Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer


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Numéros en texte intégral

But, tellingly, Pinkus is less important for Ralph's fate than two Chinese-American men: Old Chao, a slightly senior colleague, and, even more important, Grover Ding, a rascally entrepreneur.

Numéros en texte intégral

Both, in some sense, cuckold Ralph as they help advance his career. Old Chao, although married, is in love with Ralph's beloved sister Teresa. He uses her concern for her hapless brother to seduce her: feeding her information that helps him earn tenure as he advances, inexorably, toward a sexual relation with her. Cuckoldry is more explicit still in the relation between Grover and Ralph. Grover is a classic self-made entrepreneur cum petty crook who fills Ralph's head with Dale Carnegie-like nonsense, enmeshes him in criminal schemes, and even sells him a building for his restaurant that is quite literally falling apart—all in the hopes of seducing Ralph's beautiful, sensible wife Helen, as Grover ultimately does.

Even more than her plots, then, Jen's dramatis personae fit into the pattern of Jewish-American writing, most specifically that perfected by Bellow not only in Augie March but also Herzog and Humboldt's Gift : the schlemiel , his head in the clouds, encounters a number of near-criminal rascals who teach him valuable lessons about life in America even as they bamboozle him. Bellow's term for these figures is "reality instructors, [those who] want to teach you—to punish you with—the lessons of the Real," and in Bellow's case, as in Jen's, these figures frequently cuckold the protagonist not only as an act of sexual domination, but as part of the latter's reversal of the Horatio Alger story "how I rose from humble origins to complete disaster," is Herzog's description of his own life, one which more or less applies to Ralph's as well.

In Bellow's case, this narrative turns quite rapidly to the comic in the deepest sense of the term. Augie concludes the story of his life with a deep, affirmative laugh of the animal ridens ; Herzog ends, purged of anger and hate, in his house in upstate New York, there to revive his life beyond the neurotic if brilliant kvetching in which he has been indulging for most of the novel. Ralph Chang, too, is by and large a comic character, one whose own bumblings are orchestrated by his seeming friend, Grover, and part of the fun of the novel is to witness his sublime cluelessness as Grover leads him to one harebrained scheme after another while his wife and sister attempt, loyally, to clean up after him.

And, near the end of the novel, Ralph snaps, as does Herzog who stalks his ex-wife and her lover with a gun. Ralph drives off with his wife, threatening her until she confesses her relation to Grover. Returning to the house, Ralph attempts to run down the dog he has named after Grover but hits his beloved sister Teresa instead. Jen claims in an interview that this swerve from the comic high spirits of the rest of the novel to its sober conclusion Teresa remains in a coma for much of the novel's final chapters has much to do with the miscarriage she suffered while writing it.

But it seems to me also a willful swerve in Bloomian terms, a clinamen from the kinds of ideological structures that Bellow's text exemplifies. For in Bellow's novel, the ultimate service of the reality instructors is to return Herzog to his roots, restore him to his family. After he is arrested and his gun—significantly, his father's weapon—confiscated, Herzog calls his estranged brother to bail him out, reestablishing a relation that he had severed long before.

In Typical American , the situation is precisely reversed. Ralph's murderous rage at his wife and Grover leads him to eliminate neither of these two tormentors, but rather his own sister who has in typical immigrant style been living too closely with the family for anyone's comfort. Swallowing up the Jewish-American example, in other words, Jen proposes a tragic variation on it: she uses the comic plot of transcendent schlemielhood to tell a profoundly different kind of story, one at once more sinister and more troubling than the one that Bellow has to narrate.

Ties to the traditional family have to be severed, however violently; the "reality instructors" pass over the edge into outright criminality and threaten to bring the assimilating outsider with them; the bumbling protagonist actually does harm. Jen's lesson would seem to have as much to do with the inadequacy of the Jewish immigrant narrative to her Chinese-American protagonists. That narrative, however ironically represented as it surely is in Bellow's hands , has become just one more fallible American construction, like Emerson's or Melville's or Dale Carnegie's, that exists as a bane and a lure the Changs must overcome—as, one senses, must Jen.

A completely different take on this issue is suggested in Jen's next book, Mona in the Promised Land , which offers a delightfully comic series of riffs on the Asians-as-the-New-Jews topos Jen invokes it directly on the first page of the novel. But here, Jen's thematic interest is in complicating the idea of ethnicity tout court. When Mona Chang converts to Judaism, that act puts into stark relief not only the complexity of Jewishness but also, as her rabbi suggests to her, her own Chinese-ness. As Mona says, fliply, at one point: "In America, you can choose to be whomever you want, and I choose to be Jewish.

But it turns out to be not quite so simple—and the complexity rapidly extends to what it is to be Chinese-American. For these questions of voluntary vs. Bearing out the truth of Rabbi Horowitz's words, Mona confronts her own sense of inhabiting a racialized body when she begins to think about her nose, skin color, and breasts as ethnic markers as her Jewish friends discuss their own nose jobs, or when the customers at her family's pancake house chant, "Grow your nose!

Grow your nose! And, similarly, her increasingly Chinese-identified sister's Harvard roommate, an African-American woman named Miranda, identifies Mona as a person of color—"yellow," not white—an identification Mona first accepts, then balks at, then edges away from. But other, angrier African-Americans like Alfred, the cook in the pancake house, identify Mona as white, much to Mona's chagrin.

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While Alfred may be wrong in the sense of skin color, he is clearly onto something when he starts to twit Mona for being from a family that keeps a black gardener and relegates all the African-Americans in their restaurant to the kitchen. Mona's conversion to Judaism leads to a failed or unsuccessful translation into Jewishness, and the force of the ironies that both generate is useful to Jen in the ways it brings, simultaneously, all forms of racial and ethnic identity-formation to the fore, there to play uncertainly against each other.

But this is not to say that she isn't Chinese-American in some compelling and important way; it is to suggest, rather, that that Chinese-Americanness is defined only in differential terms, in relation to all these other, equally factitious, identity boxes. In order to communicate this insight, Jen turns to a different representational structure than the one she used in Typical American : to Shakespearean comedy, with its rapid-fire transformations of costume, identities, and affiliations.

What Shakespeare does with and to gender, it might be said, Mona does to ethnicity—a nexus made clearest in Seth's successful wooing of Mona in the guise of Sherman, a feat worthy of one of Shakespeare's trickster heroes. What this would seem to represent is a move similar to the one that Mukherjee makes, through Jewish-American fiction and beyond it, to other representational forms and agendas. And this indeed is where it seems to be headed: her most recent collection, Who's Irish?


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But the connection with Jewishness, I want to conclude this section by suggesting, endures here in a different guise—in that of form, which, like Mona , raises questions of ethnic identification on the terrain of race but in a deeper, more troubled guise. I am thinking here of her acclaimed story "Birthmates," first published in and included not only in the Best American Short Stories volume for that year, but in the Best American Short Stories of the Century Jen's protagonist is Art Woo, a fifty-one-year-old traveling salesman for a company in an unnamed "dinosaur" industry.

Ambitious but frustrated, facing racist taunts by his boss who blames the "Japs" for everything wrong in the industry but then consoles Art by telling him he knows he's a "Chink" , worrying obsessively about a white colleague, Billy Shore who shares his birthday but seems to be doing better at the firm than he , mourning the loss of his girlfriend and of the fetus they aborted, Art is mistakenly booked into a welfare hotel next to a convention he is working.

Entering the hotel, he is first greeted by an enormous black man at the desk, then mugged by a crowd of children as he goes up to his room.


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  • He wakes up while being tended by an African-American woman, a nurse turned heroin addict named Cindy, who keeps him safe from the crowd outside. His sense of loss and his confrontation with his own mortality combine at the end of the story, where he too contemplates a move West, and, seemingly for the first time, expresses his sense of loss for both his lover and their almost-child, aborted, we now learn, because it would not have been viable outside the womb.

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    There are no explicit references to Jews, Jewishness, or the canon of Jewish literature in the story, but in many ways this is the one work of Jen's that engages most intensely, and with the greatest degree of contestable energy, with that tradition—and in such a way, I think, as to make us read it differently, just as Mukherjee does. The tale of the failing salesman who is being passed over by the Home Office, for example, inevitably recalls Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman , a text rich in family dynamics that resonate, ironically, against the context of Art's family-lessness.

    In that story, Grace's pseudonymous protagonist Faith goes for a run in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up and returns to the apartment house in which her family lived. There, she is at first an object of curiosity, then an object of anger and potential mob violence until she is rescued by the woman who occupies her former apartment, Mrs. Luddy, who hides her under the bed until the crowd disappears. She stays with the family for many weeks, until finally she returns to her own grown children who have barely noticed her long disappearance.

    The echoings of Paley's story in Jen's are subtle but unmistakeable: the plot arc is the same, the incidents chime with each other. The point of The Long Distance Runner is to emphasize the curious admixture of intimacy and distance that exists, between Jewish characters and those African-Americans who now occupy their former terrain.

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    When an Art Woo enters a welfare hotel—already a significantly different space from an apartment—he is treated, like Faith, as if he were white by the hostile African-American inhabitants, even though at work he is treated as if he were not by his complacently racist bosses. And when he encounters Cindy, these shifting definitions collide:. As with Faith and Mrs.

    Luddy, a kind of intimacy seems to be established between Art and Cindy; and as with Faith, Art moves out to some kind of reconnection with his own would-be family, even if that family consists of his ex-girlfriend, whom he thinks at the end of the story to call and invite to move with him to California. And as with Faith, this act would seem to happen through his encounter not just with an African-American, but with the complex historical and ontological facts of black experience itself.

    But the point of the echoings in the story, it seems to me, is to measure the difference between Art's and Faith's experience: the one defining the long distance that Jewish-Americans have run from their past, the other suggesting that, just as Art has not yet come to terms with his own personal trauma, he has not yet come to terms with historical ones as well.

    At the end of the story, his rivalry with his jocular birthmate Billy Shore, and the inability to imagine a new life for himself symbolized not only by his dead child but also by his failure to mourn for that child continue to press on Art, even if he seeks to solve the problem by moving to California.

    Faith can return from her ghetto experience to her family. Gish Jen measures Art's greater alienation by having him like Mukherjee's Jasmine light out for the territory, assimilating to Americanness only in his desire to flee from the site of personal and historical humiliation, loss, and pain. Mukherjee and Jen, then, reference Jewish-American writing and respond to it in ways that, I have been suggesting throughout and may now explicitly say, comport to Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence model, and these, I want further to contend, are productive for cultural as well as literary analysis.

    That is, their struggle the term is Bloom's, and the suggestion is that it is inevitable, not contingent for creative authority involves them in a match with powerful precursors whose example they play with, transform, and ultimately transcend, in two different ways: in Mukherjee's case, toward a discourse that stresses diaspora rather than assimilation; in Jen's toward an interrogation of the up-for-grabs racial identity of the Asian-American in a field of definition hitherto inhabited by narratives associated with Jews and African-Americans.

    The point of invoking Bloom here, however, is ultimately in the service of something Bloom resists: that is, in contributing to the sociology of literary influence, of the study of engagements these writers perform as well as the kinds of literary interventions they wish to make. There's much more to be said about this development in Asian-American fiction [14] and criticism. One of the effects of the resolution of the anxiety-of-influence scenario, Bloom suggests, is that organized by the trope of metalepsis , the trope of reversal of cause and effect—one in which the belated poet switches places with the precursor, in which we hear the echoes of a successor in his predecessors: Wordsworth in Milton, or Keats in Shakespeare.

    Something similar happens when we rethink the Jewish-American precursor texts—and the cultural arrangements their narratives shaped—in the light of the revisionary narratives I've been describing here. When Alfie Judah gets layered against David Schearle or even Alexander Portnoy, all that got repressed in assimilating Jewish fiction and in Jewish culture—the image of the "black" or Levantine Jew, the association of the figure of the Jew with sexual license and financial chicanery—comes flooding back into our accounting of that fiction, exerting a presence and a pressure on it by its very absence.

    Similarly, when Mona Chang affirms her racial identity as a Chinese woman in the presence of Jewish women discussing their nose jobs, the effect ought not only to make us think about Asian-American difference and the costs it exerts, but also that confronted by Jewish women whose bodies—and psyches—bear the scars of assimilation. All these and more—violence, the multilayered and problematic racialization, a persistent and even structural anti-Semitism in the cultural imaginary that caused even the most cutting-edge Jewish fiction to repress its most problematic avatars—are elements of the Jewish-American experience that its rise to social respectability has caused it to ignore, marginalize, silence, or forget, and that the fictions I have foregrounded have forced it to remember.

    As America slides toward recognizing its multiracial, multicultural future, the recognition of the salience of those elements of the Jewish-American experience might help lower the barriers to an honest dialogue between Jewishness and the larger culture that seems to be erected on all sides at precisely the moment when they are least needed.

    And it might do something more: it might return Jewish-Americans to that state of structural alienation in which they can find, I hope, a proper sense of community with a culture struggling to encompass the alienness of its own increasingly multiple populations.

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    Even if America has not for most Jews felt like exile, even if America has palpably not been for most Jews a place of exile, the salience of these narratives to American Jews at the moment may be to remind us of how complicated a relation we have—and ought to maintain—to the idea of home. To my mind, this critique is valuable but extremely selective; while it offers an important corrective to liberal banalities, it courts a nyaah-nyah style of exceptionalism see?

    Jews were no better than any other "white" folks! For an account that is no less critical of Jewish blackface but avoids the tendencies I've noted above, as well as one that adds a considerable degree of complexity to the story, see Jeffrey Melnick, The Right to Sing the Blues: African-Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Publisher's Weekly 9 Feb. For an example of this confusion, see Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian New York: Random House, and responses to Liu in Slate magazine by Jewish liberal Nicholas Lemann, who endorses his argument and seeks to apply it to his own slacker kids whom he wishes were more Asian and hence more "Jewish"; and arch-conservative Elliott Abrams son-in-law of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, and plotter of Reagan-era Latin American policy for the State Department , who complains about Liu's endorsement of intermarriage.

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    I don't mean to underestimate the degree of prejudice and generalized ill-will that Jews have faced in America, one which rose to the surface on a number of occasions e. But going along with this tendency is an alignment, particularly powerful among evangelical Protestants, between the Jewish narrative and that of a Christian America, one which is currently being exploited by the Christian and Israeli Right. Neither of these, I should not have to add but will, strikes me as being particularly good for the Jews.


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    • An "emphasis on intensity," Wisse writes, "is one of the basic components of the schlemiel-character in American fiction and indicates his main point of departure from European sources. He is an expression of heart, of intense passionate feelings in surroundings that stamp out individuality and equate emotion with unreason. The schlemiel is used as a cultural reaction to the prevailing Anglo-Saxon model of restraint, inaction, thought and speech.

      The American schlemiel declares his humanity by loving and suffering in defiance of the forces of depersonalization and the ethic of enlightened stoicism. Stratton also offers a reading of Seinfeld that is similar to my own, but which is more interested in the ambivalence of the show's Jews than their ubiquity.

      Jonathan Raban makes a version of this point in his perceptive New York Times Book Review response to The Middleman : "Her characters have a good deal in common with their Jewish counterparts: they're heroes to themselves, a size larger than life. And they see the surfaces of American life with the bug-eyed clarity of the greenhorn afloat in a gaudy new world. Yet theynot tired, huddled, or even poor: they own motels, work scams, teach in college, breeze through on private funds. Their diaspora is a haphazard, pepperpot dispersal. With no Lower East Side to keep the manners and morals of the old world alive, they're on their own and on the make.

      How the introspective and overmothered sons of the ghetto, from David Levinsky to Alexander Portnoy, would have envied Ms.

      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
      Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer

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