Critiquing a critic

Former 'Jerusalem Post' columnist Hillel Halkin writes first novel.

Books 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Books 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When you’ve written four prize-winning nonfiction books and published numerous essays on culture and politics, there is only one task left to complete: write a novel. Critiquing literature is one thing; creating it, however, is another task entirely.
This slim novel by Hillel Halkin (a former Jerusalem Post columnist) begins in an airport terminal in Madrid. It’s narrated in the first person by Hoo – a quixotic scholar of Greek philosophy who is experiencing something of a mid-life crisis. The document he is writing is a confession to his wife, Mellie, from whom he has recently separated.
Hoo begins his story in the “autumn of the first Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign” and continues until Nixon’s impeachment.
For readers familiar with Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, the ground covered in the first half of the narrative is very similar: young, wealthy, middle-class college kids from New York spending their languid days arguing about moral philosophy and the canon of Western literature.
There is also a love triangle between Mellie, Hoo and his best friend, Ricky. As the plot unfolds, the relationship between Hoo and Mellie becomes the primary focus.
Halkin carefully utilizes the first person voice to draw the reader firmly into Hoo’s consciousness. This is successfully executed by repeated emphasis of the word “you” when addressing Mellie. It makes the reader long to learn more about this mysterious woman Hoo speaks of. Everything Hoo recalls from his adult life hitherto is drawn mnemonically from the experiences he’s shared with Mellie. This rigid narrative framework, however, makes for laborious reading.
Stylistically the prose is careful, restrained and concise, but because Halkin attempts to squeeze two decades into such a short book, the writing inevitably suffers. Take for example this hasty description of Hoo’s college experience: “Harvard was as good a school as we who were told we were privileged to be its students believed it was.”
In choosing this helter-skelter pace of storytelling, Halkin continually resorts to the use of similes that simply do not serve a purpose: “We made love like tigers. We made it like gulls...”
Halkin is an extremely accomplished critic, but he doesn’t place enough faith in his characters. Instead, he turns to the canon every few pages, for both inspiration and moral guidance. It’s as if by saturating the reader with a plethora of high-cultural references, he believes the book can be transmuted into something greater than it is.
Moreover, it’s hard to have any empathy for the shallow, clichéd, bourgeois dilettantes that populate the narrative, many of whom leave as quickly as we are introduced to them: “Bill Andrew was in dark matter theory. Irene taught French lit and hosted a reading group in Proust’s Á la recherche.... Stan Miller was writing a book on Zen death-bed poems.”
Recalling his ex-girlfriend Cora, Hoo tells us “[her] list of lovers was impressive. It included a legendary jazz pianist, a Pulitzer prize-winning poet, and an internationally known French post-modernist philosopher.
I said I was flattered to have been the Ganymede in such a pantheon...”
There are so many subsequent historical and cultural references that readers may find themselves at odds with Halkin’s mysterious methods of storytelling. For example, in chapter five the narrator – without warning – slips mysteriously into the voice of the omniscient third person, and we find ourselves in a parable from the Old Testament. In several other chapters Halkin oscillates – unannounced – between ancient Greek and English.
Halkin continues to quote a litany of other writers, from Dante to Dostoevsky, Plato to Proust; an exercise that contributes very little to the significance of the story.
Cross-referencing biblical tales with Greek mythology, in tandem with his own narrative, is an ambitious idea, but Halkin does not consummate this with the fineness that is required.
The histrionic tone of Hoo’s voice aims to frame the language of the novel somewhere between a Greek tragedy and the elegiac poem; at best, it’s a sentimental love story, layered with pastiche.
It’s hard to decipher whether Halkin’s parlance is a satirical swipe at post-modern literature – and its dependency on points of reference – or whether the years spent working as a critic have hampered his ability to assemble ideas that incorporate some sense of originality. My feeling is that it’s the latter.