By Ben Lerner
Faber & Faber, 256 pages, $25
Call it the “Zuckerman effect,” after Philip Roth’s most famous fictional alter-ego: A young writer breaks out with a smart, entertaining novel that allows or even encourages his readers to confuse its fictional protagonist with its author. Then comes a follow-up, which plays even more forcefully with the line between fact and fiction, both because it is natural for the writer to examine his newfound condition using the tactics that made the first book a hit, and also because the literary market is prepared to pay him handsomely in the hopes that his celebrity, such as it is, represents potential sales.
In other words, what happened to Roth after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and to many other writers both before and since, is now happening, writ relatively small, to Ben Lerner. (more…)
Your Face in Mine by Jess Row
Riverhead Books, 384 pages, $27.95
Jess Row’s first novel, “Your Face in Mine,” has an inevitable quality to it. Can it really have taken this long for a writer to connect the increasingly widespread conversation about the construction of gender that’s raised by trans-rights activism — which recently reached another watershed when Laverne Cox, a trans actress, made the cover of Time magazine — to that most primal of American subjects, race? (more…)
A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?
The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. (more…)
For the past decade or more, American literary critics have been either celebrating a “memoir boom” or wringing their hands about it. Some said the boom was just a marketing campaign, and others wrote it off years ago. But surely the genre’s moment can’t be totally over if the most zeitgeisty character of our day, Hannah Horvath of HBO’s “Girls,” aspires to publish not novels or film scripts, but personal essays.
Life-writing is, of course, nothing new for Jews. (more…)
“Visible City,” by Tova Mirvis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24
Tova Mirvis is hardly the first Jewish writer to pine, in exile, for a land that she’s left. Still, there’s something fetching, even touching, about the wistfulness of a Jew relocated to Boston, longing for the Upper West Side – which is what inspired Mirvis’ new novel (her third), “Visible City.” (more…)
In a tidy coincidence, two separate videos went viral last week, demonstrating that American Jews’ love affair with obscenity is still going strong. Sarah Silverman talks about being visited by Jesus Christ, who asks her to spread a message about women’s reproductive rights (“We’ve got to legislate that shit,” the comedienne said, mocking conservatives who want to use the law to limit women’s health care options), while a a fan-produced supercut strung together three minutes of uninterrupted insults by Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (more…)
One thing we know for sure is that 2014 will be a big year for young post-Soviet Jews who write in English.
Gary Shteyngart’s forthcoming memoir, which he did not title “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Jewness,” has already called attention to itself with a four-minute video that almost but not quite redeems the genre of the “book trailer” from its utter insipidity. (more…)