MAY 21, 2013
WHAT IS IT about communities of the religiously devout, particularly practitioners of anachronistic ways of life, that so transfix us? Reading Rebecca Miller’s novel Jacob’s Folly, with its centuries-spanning look at Jewish life, I thought often of the Discovery Channel basement-Brechtian trashterpiece Amish Mafia, a terribly acted, shot, and edited reality series that claims to reveal the inner workings of an Amish vigilante gang, as awkwardly reenacted by fringe speakers of Pennsylvania German. Between scenes of low-grade intimidation by Mennonite muscle and haphazard philanthropy, the players frequently describe their Amishness as an inherited ethnicity rather than a chosen faith, as when the show’s attempt at a femme fatale declares, “A good little Amish girl would never ride a mechanical bull,” just before straddling one at a county fair. But Amish identity is embraced through adult baptism and can be rescinded at any time. Unlike Jewishness, the identity is not carried in the blood.
The characters in Jacob’s Folly and Amish Mafia are outsized, even buffoonish, which heightens the stakes of their predicament: will they remain true to the idealized simplicity of their sheltered universes, or succumb to the spell of the vulgar unknown? The question has legs. Amish Mafia generated record-breaking Nielsen ratings, and I read Jacob’s Folly in a three day spurt. This comparison is not intended to insult Miller’s book, only to place it in its proper canon of intellectual junk food, a satisfying potboiler with historical research, emotional impact, and literary panache to spare. The lurid tug-of-war between piety and oblivion is the (forgive me) crucible in which Jacob’s Folly is forged. What becomes of faith, this book asks, when it is discarded for shinier vestments of another identity? Is belief written in the blood, or foisted on the soul? Can it be shucked?
Miller has written two previous books, Personal Velocity (2001) and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2008), and directed four films, Angela (1995), Personal Velocity (2002), The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005), and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009). Her new novel lacks some of the appealing grit of its predecessors, but shares with them a preoccupation with women’s interiority and the public consequences of intimate choices. It will not be a surprise if Miller adapts this book for the screen, too: Jacob’s Folly is cinematic and expansive, with its thrilling tales of time travel, physical and metaphysical transformation, and sexual intrigue.
In a neat trick, Miller floats between omniscience and free indirect style via her transfixing, morally bankrupt narrator, Jacob Cerf, a Jewish youth in mid-18th-century Paris. Jacob’s first job, the one he is supposed to perform all his life, is peddling “clinquaillerie — knives, saltcellars, snuffboxes, hammers — anything I could sell.” This is one of the few means of making a living available to French Jews, who at this time were not recognized as citizens and were frequently required to reapply for visas in order to remain in the country of their birth. Early on in the book, Jacob reveals that his human life ended at age 31. His last memory is of candles borne not in a menorah, but a cherub-laden candelabrum, an image that suggests he has traveled far from his roots.
The novel begins in earnest when Jacob is inexplicably reborn and finds himself descending through the heavens over a mysterious landscape, imagining his new form to be “a fully formed Christian seraph, a Viking with blond hair.” But he lands in present day Long Island, not as an agent of the heavenly host, but as a common housefly. As an insect, Jacob finds himself mysteriously drawn to two denizens of Patchogue, New York. The first, Leslie Senzatimore, is 44, a “reliable, true” boat builder and volunteer firefighter, husband to statuesque Deirdre, father of deaf Stevie, and paterfamilias to an unwieldy household that also includes his stepson, 19-year-old daughter-in-law, and newborn grandchild, with Deirdre’s hard-drinking parents installed next door. When we meet Leslie, he “has every reason to be content,” but he is not. A nameless malaise eats him, rooted in the “worst memory he had”: at age 13, Leslie discovered his father’s suicide, an act that Miller quickly attributes to Senzatimore père’s repressed homosexuality (it seems there will be more to this backstory, but there is not). Leslie’s inability to save his father has doomed him to play the savior all his life, rescuing trapped kittens, old men locked in burning buildings, and his hapless family from their myriad personal failings. With boredom and more than a little disappointment, Jacob recognizes Leslie as a “natural hero.”
Despairing of his mission on this unfamiliar earth, the fly proudly recollects his human body — “dark haired, short, slight, with light eyes, strong teeth, and a thick, long sex that I scented daily and coiled inside my britches with great care and pride” — with a relish that suggests libertine nature. Replicating an old pattern, he seeks consolation in the pleasures of his Musca domestica body, epitomized in an oddly affecting passage:
I never realized it before, but there is a charming little mating ritual for houseflies: the male, having spotted the female (there were, I admit, occasional encounters with male flies, but these were flirtations, I assure you), begins to follow her, occasionally beating his wings very quickly and making a distinct buzzing noise. The female, if a virgin, might slow down at this (female flies only like to mate once). The male continues to follow. The female pretends she doesn’t know what’s going on and walks along, nonchalantly licking up stray drops of food or excrement. This is my favorite part, and I have to say I take my hat off to the Creator for being so generous to even the lowly fly — the male sneaks up behind the female and gives her vagina a little lick. He didn’t have to give that to us, but he did.
As he navigates these new erotics, Jacob finds his second object of fascination and concern: Masha Edelman, 21-years-old and blessed with luminescent skin, abundant raven tresses, and deep purple eyes that resemble, as Miller reminds us every few pages, “the eerie multicolors of oil on a dark pond.” Masha is as natural a bombshell as Leslie is a hero, a gifted actress famed for her performances in school plays. We meet her watching television from her hospital bed, where Masha has been confined by the inflamed lining of her heart, a poetic psychosomatic reaction to an existential longing manifested as a desire to “live inside those multiple worlds, that kaleidoscopic, endless story machine.”
A young woman dreaming of movie stardom — so what? But Masha Edelman is an Orthodox Jew, one of the 11 children of Pearl and Mordecai Edelman, devout True Torah Jews happily ensconced in comfortable domestic chaos in Far Rockaway. In Masha’s religious community, women are forbidden to perform before men, a prohibition that extends even to singing prayers. They wear only loose long dresses and, when married, cover their hair with wigs, revealing it only to their husbands, with whom they are expected to produce an untold number of babies. Carefully observed ritual, constant prayer, and reverence for the life of the soul bind Masha’s world. She loves her family, but Masha has always been disaffected. Her natural, frank sexiness troubles the matchmaker hired by her mother: “Allure was only good in moderation. Even wearing a skirt five inches below her knee and old lady shoes, this girl managed to look immodest.”
Alone in the hospital overnight, Masha bites forbidden fruit and turns on the TV. She watches hours of programming, igniting a dangerous longing to enter the foreign world she witnesses on the small screen. Meanwhile, attracted by “the curve of a high, plump tit” and Masha’s aura, “as hot as dipping into a bath,” Jacob attaches himself to the sad young Orthodox girl. In Masha, Jacob finds his perfect foil, a soul whom he recognizes and understands completely. Masha’s father, Jacob notes, “was dressed almost exactly as I had once been, in the 18th century.” Although Miller is unfailingly respectful of the Orthodox way of life, and presents it as a primarily joyous embrace of faith and family, a vein of wry criticism runs through the novel. Can such devout anachronism be maintained without significant personal cost? Should it?
A bit like Remy the rat in Ratatouille, Jacob finds he can exert strong suggestion into the human subconscious, which allows Miller to switch seamlessly between the two human interiorities and the fly’s recollection of his human life. Jacob uses these supernatural powers of perception to influence Masha and Leslie, and sets out at once to destroy their lives. Jacob’s Folly contains a dizzying number of narratives mirrored, twined, and intertwined, to uneven effect. Jacob and Masha’s lives, which unfold in parallel narration, are the most successfully paired. As Jacob recalls his calamitous teenage marriage to the unfortunate Hodel, an adolescent child possessed first by horrific gastrointestinal distress and then by an unexplained lusty spell that ends in her early death, Masha tries to find a proper husband, and embarks on a brief engagement to the cute Orthodox Eli. When Jacob becomes the subject of an errant Comte’s Enlightenment experiment to see if a Jew can be removed from his Jewishness (another iteration of Miller’s central motif), Masha is mysteriously drawn to what is surely the most remarkably well-connected acting class in Long Island and possibly the world, where, in short order, she is catapulted into a off-Broadway play, the elegant manse of mysterious benefactors, and, eventually, movie stardom.
The parallel dissolutions of Jacob and Masha’s religious observance are recounted in intimate detail. Jacob’s peyos are “amputated,” leaving him “naked”; when Masha tries on her first pair of jeans, she feels “like a mermaid having her tail cut in two.” The arcane rules and practices of Judaism are the novel’s primary obsession. Who is doing it right? Miller asks. Pearl and Mordecai, with their loving, unquestioning obedience? Jacob’s parents, who dare not test the boundaries of their allotted identities? Gimpel, the Polish mystic who believes that even food contains sparks of the divine, or Jacob’s mother-in-law, with her terror of demons and spirit possession? Faith is presented as simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, a circle of comfort within, and exclusion without. After their transformations, Jacob and Masha’s fathers will not even look at them; their failure to believe has rendered them invisible.
But Jewish identity lives in the blood as well as in practice, Miller reminds us in the book’s last section, where Jacob is treated to a quick rundown of his descendants. His son, Ethiop, becomes a tailor and a citizen of the French Republic. Ethiop’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in a handsome bourgeois arrondissement. One of their descendants (surprise, but not really) is Masha’s great-grandfather, Max Levi, an intellectual who realizes the frailty of his national identity one bitter afternoon in Vichy Paris and flees to Coney Island, where he becomes an agnostic Jew whose American daughter will in turn embrace Orthodoxy. These sketches, which unfold in a matter of pages, show Miller working at the height of her talent. Unlike the dropped strings of the many denizens of Patchogue, these peeks at Jacob’s descendants are affecting; their brevity is matched to an intensity of deep feeling.
For while Miller’s hand is sure, she has a frustrating habit of cultivating a character with a phenomenally rich backstory — Leslie’s sister Eva, an aging alcoholic incapable of caring for herself, or Helga Coe, the mysterious Austrian heiress with fond memories of Eva Braun — and then never giving this character a clear purpose or fully realized story. Miller’s previous books were fundamentally episodic, a form Jacob’s Folly forgoes in pursuit of a story spanning many centuries, lifetimes, and relationships. But Miller is no Maryse Condé, whose Segu remains for me the apex of this type of novel. I found myself missing the characters so promisingly introduced and then abruptly forgotten, none more than Leslie’s father’s unrequited love object, the golden Hutch Sonderson, who seems primed for a return that never comes.
Disappointingly, Leslie himself wanes at exactly the moment he should wax. Jacob gleefully plots for our hero to fall in inappropriate lust with Masha, but the connection between the two is as empty as Jacob’s bored troublemaking. Miller so effectively entrenches the connection between Leslie and his wife Deirdre that Leslie’s dreamlike attraction to Masha’s inadvertent sexiness seems frankly unbelievable, even with an impish fly supernaturally urging the affair onwards. Then, before anything other than an aborted disrobing can occur, Jacob manipulates Leslie into a melodramatic act of violence whose ramifications feel unearned. Their affair lands more like a sex act that never began than coitus interruptus.
Perhaps I’m not giving Miller enough credit. Jacob’s Folly is a novel primarily concerned with performance and the consequences of performance, and when addressing these topics it is lovely and exact. Those looking for insights into the nature of celebrity, creativity, or talent will be sated; writing about Masha, Miller frequently attempts to pinpoint the young woman’s ineffable quality, her she-ness, the trait that makes her so transfixing, so intoxicatingly watchable. Admirably, Miller always stops short of nailing down ephemera, which comments more effectively on the mystery of stardom than any complex description. That Masha’s ending is a shameless deus ex machina is hardly an accident; she’s an archetype, a star so defined by her star power that limelight obviates any chance of self-knowledge.
Readers seeking references to Miller’s star-crossed personal life as the daughter of Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis will find only elliptical traces. Certainly the descriptions of an 18th-century Paris theater, with its “smell of burning wax wafting through the theater from the candle-making room; the pong of rabbit-skin glue sizing, boiling in great pots in the scenery department; the rich dusty red velvet of the seats, the red damask walls,” which Jacob finds “cozy as a womb,” are some of the novel’s most intimate and deeply felt, as are those of Masha’s “dark, pure” onstage transformations. When a fellow spectator comments about Masha, “That black-haired girl, the mute — she was incredible,” Leslie’s face “burns,” an insight with the melancholy air of experience.
Masha possesses an ineffable quality, untaught and unknown, which arrests the attention of her viewers. The reader can’t help but wonder if this is how Miller herself has felt about the stars around her, if it is her wry take on celebrity. And this question, too, raises another: if the book is itself a performance, what does this say about its failings, its quick drop of the curtain on a messy world? Where, Jacob’s Folly asks, does the performance end?