As someone saddled with a Hebrew name and that whole sacred baggage claim, I will say it’s not always easy or interesting to read oneself through the actions of a namesake. Can an argument really be made that a providential connection binds every Naomi to the next, enforcing a phantom narrative that we have been chosen – for some reason – to share?
Joshua Max Feldman’s audacious first novel, The Book of Jonah, dramatizes this quandary with an admirable, if literal, conceit – producing a haltingly compelling tale of first testament forebears in a world that seems absent of anyone and anything convincingly holy. Feldman, a Columbia-educated playwright and writer of short fiction, has set his biblical reboot in modern-day New York, played out by a neo-Jonah (and Judith) that throws into relief questions of Jewish provenance and faith.
Olden Times Jonah (literally, “son of truth”) is best remembered as having spent a notable few days in the belly of a whale. But let us not forget, he was also called upon by God to tell the people of Nineveh to repent their wickedness – a task that Jonah is (naturally) reluctant to complete. In Feldman’s 21st-century callback, Jonah Jacobstein is a sly corporate lawyer one corrupt pharmaceutical lawsuit away from being made partner. A chance meeting in the subway with a prophetic Hasid is both a call from God and the whale’s big gulp, igniting a religious turmoil that enters Jonah unbidden and swiftly motivates him to destroy the trappings of his excellent life – often in spite of himself.
Feldman intersperses the (occasionally dull and oversold) Jonah narrative with a lovingly detailed account of Judith Klein Bulbrook, a fictional art history scholar described by Feldman as having “chiaroscuro looks.” Fittingly, the Judith of antiquity has been featured throughout history in a number of dramatic, chiaroscuroed paintings slaying the bad King Holofernes. Feldman introduces us to Judith and Jonah’s respective worlds in the sky-blackening shadow of 9/11, the two contempo-canonical characters sharing parallel paths that threaten to, and eventually do, converge.
Feldman has divided the book up oddly, disfluently, even, with the shifts in perspective from Jonah to Judith happening mostly at random. This creates a periodically meandering plot that sputters and restarts a little too frequently.
Still, there’s something about a master narrative that crushes cliché to a powder with its looming, mystical weight, and taking the long view, Feldman is doing some deft meta-investigation of the Jewish novel – the burden of Roth and Malamud and Englander and Safran Foer and Shteyngart as much as Judaism itself; the cerebral men (because it is very manly) whose work is full of thick-fingered probings of faith and holiness in a world that has proved itself too painful to be honoured in any Talmudic way. Do you want money or truth; shiksa or Jewess? Feldman lays these tropes out on the table like prize baseball cards, only to have them swallowed up and digested within the novel’s grander questions of mercy and religious promise, asking both iterations of Jonah – “Is there not so much more under heaven than shadow?”
In Judith’s arc, she moves from a brilliant if coddled daughter of professors, to a haunted, hunted figure of emotional asceticism. As a girl, she considers the possibility of being somehow special – chosen – until a tragedy of exceptional proportions reveals to her the barren stupidity of the human need to be different.
It is hard not to read Judith’s skepticism of her own mystical promise as a lateral inspection of her people’s legacy; that bloody valentine from HaShem that says I choo-choo-choose you. What does it mean to be a Jew in a world of Jews, Feldman asks – isn’t everyone as chosen as the next?
The Book of Jonah often shines thanks to Feldman’s vibrant mise en scène. With his playwright’s eye, the physical scenes ripple with dramatic flair. A vision Jonah has on Lexington Avenue – pedestrians, hot dog vendors, and postal workers going about their day thoroughly naked – is rendered vividly, ecstatically, even. Judith’s loss of virginity in the depths of a California wood is patiently detailed with the eye of a cool-headed clinician. But the writing falters in the description of characters, primary and tertiary, where Feldman relies on embarrassingly contracted shorthand – people abridged to Indian janitors, petite redheads, and African Americans with elaborately decorated fingernails; at a party, Jonah agrees to exchange “mixes” with a “hipster in full regalia.” The effect is that of ethnically diverse rag dolls, wandering Manhattan with a few significant props to make them more feasibly human.
In spite of this, Feldman’s debut is an intermittently rich composite that bristles and prods at the notion of burden – religious, cultural and existential. It is, more than an experiment in randomly assigned nomenclature, a novel of how those of us under the influence of our ancestors, both real and scriptural, are still free to invent ourselves. To make our own moves – even as we might feel attached, by sheer virtue of knowledge, to those we were named for.
Naomi Skwarna is a writer and theatre maker.