding ironies of Jewish history since the Holocaust that political independence has both changed the equation for Jewish geo-political strategy and involved reentering the familiar groove of Great Power negotiation and propitiation.

Israel’s strategy is a success, seen from a certain angle. The experiment in Jewish sovereignty is preserved; although fewer Jews than anticipated leave the suburbs and downtowns of the Diaspora, it is enough. Many of those who do go die, but after the Holocaust and Israel’s ongoing casualties, Safran Foer shows how Jewish loss of life has found a genre; Jacob’s eyes scan over the memorial names on the wall of his synagogue, newly full with those lost in this most recent conflict. Jacob didn’t go over there to fight, and that ultimately means his name isn’t there on the Yahrzeit Wall. Jacob sustains a loss of meaning, however. “I had written books and screenplays my entire adult life,” he reflects, “but it was the first time I’d felt like a character inside one—that the scale of my tchotchke existence, the drama of living, finally befitted the privilege of being alive” (484). And still, he doesn’t go when he has the opportunity to exchange the drama of the story for the chance to be a character in the most dramatic story of Jewish modernity; the collective effort to make sure that the third epoch in Jewish sovereignty doesn’t reprise the outcome of the first two incarnations. There he isn’t. Where are we?

In a Different Light: Moonglow and American Jewry in the Twilight
If Here I Am hangs out in the current bipolar Jewish world, split evenly between America and Israel, Moonglow unfolds on a different axis, the European-American one that defined Jewry in the middle years of the last century. It seems to be convinced by a secular and literary manifestation of yeridat ha-dorot, or devolution, transposed into novel form; the most interesting things happened to The Greatest Generation. It is largely about the narrator’s grandparents. His grandfather was a ne’er do well who found purpose and vocation in the army, chasing the engineers who built Hitler’s rockets. His grandmother was a refugee from the destruction in Europe with a complicated backstory who suffers from a vividly adumbrated series of mental breakdowns.

The book’s structure highlights the generational passing and amplifies the nostalgia that emits a kind of, yes, glow. The narration takes the form of the grandfather’s dying ‘confessions’ to his grandson, who is meant to be Michael Chabon, or someone close to him. The book we read is a product of these interviews and attendant research into the dark areas not opened up by disclosure; Chabon has termed it a “faux-memoir novel.” By attending to two scenes that serve as the book’s most powerful reconstruction of the grandfather’s wartime experience, we can see both the potency with which Chabon resurrects those memories and the precariousness of their afterlives. This work forces us to consider the Jewish American novel’s capacity to not only peek around the corner of the present to see the future, but also to recover the past in a way that imprints it on our moment.

Moonglow gains its force from the tragedy and poignancy that adhere in all the ways a man whose soul “sought the lineaments of God’s face” in the eloquence of astrophysics could find himself so terra-chained by circumstance and obligation. The novel finds its rhetorical strength when it sets the glories of the stars against the horrors of the earth. One scene in particular is likely to stay with the reader. It is the closing days of the Second World War, and the grandfather finds himself in a special unit tasked with tracking down high level German scientists, specifically those instrumental in the construction of the Nazi rocket program. In the middle of this assignment, lodging for the night in the cellar of a local priest in the German woods, the grandfather looks up and sees:

An archipelago of atomic furnaces in a vacuum sea, omnidirectional vectors of accelerations radiant from a theoretical point of origin that predated humanity by billions of years, as unperturbed by mechanized mass slaughter on a global scale as by the death of one individual (164).

The grandfather’s faith is an emunah in empiricism, able to generate a sense of transport from immediate circumstances that recalls nothing so much as Primo Levi chanting Dante’s Commedia to himself even as he staggered through an inferno all too concrete. For the grandfather, this sense of the numinous in the sky reaches its apogee when the old priest, also an amateur stargazer, takes him to see a V-2 rocket that has landed unharmed and unharming in the woods. This scene is the book’s centerpiece, and the closest it comes to transmuting war and wounding into wonder. The irony that charges the entire encounter is that the V-2 rocket is the crowning achievement of Wernher Von Braun, the Ace of Spades in the deck of Nazi officials the grandfather is tasked with capturing but whom he can’t help but deeply admire, at least from a distance.

The qualities of the V-2 could just as well adumbrate the virtues of a well-crafted lyric or a Calder mobile; “In the V-2, form and purpose were united, as with a knife, a hammer, or some other fundamental human tool. As soon as you saw a V-2, you knew what it was for” (166). To borrow language from Saussaure, here the signifier and signified are merged, as the V-2 is both hieroglyph and Rosetta Stone. It brings before the eyes, and raises the eyes.

The measure of the grandfather’s suffering will be vast. His wife’s mind’s undoing will necessitate that he become an expert builder of miniature rockets rather than a builder of ones that can fly. But “he would leave the clearing with this half hour cupped in his memory like an egg kept warm in the palm” (166).

This scene finds its counterpoint when the grandfather finds the troubled cradle where the V-2 is born. The subterranean predicate for the V-2’s tantalizing promise of flight is Mittelwerk, “constructed inside of a minor mountain” (251). The men who “built the rockets lived in filth, underfed, malnourished, and brutalized” (252). They died so that rockets could fly, and bombs could drop. The agony follows the ecstasy, and the grandfather never quite gets back to that clearing in the woods. The rest of the book traces his decades long quest to find Von Braun, and the grandfather’s increasing disillusionment when he realizes that the world has forgiven the complicit scientist all too easily, requiring only that he lend his ample talents to the American space program.

There was a Cold War to win, and a World War to forget. Learning, remembering, and forgetting are the central verbs in Moonglow. We learn about many things, including rocketry and trauma and the model spaceship business and the painful facts of living with and alongside mental illness, but not very much about what it means to be a Jew in America today. There is a sense in which it functions as a kind of yahrzeit for the generation that is now passing from the scene, but one of the more remarkable things about the legacy his grandparents leave is how difficult it is to pin down in what exactly it consists. They have one daughter, who has one son (Chabon). They do not seem to have built a community; the grandfather’s Yiddish inflected atheism dissipates into the narrator’s blandly American identity.

The stories that Chabon excavates are truly extraordinary, but they have about them the fleeting glories of the trace left after a rocketship, scribbled on air. This seems to be the larger point in both of these books: stories need to be folded into larger narratives if they are to last. This is Jacob’s fear in Here I Am, why he wants to join the battle for Israel. He worries that the American story isn’t one that can grant durability. Its comfort is predicate to amnesia. This concern is doubled in both of these texts by the inadequacy of the family unit as a vehicle for this kind of legacy.

Both writers depict it as leaky and disjointed, fraying in unhappy ways, each in its own way. Neither the nostalgic glow of the past nor the grim exigencies of the future are enough to compellingly frame a present moment for whom meaning is unhappily and inadequately housed in the typing laptop.

Both of these novels may prove prescient, or blind; it seems unlikely that it will be anything in between. At a time when the triad of America, Israel, and Europe all seem to be changing in mutually rhyming and elliptically discordant ways, Jews more than ever need to recover a kind of thinking that once came naturally to them, and that these novels make headway in recovering, by broadening the chronological and geographical ken of the Jewish American imagination. Perhaps a new approach might take at its starting point the ancient precept “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh;” all of Israel is responsible for each other. Discharging the duties of writing and reading in a way that enlarges the dimensions of Jewish peoplehood. Thus, friendship is covenanted to obligation, responsibility, and a sense of being mutually bound and blessed to be in the same story.

Ari Hoffman is currently pursuing a J.D. at Stanford Law School.He holds a B.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard University. His first book, This Year in Jerusalem: Israel and the Literary Quest for Jewish Authenticity, is forthcoming from SUNY Press. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, Tablet Magazine, and a wide range of publications. This summer, he will serve as a legal clerk for Judge Hanan Melcer of the Supreme Court of Israel.