Sunday, March 2, 2014

A modern retelling of a ubiquitous myth stuck in the mundane and the obvious (Books - The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman)

The Book of Jonah  by Joshua Max Feldman (Henry Holt and Co., 2014) is a debut novel I received courtesy of the publisher.  Billed as a modern day retelling of the biblical Jonah myth, it tells of a successful young New York lawyer's fall from grace and, as the Hasidic Jew he meets in the subway says, his discovery that beneath all the power and money is only one's nakedness.

I'd describe The Book of Jonah as very much a first novel, but with a pay-off. Feldman creates a modern adaptation, so naturally a certain amount of detail must root the story in contemporary times.  However, the references to Paul Krugman, Tupac, and Murray's Cheese cave felt to me like names dropped to dump us in the mileu so that we could get on with the story.  They seemed expedient rather than germane to the details of this specific world and were unrevealing of character.  Early in the novel Jonah observed a character named Philip.

...dressed nattily in a powder-blue suit, smiling with consistent gladness into every face he recognized - Jonah could easily imagine Philip in the the role he openly aspired to: mayor of the city.  It wasn't impossible, either: He had the intelligence, the resume, the politician's instinctive cunning (he always won when he and Jonah played chess); he networked relentlessly... and, as he often pointed out, there was now a Kenyan in the White House and a bachelor in the mayor's office.  The political era redounded favorably on his prospects. 
Feldmans' descriptive choices are facile and are likely to limit readership to a New York Times-NPR crowd.

Similarly revealing of his naivete, Feldman's description of human behavior was stuck in the realm of the obvious.  Sometime he explained the character's feelings rather than finding a way to express their content.
The relief was more than satisfaction at the end of a punishing relationship.  It was the relief of giving in, of surrender - of being buoyed by a current he had been struggling against, vainly, for so long.
When a character lost his grip on reality, Feldman had him laughing hysterically - a cliche of madness.  A recurrent dream was used in an attempt to reveal Jonah's interior feelings following his departure from his high-powered job as a lawyer.  These too obviously quoted the literal circumstances of his work life to feel symbolic.  Dreams are made from our waking life, but generally seem to obscure direct references enough so that their content is often veiled to the dreamer.  Visions Jonah has of New Yorkers walking the streets naked were overly obvious explanations of the literal meaning of the Jonah story without the author envisioning something original from it.

Feldman's descriptive choices can also be mundane at just the time they should involve us in emotion.  Late in the story, Jonah's plot line intersects with another character's named Judy. This is the point in the story when Jonah's nakedness finally encroaches on him in an experiential way, when he opens up to other people.  Now Feldman tells us
...they crossed a bridge where Herengracht was intersected by an east-west street, Huidenstraat - and Jonah saw they were only a canal east of an alley halfway down, which was his favorite coffeeshop in the city: a three-tabled space with wooden floors...

What redeems this novel is a wonderful intersection of the Jonah and Judy plot lines that involves them each changing in radical ways that I won't reveal. The culmination of Judith's struggle involves a character referred to as The Colonel who is imagined in splendid detail.  The scenes in which he persuades Judith to changes the basis on she makes the important decisions of her life, is the most effective in the novel. 

Feldman's plot is not only found in the bible, it is the plot of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, and of numerous stories in the news - Bernie Madoff comes to mind.  Given the ubiquity of the story, it is a shame that Felman rendered his idea of Jonah's success as so baldly empty, and, therefore, the lessons he learns, so strikingly obvious.

He knew then what was so awful in his visions, what gave them their power to terrify, to torment - to make his life seem so peculiarly hollow all of a sudden: they were true.  That fragility he had seen, the mortality, the vulnerability - they were everywhere.  It was no great revelation that everyone was naked beneath their clothes, that the city and everyone in it would someday crumble into dust - except that it was. 
I guess Feldman knew it, but he couldn't find the craft to create something that rose above it until the latter portions of the novel.

Apropos of nothing, it was a curious coincidence that, like another novel published recently - The Goldfinch - the key setting were New York, Amsterdam, and Las Vegas. An odd detail which became almost distracting.

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