Friday, December 09, 2005

Dara Horn: The World To Come

A few days ago (5 December) we noted that, when a publisher intends to spend a lot of money on publicising a book, the firm puts out Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) and distributes them to more or less anybody who walks past the door. So it is that a lowly blogger such as I has been sent an ARC of Dara Horn's new novel, The World To Come.

This book has an official publication date, via Norton in the USA, of 16 January 2006. And January, by the way, is a really quiet time in the book trade, so doubtless they are hoping that, with competition reduced, the book will head the bestseller lists. No UK publisher seems scheduled as yet; neither, it seems, has any UK publisher been interested in Dara Horn's first novel, In the Image.

Dara Horn is in her late twenties and is absolutely soaked in Jewish culture. Her official web site describes her an award-winning novelist, essayist, professor, and scholar. She is currently a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard University, studying Hebrew and Yiddish; she has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College, and has lectured at universities and cultural institutions throughout the United States and Canada.

In the Image, published when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. It was also chosen as one of the Best Books of 2002 by the San Francisco Chronicle ('stunning and absorbing') and as one of the Top Five Novels of 2002 by the Christian Science Monitor ('a work of raw genius' -- raw genius as opposed, presumably, to cooked genius), along with rave reviews throughout the United States and overseas.

The official blurb for In the Image says that it 'seamlessly weaves its deeper preoccupations into a narrative thoroughly absorbing and satisfying.' It follows a young New Jersey woman, Leora, through the death of a friend in high school and on to college, career, and falling in love. Simultaneously, it traces the story of Bill Landsmann, her lost friend's grandfather, back through several generations of experience in Amsterdam, Austria, and New York's Lower East Side. Each dramatic episode of their lives is also a foray into the nature of good and evil; of the significance of tradition and the law; of the presence or absence of God.

You get the idea. We have here a powerful intellect, drawing on a rich vein of culture, religion, folklore, and the like. Also we have someone writing fiction which she intends to reflect upon such matters as the nature of good and evil, the existence of God, and so forth.

So now, what of The World to Come?

Well, The World To Come appears to be more of the same. We have a reasonably interesting plot, set in the present, which concerns the theft of a painting by Chagall; and that plot is interwoven with the family history of the man who took the picture. The family is, inevitably, Jewish.

Now I have to admit that I have a slight problem. Maybe several problems. I quite enjoyed this book, and I admire the skill and the emotional intensity which has gone into the making of it. There is much to recommend it. But the publisher is already beating the drum very loudly, and is pretty much going to ensure that when the novel comes out it's going to be labelled a work of genius. And it isn't that. Not unless genius is spread rather thinner than I take it to be. (And since there are those in the world who think that Michael Cunningham is a genius it may be spread a great deal thinner than I suspect.) And while it isn't the author's fault if she gets wildly overpraised, I do fear for her future. If you're told that you're a genius, and win lots of prizes, and sell lots of copies, why change anything? And for any writer, that's a problem; and particularly for this one, because she still has lots to learn.

Another problem that I have is that The World To Come will be slotted into a pigeonhole which is labelled Serious Fiction Involving Major Philosophical and Religious Issues. It will be treated not just as a story, therefore, but as some sort of guide to how we should live our lives; it will be said to be full of ancient wisdom and deep insights. And what I resent about such books is not the books themselves, or the undoubted talent and sincerity of their authors: it's the attitude of those who sell, review, and -- above all -- use the damn things as teaching material.

The attitude in question takes the form of an assumption that this stuff is far superior, in every way, to books which just tell a story. It is held to be self-evident that a novel which concerns itself with Big Issues is, by definition, more worthy of attention, shelf space, and sales than is a book which contents itself with telling a story.

And personally I flat out do not believe that. It may be, that for some people, the addition of religious and philosophical overtones intensifies the emotional impact of a novel. I can only report that, for me, both in this novel and others of its ilk, it reduces the emotional impact.

I am making every attempt to be fair to The World toCome, and its author, by repeating at various points in this review that Dara Horn has lots of talent, has a marvellous grasp of the history, culture, and religion of the Jewish people, and uses all these to good effect. But you see, what you have here, when push comes to shove, is a mixture of various genres; and none of them done particularly well, because they all trip over each other.

For a start we have traces of a thriller or a crime novel. The book begins, as noted earlier, with the theft of a painting, and the complications resulting therefrom. We also have a good old-fashioned family saga, of the kind much beloved by heavy library users in the UK, and which comes in both highbrow (Elizabeth Jane Howard) and lowbrow (Josephine Cox) versions. And the final chapter of The World To Come is pure fantasy.

In fact fantasy is perhaps the dominant tone here. There is a very definite otherworldly feel about The World To Come; and 'otherworldly' is the one word lifted from a Boston Globe review of In the Image and stuck on the back of this one. But God forbid, I bet you a penny to a pound, that any of these genre tints should ever be mentioned by any of the intellectuals who will discourse upon the book when it comes out.

No, the debts to genre will be totally ignored, and this book will firmly be labelled Literary Fiction; which it is, overall. And it comes complete with various literary devices which all critics of that type of fiction have come to expect, and which they regard as valuable.

For example, we are told more than once in the book that, in Jewish folklore, there is a belief that the child in the womb learns all there is to know, and sees his whole life in its entirety. But immediately before the child is born, the child's teacher strikes it a blow, right below the nose, whereupon the child forgets everything that it has learnt.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that at various points in the book, various characters have smudges of paint, or bruises, or whatever, right below their nose. This linking of folklore and narrative description is quite obviously deliberate. And if I were deeply, deeply cynical (which of course I'm not) I would say that this has been introduced purely to add Significant Detail. Detail which will be warmly welcomed, and taken as a token of genius, by the reviewers, the PhD students of the future (who will devote their thesis to the work of Dara Horn), and, above all, by a certain class of reader.

The average grad student in Eng. Lit., for example, will find Significant Detail of this sort to be absolutely invaluable when chatting up the waitress in the coffee shop. 'What I didn't understand...' the waitress will say. And our hero will enlighten her. 'Ah yes, you see, but what that means is...' And the waitress will think, Gee, this guy is really smart. Maybe I should let him do it a few times.

The book, you see, contains enough material which can be understood by the average grad student -- yes, even modern ones -- and which can be discussed far into the night; until whatever resistance the lovely waitress has left is dissipated.

But personally I find all the Significant Detail stuff slightly irritating.

There are other problems with the book. The author (female, twenties) has chosen to give us an episode concerning combat in the Vietnam war. Not a wise move. Danielle Steele did it in one of her books too; rather better, as I recall. And Dara Horn wisely concentrates upon the personal anguish of one soldier rather than on the details of combat; but it's hard for a woman to do convincingly.

And then there is lots and lots about dreams. Courtesy of good old Sigmund, who also had Jewish antecedents. But I am not keen on novels that do dreams. I am old enough to remember reading an article by Dorothy Parker, who used to review books for Esquire in the 1950s, in which she said that she had absolutely had it with dreams in novels. And so have I, pretty much.

I did like the portrait of a Yiddish writer called Der Nister -- the Hidden One. Der Nister is more or less completely nuts, and is therefore just like every other writer. But the chapters which deal with him are the best, in my opinion. (And he was, by the way, a real person, as was Chagall, of course.)

The biggest disappointment of all, for me, was that the story was unresolved at the end. True, we have hints of how things are going. But there is no real conclusion in the traditional sense; and I have my own strong sense of the importance of tradition.

Well, the kind lady who sent me this book from Norton did hope that I wouldn't be too grumpy, and I really don't want to undersell this book. It is in many ways a very fine piece of work. Not quite as good as it could be, in my opinion. But it is, after all, only the author's second novel. And, on the general principle that you need to write a million words of fiction before you get the hang of it, I look forward to her later stuff.

I would certainly not recommend The World To Come as a model for young writers -- who will doubtless be tempted because of the fame and fortune which it will generate.

Finally, I want to return to my point that the novel which eschews all attempt at Deeper Significance, and just tells a story, is at least as valuable (actually rather more so) than one which seeks to weave in some message or other. At one point in the book, Der Nister is told that a painting doesn't have to mean anything, but a story does. And we are left in little doubt that Dara Horn believes in that principle. But personally I don't. A story, in my opinion, doesn't have to mean anything. But it does have to have an effect; otherwise both writer and reader are lost. And the story also has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Apat from that, just leave the damn thing alone. Let it speak for itself, and let the reader draw from it whatever conclusions she wishes; if she wishes. And if she chooses to value the book just for its emotional effect, rather than for its insights into the Meaning of Life, so much the better.


Anonymous said...

For all you youngins out there. If you want to know how to review and express yourself and the merits or drawbacks of a book, this is your example. Great post

I've linked

Anonymous said...

S is right on the mark. I'm going to have a good look at Dara Horn's work.

Anonymous said...

Another twenties-something explaining the nature of good and evil with a few twists of ancient wisdom and deep insight. Forgive me, but she can get in line with the others.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. The story's the thing. I would rather read a good story any day than have to wade through a labrynth of symbol and allusion.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

I too got a copy of the novel. I haven't read it all. I don't intend to read anymore. The hype promised much more than was delivered. It's just another run of the mill novel masquerading as 'literary'. As you say, it's more of a work of genre.

I notice you haven't mentioned the names of the intellectuals discoursing on this or anything else. I suspect that's because the idea that genre is looked down upon is a figment of the imagination. Or rather it's an idea that resides solely in those who read genre fiction and seem unaccountably ashamed of it, so venture into genuine literary fiction only when it's misrepresented by publishers in their hype for novels such as The World to Come.

Anonymous said...

I got a copy of this ARC also, read it through, and I think it's very impressive -- both scholarly and exciting. (Too few novels deliver both these days.) While I too question the hype some young authors receive for writing fundamentally bad literature on overly "serious" topics, I got the sense that this one came from learned knowledge of the subject matter. Its message did resonate with me, and I liked the assemblage of elements of a crime story, Yiddish literature, art history and fantasy/mystical realism. Quite original, and the hype (if that is what we now must call advance praise) is deserved. A few parts were funny, also. I think there is very much to like, and I would recommend it.

Oppy said...

I agree with previous comments that that was an excellent and well-constructed review. Plus, it's always nice to see someone point out the importance of storytelling rather than encourage this idea of "literary" fiction. It's fiction. The worlds that "literary" writers create are no more real than the worlds or SF, Fantasy, Mystery, or other genre writers. The focus should be on the story and the response it elicits from the reader. If more critics (and bloggers) approached books with this mindset, we might see a more varied and balanced selection of books discussed in the critical world (and in the blogosphere too). Keep up the excellent work.

Anonymous said...

Try Swap by Sam Moffie.

Susan from Sisters, Oregon said...

I'm wondering if you're still on the list to get an ARC of Horn's next novel All Other Nights. Don't think she's quite finished writing it yet but is scheduled for spring 2009. I'll be one of the lone voices here to say World was original and brilliant. You wrote that Horn has a lot to learn - so I'll be interested to see what you think about her next book.

Susan from Sisters, Oregon said...

I'm wondering if you're still on the list to get an ARC of Horn's next novel All Other Nights. Don't think she's quite finished writing it yet but is scheduled for spring 2009. I'll be one of the lone voices here to say World was original and brilliant. You wrote that Horn has a lot to learn - so I'll be interested to see what you think about her next book.