Reading Between the Lines: The end of an era

Grace Paley, the author of several wonderful story collections, was an important figure in Jewish-American letters.

It will be over soon. Truly and finally. Grace Paley's death a few weeks ago heralded the end of an era for Jewish-American literature that has been conspiring to close for decades. Paley, the author of several wonderful story collections, was an important figure in Jewish-American letters. Her writing, like her political activism, was inspired by a vibrant Jewish socialism. That socialism is gone, of course, and now Paley is too. This, just a few months after the death of Tillie Olsen, a literary kindred spirit. We lost Saul Bellow in 2005, two months after Arthur Miller. Leonard Michaels, who's Collected Stories I wrote about in this space last month, died in 2003. Indeed, having Michaels on my mind surely inspired my thoughts about this generation of fiction writers. All eras - their start and end dates - are artificial and contrived. We see commonalities in theme and age, in style and sensibility and, as humans tend to do, we categorize and group. We make connections into narratives and narratives into meaning. Michaels and Paley forged one connection for me, but another comes from a name obviously missing so far: Philip Roth. Next month, Houghton Mifflin will publish Roth's new novel, Exit Ghost. The title's allusion to Roth's 1979 novel The Ghost Writer is not incidental. The Ghost Writer introduced us to Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's literary alter ego, a character who would reappear in eight subsequent books, including The Counterlife and the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral. In Roth's new novel, the ghost will, indeed, exit. According to Roth, it will be his last Zuckerman novel. Does Nathan Zuckerman die? This I don't know, but even if this prominent fictional character merely passes into literary oblivion, it will be a notable end. Of course, I wouldn't want to eulogize Philip Roth prematurely. There were those who did that in the 1970s and '80s only to see him churn out masterpieces like The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. Then again, it's more pleasant to declare the looming end of an era when the last man standing is one of the most prolific and profound of them all. But there's another reason to close this chapter in Jewish-American literature. The next generation is reaching its stride, and we were recently treated to one of its greatest triumphs so far: Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. While the last few years have seen a flurry of remarkable novels by young Jewish-American writers, none have accomplished what Chabon has with his latest effort. Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss may write about Jewish characters, but Chabon's book is, quite literally, written in a Jewish language. Like the great first generation of Yiddish and modern Hebrew fiction writers, Chabon's book is colored with a religious and cultural vocabulary. The references are accessible in proportion to one's Jewish education and knowledge. But The Yiddish Policemen's Union is very much the product of a new time. The condition of world Jewry that it reflects greatly differs from Roth's and Paley's welt. Chabon's book takes place in an alternate reality in which the Jews lost the Israeli War of Independence and ended up with a temporary homeland in Alaska. Like Roth's The Plot Against America, this premise may seem to express a renewed anxiety about Jewish security and safety, reflecting the contemporary rise in anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel rhetoric worldwide. But rather than being a display of contemporary Jewish vulnerability, Chabon's book can also be read as an expression of the opposite: Jewish security and power. How so? In the past, an artistic creation about Jewish suffering would likely be a work of realism. Artists didn't need to create fantastical premises to forge an Oy Vey!-worthy setting. The fact that Chabon had to create an alternate reality to paint a picture of Jewish misfortune may be a testament to the fortunate - relatively powerful, relatively wealthy, relatively safe - if still complicated, status of world Jewry. We will miss Grace Paley, and we will miss Nathan Zuckerman. But lucky for us, prophets and scribes are still very much among us.