Worth more than rubies
On a sultry summer evening, the Beamers sought sustenance and conversation at a local casual dining establishment. Along with a few healthful treats, we digested a fantasy set in 1900 New York, following in the footsteps, from street to rooftop, by carriage or elevated train, the two creatures out of folklore who star in The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. While we disagreed over the value (and the unavoidability) of making human what is non-human, we were roundly delighted by the results.
Welcome to New York! Now, Go Home!
The Golem and the Jinni details the meeting in New York of two unusual immigrants: Chava the golem, created to be a wife for a man who dies on the passage from Poland; and Ahmad (not his real name) the jinni, trapped in a flask used to store oil and released only by accident. Wecker’s debut novel includes a large cast of characters who occupy several communities trying to adjust to new lives in the New World, arguing over what to keep faithfully and what to change or adapt. The two title characters, in addition, hardly know human society, much less the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so their challenge is magnified over the usual immigrant dilemma.
And having that immigrant experience detailed for us was a general source of enjoyment for the group. Donna and Fran both pointed to seeing the story of newly arrived immigrants during the period before World War 1 as an essential American tale, here made even more intriguing both by the innocence of the fantastical protagonists and by the amount of individuation used to portray their communities. The Jewish and Syrian neighborhoods around which we wander are filled with folks who practice different versions of their own religions, or have different customs or ethnic identities, even as the general society lumps them all together as “Jews” or “Arabs”. The confusion of the golem and the jinni, not quite belonging and yet wanting to find a place, becomes a strong symbol of all immigrants, especially for those who feel themselves exiled even in the midst of their compatriots. Michael Levy, the golem’s husband, is a secular Jew who is estranged from his uncle, the golem’s guardian, who is a rabbi. NY society may not see the distinction, but to them, their differences are a vast gulf that they try, but do not quite manage, to bridge.
It’s a Hell of a Town
The setting of 1900 New York brought a lot of quick comparisons to our minds, to books read and yet to read, such as Jack Finney’s classic time travel tale, Time and Again, or Mark Helprin’s magic realist take on NYC, Winter’s Tale. Admittedly, those are high bars to hurdle, so when I mentioned that I was not quite sure that I was walking down the same streets as the golem or leaping over rooftops to Central Park with the jinni, the way I did with Finney’s protagonist, I did not find the lack of telling details to be disappointing. Most of the group did not have any qualms with accepting the setting as a fine backdrop and not needing it to be a character in its own right. One detail that did charm us all was the image of the “golem of the harbor”, re-envisioning the Statue of Liberty as a fantastical construct, which is not far from the truth of how the Statue is perceived.
It Takes a Village (Greenwich or Other)
Reading the book was also a pleasure, as most of us found it quick and easy to take. Chris enjoyed the ease of following the burgeoning romance between our main characters and touring the town with them. Several of the other characters also found fans among the Beamers, particularly Sophia, the wealthy young woman who herself grows up to refuse the arranged marriage her parents want for a life of travel (mainly to tropical climes due to her physiology taking a hit from being intimate with the jinni). I liked Rabbi Meyer, both for his humane understanding of human and non-human characters, but also for the author’s decision to kill him off right as he devises a solution to the golem’s problem of being without a master. It takes courage to remove a sympathetic character (right, GRRM?) and to leave his story without a neat, tidy resolution, much like real life. Other characters did find happy outcomes and deservedly so, as Dr. Saleh, released from his possession, becomes a hero by choice, or Maryam the cafe owner keeping her community running smoothly and soothing the fears and loneliness of her customers and her neighbors. If the golem had the ability to sense the desires of others and the need to fulfill them, so did Maryam.
When in New York, Do As the New Yorkers Do
Which led us to a key problem with our title characters: were they too human? Alan voiced the idea loudest, but several of us were forced to wonder what the book would be without the fantastical nature of the golem and the jinni. Would Chava simply be a taller version of Maryam? Would the jinni simply be another misunderstood, aloof artist? Subtracting the fantastic would lessen our enjoyment of the work, no doubt, but would it hurt the quality of the story? Chris quoted a Q&A with Ms. Wecker in which she said that she originally wanted to make the golem a more mechanical figure but found it better to humanize her a bit, to give readers someone not unlike Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, based on the golem folklore but not strictly so. In a neat twist of irony, although a number of characters are or feel trapped, Chava is happy only when she is chained to a master. But even she, after a moment of temptation to use a spell book to alleviate the worries and fears of her companions, recognizes that freedom requires a degree of fear, free will permits mistakes as well as achievements.
Many of us found the jinni to be a bit harder to take, given his cavalier attitude and his unconcern for his companions. Alan defended the jinni’s lack of human morality as being true to his nature, but I thought that having taken an interest in humans enough to wind up in their company obligated the jinni to submit to their customs, or at least to allow us to judge him by our standards. When in Little Syria, after all … Donna added that the other jinn warned him not to get too close, so his fate was at least partly his own to blame. But that did lead to some colorful scenes, as Nick reminded us of the jinni taking a cure for hypothermia in Sophia’s fireplace.
January is Alien Registration Month
Pushing in the other direction, could the fantastic be so alien as to make it hard for us as readers to identify with it? Is there any solution in genre fiction for introducing successful aliens? We argued back and forth over various examples, such as the replicants of Phil Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner), or the computers of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and of Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001. Of course, in a Dick novel, the non-humans are usually more human than the nominal Homo sapiens, but this work was more Dickensian than Dick-esque. Kathy pointed out that reader identification depends upon recognizable or vulnerable traits in a character. I countered with serial killers as protagonists, as in “Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear, one of the stories from Hieroglyph (last month’s book) that left a major impression on all of us. How far could we go in accepting a character? Kathy thought that characters could lie anywhere on a spectrum from Raoul Wallenberg (who gave his life to save people from the Holocaust) to Adolf Hitler, a range that also includes Oskar Schindler, who has a foot in both camps, I added. Fran noted that most of the unsympathetic or non-identifiable characters occupy the villain position in literature.
In This Corner, Wearing the Black Trunks …
And that also brought up the villain of this work, Yehudah Schaalman, the “evil wizard”. Was his fate inevitable? Was it his nature that doomed him? We tossed the idea back and forth, given the braided narrative that took this same soul from ancient desert shaman to modern-day Kabbalist. I liked how his multiple selves all fought against their fate and nearly succeeded in breaking out of the cycle of rebirth, ambition, overreach, which did mean that the climax of the book left me a little unsatisfied. Others were more accepting of Schaalman as the Bad Guy and of the way in which his original sin kept haunting and condemning him. It is a common fantasy character path, but I was hoping for something uncommon from this uncommonly good debut novel.
And that is what we concluded, granting the book a round of 7 and 8 ratings, putting it up on the top Beamer shelf. Kevin, who originally recommended the book to us, was happy to have more to read. And the rest of us were interested to learn more about the possible television adaptation, or what happens next to our two magical misfits. Perhaps in his next round of e-mails with Ms. Wecker, Chris will find out and report back to us.