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.
There was an unanswered question at the heart of the first season of Transparent, the TV-show-not-for-TVs, produced by an Internet retail behemoth, that earned so much love last year. It was a question apparent from the show’s title sequence, but no one, despite a vast ocean of thinkpieces and increasingly rapturous reviews, seemed to ask it directly. And yet it’s the question that Jill Soloway, the show’s creator and director, has devoted the show’s second season to answering.
Want to know what it is? Watch the title sequence again with me—or, better yet, watch it with Slate’s Stephen Vider. As he points out, the clips you’ll see are “culled mostly from video clips of bar and bat mitzvah videos from the 1960s to the ’90s,” but there are also a few shots from Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), a “rarely seen and ground-breaking documentary of the 1967 New York Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant” and “one of the earliest screen portrayals of the lives of ‘female impersonators.’” Vider expertly explains how important that documentary footage is, rooting the show’s representation of a transgender woman’s journey in the history of transgender activism and its capture on film.
But there’s another question one could ask: Why all the bar and bat mitzvahs to begin with? Why should this groundbreaking, frankly activist show about a transgender woman’s journey be so deeply Jewish? (more…)
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…)
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…)
In the first chapter of her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter—a book as unrelentingly winsome as its author—comedian Sarah Silverman recalls how as a 4-year-old she broke up a room by telling her grandmother, who had offered her some brownies, to “Shove ’em up your ass.” Remembering this incident, Silverman writes, makes her “nostalgic for the days when naked obscenity was enough for a laugh, and didn’t need any kind of crafted punch line to accompany it.” (more…)
Is there any lower form of comedy than song parody? Dirty limericks and knock-knock jokes may be worthless, but at least they have the decency to be brief. A parody song almost always lasts a chorus or two longer than necessary, and that’s just the beginning of the trouble.
Which makes the best work of Allan Sherman all the more astonishing. Fiddling with the lyrics of recognizable songs—transforming “Frère Jacques” into “Sarah Jackman” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” into “The Ballad of Harry Lewis”—the heavyset, bespectacled comic turned himself into a star, sold millions of albums, won a Grammy, and headlined concerts from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. (JFK was a fan.) He also managed to say something about the place of Jews in 1960s America. (more…)
One of the constants, to date, in the media coverage of the 26-year-old pornographic performer James Deen — a wave burgeoning as the release of The Canyons, in which he’ll star opposite Lindsay Lohan, approaches — has been obligatory passing mention of Deen’s Jewishness.
Stories about Deen, whether in GQ or on ABC’s Nightline, have focused on his appeal to young women and teenagers, because of his atypical, un-porny physical features. He’s thin, unmuscled, baby-faced, cute. Noting that he’s Jewish helps to encapsulate all of this, because male Jewishness in our pop culture functions as the yin to machismo’s yang. That’s what Gaby Dunn, whose blog profile of Deen in June 2011 set the tone for all the ensuing pieces, meant when she wrote that “he was almost like a guy that you would just hang out with at Hebrew school.” (more…)
This fall marks the half-century anniversary of the first Grove Press paperback of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the edition through which that notorious dirty book, first published in Paris in 1934, finally reached hundreds of thousands of American readers rather than handfuls. (more…)
The Little Bride
Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $15
In her classic 1912 memoir of immigration to the United States, “The Promised Land,” Mary Antin notes: “A long girlhood, a free choice in marriage, and a brimful of womanhood are the precious rights of an American woman.” Tell that to Minna Losk. (more…)
Last spring, I gave a tough assignment to the students in my NYU class on literary and cultural representations of the Holocaust. “By Wednesday,” I told them, “I want you to kill Hitler.” (more…)