Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: Shylock Is My Name

Shylock Is My Name Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somewhere at the back table in the great deli in the sky, the great kibitzers of Jewish literature regale each other. I see Mordecai Richler the loudest, with Wallace Markfield, Stanley Elkin, and Joseph Heller making a reliable chorus. They’re saving seats for Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman, and they’re always glad to see Saul Bellow when he can break away for a moment from his lunch at the tony establishment up the street. They’re choosy, these old kibitzers. They may like some of what Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon are doing, but it’s too mannered, too clearly showing the strain of connecting itself to their “tradition” for them to trust such pischers. They have their eyes on Jonathan Lethem and Sam Lipsyte, but it’s still a bit early to be sure how those two would fit in.

But the one guy they’d like to have join them, the one writer still at the peak of his powers who stands in that tradition of Jewish wise guys – wise guys so comfortable in their Jewishness that they speak to one another as much as to any larger audience, righteous in their anger and audacious in their refusal to take anything too seriously – is Howard Jacobson.

Jacobson is both so funny and so angry – angry at a world that tells him he must be a Jew and equally angry at himself for insisting he’d be a Jew in any case – that he’d seem like one of a kind if he weren’t, instead, a kibitzer at heart.

And when I say “kibitzer,” I mean it as a contrast to Harry Frankfurt’s now semi-famous definition of bullshit. Frankfurt tells us that the idea behind bullshit is that it troubles the truth. The liar knows he is lying. As such, he still depends on a concept of truth that he is violating. The bullshitter simply talks, making one claim and then another, seeking for words that secure traction. He has no sense of what’s true, just of what has an effect at that moment. (Fareed Zakaria wrote a brilliant piece applying that notion to Donald Trump, and it remains one of the best things I’ve seen about our recent election.)

The kibitzer has a strong idea of what’s true but realizes truth is so bright – much like the Jewish idea of G-d – that we can’t look at it directly. He is as deadly serious as anyone, raising issues of fundamental justice and philosophical truth, but he does so through the play of language. Western Europe had its jesters, its clowns speaking truth to power, to the King Lears of the world. Our kibitzers speak truth mostly to each other. They’re idealists in the sense that they believe there is a possibility for what we call repairing the world. They’re cynics in the sense that they don’t believe there’s much chance to persuade the necessary powers of that truth. They believe deeply in the truth and in their obligation to attempt to say it, but they know just as fully that truth is ineffable.
Put differently, they believe very much in G-d, but as the tradition teaches us, they’ve forgotten His/Her/Its name.
Jacobson kibitzes throughout this weird, funny, and deeply truthful book. He rewrites The Merchant of Venice, substituting Shylock’s claim for a gentile’s pound of flesh with the demand that a gentile submit to circumcision. As I see it, that foundational joke is worth the price of admission alone, but Jacobson gilds it on every other page with narrower insights about the nature of the Jew in the Western world. He gives us glimpses of the deep truth of the Jewish experience, and then he lets them fall beneath the strangeness of his project here: a story with the bright colors of a comic book and the two-dimensional characters of slapstick.

I’ve lost track of the many brilliant one-liners here. To mention just a few, one Christian character complains of the Jews, “Whether it’s a flaw or a stratagem I cannot say, but they have always put themselves at the centre of every drama, human or theological. I think of it as a political sadness. The glue of self-pity is very strong. As is emotional blackmail.”

Shylock, here as a character who may have learned something from his experiences in The Merchant, answers dozens of pages later when he explains that Christians always see Jews as Jews. “The individual Jew brings the collective Jew with him into any room. It’s the collective Jew that Christians see.”

If those are the broad lines of the story, though, they don’t give a full sense of it. Jacobson is constantly sliding his characters’ complaints, constantly playing with the uncomfortable charges they levy against one another. The Jew here doesn’t come across as badly as in The Merchant, though we do end with the wonderful irony that [SPOILER] Gratan, compelled to undergo circumcision, turns out already to have had it done, as is customary in many contemporary developed nations. I read that in part as offering the sense that Gratan (and by extension other contemporary Christians) is already slightly Judaized, but I think it’s yet more slippery than that. It’s also a sense that, however Jews have been marked through history, we remain distinct from others through our own codes rather than through any reliable markers.

As Shylock puts it later to the comparatively secular Strulovitch, “There is a weight of history when a Jew speaks. I watch the care with which you measure your words. There are impressions you are afraid to give, but you give them anyway. When you walk into a room, Moses walks in behind you.”

Or, as Strulovitch, slowly getting the point, tells his daughter even later in the book, “They won’t get the cultural allusions. Just remember – your intelligence is five thousand years old, they were born yesterday. They can think only one thing at a time; you can think a dozen.”

I can’t easily do justice to the serious truths Jacobson dances around, but I can assure of the humor. This is littered with inside jokes – inside to those who know their Merchant of Venice and even more to those who know the experience of being Jews who’ve been told, subtly or bluntly, that they are different from their Christian neighbors. If you’re comfortable with the sensation that you won’t get some of the jokes – if you’re someone who’d start to feel out of place at that imaginary table Mordecai Richler has going – this isn’t for you. If it is, though, it will feel like the latest iteration in a joke Jews have found ways to make fresh for at least the last two and a half millennia.

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