Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn’t true. My first novel, The Jump Artist, was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, In the Land of the Living, which is being released by Little Brown this week, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)
If a book gets its license to exist from a fresh or unique subject, then my book’s claim would lie in its manner of depicting early childhood. Most novels do not incorporate early childhood into their storylines or into their characters at all, except in metaphorical ways. Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison are two writers who invented rather ingenious novelistic contraptions to represent early childhood: Shelley did it by writing of a human man made from scratch and educated (and abused) like a child, Morrison by turning a dead child into an adult ghost in Beloved. In his autobiographical novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Tolstoy wrote about his mother’s death, which happened when he was two, but he revised his age to something like eight to make the scenes more artistically manageable. James Joyce writes directly of early childhood in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he does so impressionistically and does not draw any firm connections between those opening early childhood scenes and later ones. I have taken a different approach by depicting early childhood experiences directly and carrying through their implications in every other scene of the book.
Having said that, there is something suspicious to me in the notion that a novel needs “uniqueness” in order to be valuable. “Uniqueness” sounds a lot like “competitive advantage”—a phrase from the world of commerce, not literature. A writer sets out to portray what is true to him or her, and also, usually, what is beautiful. New styles, new philosophies, new insights into character, forays into unknown subject matter—these things come about automatically when new voices do a good job examining the same old world on a cutting edge that is provided to them by time itself: another day.
Remember Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride? When Montoya was a child, the story goes, the six-fingered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leaving him with scars on both cheeks. Montoya spends the rest of his life training to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He practices not only his swordsmanship but just what he’ll say when he finally finds and confronts the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
The main character in my second novel In the Land of the Living is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on recompense and committed to its pursuit for as long as it takes. His problem is that there is no six-fingered man to kill.
Instead, he attempts to resurrect his father in a manner of speaking—by hewing to certain superhuman ideals in order to safeguard his father’s legacy from the oblivion of the grave. He will brook no failure in his career or his personal life and strives to excel everybody at everything (with the exception of phys ed). Anyone and everyone who gets in his way is the six-fingered man.
William Goldman, the screenwriter of The Princess Bride, has a cynical streak. It’s evident in his first novel Temple of Gold and it’s evident in the way he wreathes so many ironies into the sentimentality of The Princess Bride. A little of that cynicism comes out when Inigo Montoya actually does confront the six-fingered man. His lifelong search has come to an end at last, and Montoya delivers his practiced line, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” He battles his enemy by sword as planned, but the six-fingered man appears to defeat him. Montoya slumps backward, mortally wounded, and gives up with a line that still sucks the air from my lungs: “Sorry, Father. I tried.” It doesn’t seem to be Inigo Montoya the man that’s defeated then; it’s the boy who took on a task that was much too big for him out of love for the father that should have been there to help him.
Being a feel-good Hollywood movie, Montoya of course fights back from the edge of defeat. But in a way, what follows is even more cynical. The six-fingered man begs for his life. He promises Montoya anything he wants in exchange for mercy and Montoya answers, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” and he kills the six-fingered man.
He doesn’t fail his father after all, but because he can’t have the one thing he wants—for his father to be alive—he does in a sense fail himself. He asks his friend what he ought to do with his life now that his quest is over, and when his friend suggests he become a pirate, it seems ridiculous even according to the unreal, comedic laws of Hollywood fantasy. With his face alone, Mandy Patinkin smuggles into the scene a look of haunting ennui before the comedy-romance carries on with its merry business.
My book, In the Land of the Living, is a pretty funny book—it needs to be, to balance out the tragedy at the core of it—but it’s no Hollywood comedy. It’s a realist novel, and its protagonist doesn’t have the option of sailing away as the Dread Pirate Roberts, much as he’d like to. The land of the living is a less forgiving place than the land of The Princess Bride. Neither the death of the six-fingered man nor suicide solve the problem of grief. The only way forward is to figure out how to live a good life. And that is where my main character’s odyssey begins. Off he goes through graveyards and hospitals, loving and losing, traveling with his brother from L.A. to Cleveland in search of an answer to the question of how to live.
I think of it as a modern-day Don Quixote. In Part I, I used chapter titles that satirize medieval romance just as Cervantes did. It’s a novel that purposely dwells in an unstable region between comedy and tragedy, dream and reality, which is to say that it dwells in the real world, where the laws of nature are unyielding, and the human heart unflagging.