November 17, 2018

New Writers Lack Roth Shock Value

"Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge" edited by Paul Zakrzewski (Perennial, $14.95).

It’s official. American Jews are now the People of the Book Festival.

Not so long ago, in a simpler America, there were Jewish-themed books and there were people who read them. Reading was an intimate enterprise, and authors spent long years of their careers as hard-working nobodies. Nowadays, literature in general — and Jewish literature in particular — have become much more public entertainments. Every season brings new book-world celebrities, book fairs, book clubs, book cruises and all manner of literary happenings.

What does this phenomenon mean for Jewish literature? For one thing, it makes possible the profession of "literary event curator," which is how Paul Zakrzewski, editor of a new anthology called "Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge," defines his job as coordinator of book-related programs for the JCC in Manhattan. Zakrzewski assumes similar curatorial duties in "Lost Tribe," assembling a collection of 25 short stories by new-ish authors, hoping to "gather together the provocative fiction of a new breed of Jewish writer — and showcase tomorrow’s great Jewish writers today."

In his introduction, Zakrzewski describes this new breed as the "post-Roth generation," by which he means contemporary writers who are attempting to shock readers as Philip Roth shocked his audience with "Portnoy’s Complaint" back in 1969. It’s silly, though, to designate a generation as "post-Roth" when Roth himself is still very much in the game. In fact, he offered the best writing of his career in the 1990s, when many of these young writers were themselves getting their start, and for all we know he’s now at work on something even better.

It must be said also that, while some of the stories in "Lost Tribe" are undeniably distasteful, sprinkled with the occasional Nazi fetish and a smattering of lackluster violence, none of them can be called shocking in the way that "Portnoy’s Complaint" managed to be. The reasons for this are too complex to examine here, but it’s safe to say that a fictional world’s ability to shock has declined in direct proportion to the multiple shocks administered these days by real-life current events.

What, then, is the "edge" on which this new Jewish fiction is purportedly teetering? Interestingly, it’s the edgier stories here that are the least compelling. "Knitting One," by Suzan Sherman, is the banal assessment of a Jewish girl’s obsession with WASPy men, while Gabriel Brownstein’s "Bachelor Party" is a vague, lazy story about a Jewish young man’s affair with his ex-Nazi mentor’s daughter. Meanwhile, Binnie Kirshenbaum’s "Who Knows Kaddish" takes a smug look at an assimilated daughter who takes up with an older German man while deploring her inability to mourn for her dead mother.

Less edgy but far more diverting are the harmless middlebrow entertainments on offer, including Tova Mirvis’s "A Poland, A Lithuania, a Galicia," about a 19-year-old New Jersey boy’s conversion to ultra-Orthodoxy, and Ben Schrank’s "Consent," in which a perpetual graduate student wrestles with divorce, new love and Jewish mysticism. The truly dreadful rears its head here also, in the form of Simone Zelitch’s kitschy historical melodrama, "Ten Plagues," about which the less said the better.

Book-club enthusiasts may be discouraged to find that many of the better selections here are far from new. Novelists Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Safran Foer and Dara Horn, for instance, offer passages from their popular first novels "Bee Season" (2000), "Everything is Illuminated" (2002), and "In the Image" (2002).

Similarly, Nathan Englander, Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz weigh in with excellent stories that are by now quite familiar, having appeared in their much-ballyhooed debut collections, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (1999), "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" (1998), and "Flying Leap" (1997). For his part, Gary Shteyngart delivers "Several Anecdotes About My Wife," a witty variation on the immigration-comedy shtick he dispensed so hilariously in his novel "The Russian Debutante’s Handbook" (2002).

Other remarkable stories here include "Ordinary Pain" by Michael Lowenthal, a small but effective tale about a 13-year-old who invents a Holocaust story about his grandfather in order to gain popularity at school; Rachel Kadish’s "The Argument," in which a memory-haunted old man resents his rabbi’s enviable slide into dementia; and Joan Leegant’s "Seekers in the Holy Land," the lyrical account of a young American in Safed who becomes consumed by a less than benevolent mystical experience.

Talented as these young writers are, however, the only real edge that this Jewish fiction exhibits is a marketing edge. "Lost Tribe" is a volume whose real reasons for existing are to endorse the careers of its editor and contributors, and to join the noisy pageant of book festivals, readings and other promotions. The anthology itself doesn’t answer many questions about the future of Jewish literature. The more relevant question for these "post-Roth" aspirants is this: will they, 40 years down the line, be able to say they fulfilled their early promise with a career as consistently dazzling as that of Philip Roth?