Who We Are is an anthology of essays, edited by Derek Rubin and published by Schocken, that I looked forward to with great anticipation but which, in the end, proved to be one of the most frustrating reading experiences I've had recently.
The work's premise is simple enough; the subtitle states it succinctly: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer. A quick perusal of the contents page reveals that all of the usual suspects, at least of the older, more established generation – meaning Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and their like – had been rounded up and had testified in their particular ways. Even the usual young hotshots on the Jewish literary scene were here, including Tova Mirvis, Lara Vapnyar and Dara Horn.
The collection appears to be arranged chronologically by age of the writers, with the oldsters first and the young next. The book pretty much divides directly in half along this particular fault line.
And by fault line, I do mean fault. I found myself on much more comfortable ground in the first half of the book than in the second. No matter what we may feel about individual writers in this older pack, they have at least proven themselves by constructing careers of note. I understand that it's a marketable strategy to team established writers with the rising stars on the scene, but other than a few – Nessa Rapoport, Pearl Abraham, Jonathan Rosen – these writers don't belong in this earlier company, whether we use as criteria the fiction they've produced or the essay they've contributed here.
Take, for example, someone like Binnie Kirshenbaum. She's written five novels and two story collections, and has been nominated for lots of different prizes. She is also a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of the Arts. But don't be fooled. She's about as lightweight as they come, and has no place among the likes of Bellow, Roth and Ozick.
If you don't believe me, take a peek at the opening of her essay in Who We Are:
"Under the rubric that there are no coincidences, Philip Roth wrote Goodbye, Columbus right around the same time – as the 1950s came to a close – that I was born. Fast-forward 15 years and find me stretched out on my four-poster bed with white organdy spread and matching pillow shams, reading a tattered paperback edition of the story of Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. True, in those intervening 15 years, a whole lot happened – Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the assassination of Martin Luther King, civil rights, feminism, Woodstock – but as I read, it seemed that not much had changed in the world because I fully recognized the Patimkins' landscape as my own. Except for the mores regarding sex. Had I been older, the same age Brenda was in the book, it's not likely my parents would have gone wiggy to discover a diaphragm in my drawer, which they wouldn't have found anyway because I came of age in the time of the Pill. But just because premarital sex wasn't the disgrace it once was didn't mean that nice Jewish girls such as Brenda, or I, put out for just anybody. There was also some debate among my friends as to the degree of pleasure we were supposed to derive from sex or was it simply a means to various ends. At age 15, I was well on my way to becoming something of a Brenda Patimkin myself."
Because she's sometimes funny in a cheeky sort of way, and because she's blunt in language and viewpoint, editors, it would appear, and critics, obviously, think she's honest and real rather than nothing more than surface and fluff. She's all style and bluster, and the style isn't even hers. It's been patched together from a lot of her betters. But somehow, she gets away with.
There are a lot of other pretentious blowhards among the younger writers gathered here but we'll leave that for another time.
That's because there's a far greater problem with the overall nature of this anthology. If you read it straight through rather than jumping around from writer to writer, the question at the heart of the book – do you consider yourself a Jewish writer or not? – gets answered in a fairly regular and very staccato pattern: namely, yes, no, yes, no, yes, yes, no – etc. Some people are happy to be so designated, others bristle at the very thought. But if you were asked how most writers would answer this question before you even opened the book, you'd come up with this conclusion fairly quickly.
There are no great insights here into this very manufactured problem. But writers being writers – especially the younger sort – they enjoy opining for pages and pages on a subject that they imagine has something portentous about it. The second half of the book, with several fine exceptions, seems to expand as the hot air proliferates.
Many of these young writers talk about being storytellers – and that's because telling stories either sets you free, or is a moral imperative, or is the bravest and most difficult thing you can do with your life. But what's really most interesting about the older writers is that they never talk about the nature of storytelling, they just simply tell stories.
And so the best pieces in this collection – surprise, surprise – are written by some of the more established folks and really don't have anything to do with the subject at hand, except in the most tangential way. They are, actually, more a species of memoir or remembrance, and contain many stretches of beautiful and evocative writing. And they tell wonderful stories without a bit of pontification.
In Saul Bellow's "Starting Out in Chicago," for example, comes this exquisite passage (like many another that fill the essay, it is reminiscent of some of the thrilling memories of Jewish life in Canada that crop up near the end of Herzog):
"What was it, in the '30s, that drew an adolescent in Chicago to the writing of books? How did a young American of the Depression period decide that he was, of all things, a literary artist? I use the pretentious term literary artist simply to emphasize the contrast between such an ambition and the external facts. A colossal industrial and business center, knocked flat by unemployment, its factories and even its schools closing, decided to hold a World's Fair on the shore of Lake Michigan, with towers, high rides, exhibits, Chinese rickshaws, a midget village in which there was a midget wedding every day and other lively attractions, including whores and con men and fan dancers. There was a bit of gaiety, there was quite a lot of amoebic dysentery. Prosperity did not come back. Several millions of dollars were invested in vain by businessmen and politicians. If they could be quixotic, there was no reason why college students shouldn't be impractical too. And what was the most impractical of choices in somber, heavy growling, lowbrow Chicago? Why it was to be the representative of beauty, the interpreter of the human heart, the hero of ingenuity, playfulness, personal freedom, generosity and love. I cannot even now say that this was a bad sort of crackpot to be."
The only ostensible reason for this anthology is, of course, to address the subject posed by the editor. Since that never really was accomplished, the only other reason for its existence – and by extension for purchasing it – is to have on hand a group of essays you can't find anywhere else. The best of these pieces, however, are all available in other, better sources. And since most of those in the latter half – the new essays commissioned by the editor especially for this occasion – aren't really worth the trouble, then Who We Are doesn't, in the end, have much of a point.