[Professor and literary critic Josh Lambert serves as a judge for two major prizes for American Jewish literature, meaning he reads as many new American novels by and about Jews as possible each year. In this annual column for Jewish Currents, he reflects on some of the previous year’s most compelling works of fiction that might be considered “Jewish” in one way or another, and what patterns emerged in this reading.]
AS IS OFTEN THE CASE, the new fiction I read over the past year seemed like a slow-motion echo of the news from half a decade ago: not ripped from the headlines, exactly, but carefully cut out, collaged in a scrapbook, meditated upon, and transformed. A number of novels and short story collections released in 2021 deal with gender and sexuality in ways that feel decidedly post-2016. Not coincidentally, this was a year in which scholars began dropping #MeToo into titles and subtitles, and a young philosopher’s exploration of “feminism in the 21st century” was a bestseller. (more…)
ADAM WILSON’S RECENT NOVEL Sensation Machines takes place in a near-future America much like ours, only a little more so. Congress is debating whether or not to pass a universal basic income policy while a social media guru introduces a newly invasive platform with the disquieting hashtag #WorkWillSetYouFree. Meanwhile, someone gets murdered when a Great Gatsby-themed bankers’ party collides with an Occupy Wall Street “Funeral for Capitalism.” But the book is not only a searing satire of our dystopian economic present; it’s also an exploration of the famously fraught subject of Jews and money. The long history of economic antisemitism means that any discussion of the topic has a wildly overdetermined and uncomfortable quality, so it can be difficult to know what to say about it. Still, a remarkable number of works of fiction published in the past year have given it a shot. (more…)
IT’S AWARD SEASON NOW in the world of contemporary Jewish literature. You probably didn’t know this, and not just because the ceremonies at which these awards are usually handed out have been canceled this year due to the global pandemic. Even in a more typical year, the prizes given out in the world of Jewish letters rarely make much of a ripple beyond the adjacent professional circles. Which is a shame, because they very often celebrate worthy books that have not gotten the attention they deserve from the nonsectarian—and even the Jewish—press. I know this intimately, because I serve as a judge for two such awards: the Sami Rohr Prize (which was given this year to Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial) and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award (given in April to Peter Orner’s story collection Maggie Brown & Others). (more…)
Discussed in this essay: Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Random House, 2019. 384 pages.
MARRIAGE AND ITS DISCONTENTS have always been a central concern of modern Jewish literature. As scholar Naomi Seidman explores at length in a dazzling recent book, The Marriage Plot, the Hebrew and Yiddish literature of the 19th century and the American Jewish literature of the 20th returned again and again to courtship and romance. Writing about marriage helped Jews modernize, Seidman argues, and lent drama to fictions about Jewish identity and community.
Fleishman Is in Trouble, which is already being celebrated for “updat[ing] the miserable-matrimony novel,” contributes to that tradition by perspicaciously subverting it, reflecting the irrelevance of Jewishness to the most pressing concerns in many American Jews’ lives with refreshing honesty. (more…)
BEFORE PHILIP ROTH was celebrated, infamous, or dead, he was a very precocious kid writer. A story he wrote in college was chosen for The Best American Short Stories collection, and within a few years, his work was already being adapted for television by a world-famous director, Alfred Hitchcock.
He had talent, of course, but plenty of his earliest fiction was sentimental pap he’d never allow anyone to reprint. What’s most striking about that young Roth, and worth remembering as we mourn his death today, was just how clear-headed he was, already, on the issue of Jewish authority.
This tends to get a little confused in the way he’s remembered. (more…)
THE RUINED HOUSE
By Ruby Namdar
Translated by Hillel Halkin
514 pp. Harper. $29.99.
It’s been a season of reckoning for our high priests, as one after another, in the film industry, journalism, politics, academia and other fields, have been judged and sometimes punished for their sins. How eerie that Ruby Namdar’s strange and exhilarating novel, “The Ruined House,” should appear in English translation just now.
In 2017, the Public Radio News Directors Awards selected this radio commentary as first prize in Division B for Commentary.