Reading between the lines: Split decision

Today's young Jews "have no selves" and are forced to fantasize the past to create compelling literature.

By DANIEL SEPTIMUS
August 21, 2008 15:40
3 minute read.
Reading between the lines: Split decision

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At a recent conference I attended, a prominent community leader noted what he believed to be a striking feature of contemporary Jewish American fiction writers. "They're writing about nostalgia for the shtetl. They're not writing about the communities they grew up in, like Saul Bellow or Woody Allen. They're writing about what they have to imagine." Citing Jonathan Safran Foer, Dara Horn and Michael Chabon, the speaker suggested that this was indicative of a generational shift in the Jewish community. Today's young Jews "have no selves" and are thus forced to fantasize the past to create compelling literature. There are kernels of truth here, but diagnosing the resurrection of the literary shtetl as a function of the Jewish American condition is, I believe, misleading. All young American writers - not just Jewish ones - with a certain economic and educational profile are trapped in a certain extra-literary conundrum. If you're an upper-middle-class urban sophisticate, raised on pop and consumer culture, how do you produce literary fiction? What do you write about? By the 1990s, even the tale of suburban turpitude was a tired genre, having been pioneered by the likes of Richard Yates in the early 1960s. But once the vulgarities of privileged American living have been lampooned, how does a privileged American fiction writer write? Chabon, Safran Foer and Horn may look to the past for inspiration, but two other Jewish writers - Rivka Galchen and Keith Gessen - represent this dilemma of American writing even more explicitly. The comedian Steven Wright once joked about waking up one morning to find that someone had broken into his apartment and replaced everything with exact replicas. Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, which was published in May to rave reviews, is a more contemplative take on this witticism. The novel follows Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist, who believes that his wife, Rema, has been replaced by a double. Galchen has been compared to postmodern masters like Thomas Pynchon, and while there are similarities (Liebenstein is obsessed with an obscure meteorological group; Pynchon's Oedipa Maas with an allusive postal delivery organization), Galchen sits comfortably in a school of contemporaries: the McSweeney's crowd. McSweeney's is, of course, the literary magazine and publishing house started by Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The title of Eggers's seminal memoir was ironic and "irony" has traditionally been one of McSweeney's primary literary tools. This affinity for irony comes from a very serious place, however. To write about an America steeped in pop culture and consumerism with a straight face would be, to some extent, to embrace triviality. If one is to write about it, one might as well do it with a wink. However, this removes mimesis from the literary project. Literature in the McSweeney's world is often not representational, but rather surrealist. The premise: Middle-class American life is too frivolous; it must be exaggerated for it to seem consequential. Galchen has contributed to McSweeney's sister publication The Believer and her book jacket features blurbs from both Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits, mainstays of the McSweeney's community. While Galchen does not employ irony per se, her surrealist touches and postmodern play reflect a style common amongst this cohort. In the other corner is Keith Gessen, whose excellent debut All the Sad Young Literary Men, was also published last spring. Despite its bombast, Gessen's title is not ironic. Indeed, he is part of a literary crew that's taken a very different approach to writing. A few years ago, in the first issue of the journal n + 1, Gessen wrote that "it is time to say what you mean." That is, it's time to move beyond the irony and exaggeration that had been adopted by many of his peers. In another article in n + 1's debut issue, The Believer was explicitly dismissed. "To wear credulity as one's badge of intellect is not to be a thinker as such." Instead, Gessen and his n + 1 friends play it straight. But they also don't avoid pop culture or the depiction of socio-economic privilege. Which means there are times when characters like Gessen's sad, young Harvard graduates come across as unselfconsciously mopey and snobby, but such is the cost of depicting life as it is lived. dseptimus@gmail.com

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