by Sam Graham-Felsen
(Penguin Random House, 301 pp., $27)
With the death of Philip Roth on 22 May, the business of reading and then writing about Jewish American fiction seems to take place in the dark, or under water. These last weeks have proven a fine occasion to wander the Upper West Side—past Barney Greengrass, the Museum, Nice Matin—in a daze, ambling in a state not only of disbelief, but also of legitimate sorrow. This is a loss, not an absence.
Additionally, these weeks have proven an occasion to revisit some of the finest work from the patron saint Bad Jewboy of Jewish American Fiction (the latter term of this epithet a “genre” label that the author was no fan of.) There are plenty of places to start on this memorializing and ultimately aesthetic-reinforcing exercise. One could start with the (quite successful) early, ambitious collection of short fiction Goodbye, Columbus. Or one might (mistakenly) open The Plot Against America in an effort to make sense of a political moment. I have returned Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979). This novel was not the first of his that I read, but it was the first in which I could really feel Roth’s craft at work: I was drawn in, appropriately manipulated, and then left sitting quiet in my chair, the finished book closed on my lap, yet to be re-shelved.
The Ghost Writer is a remarkable novel that reimagines the life and death of Anne Frank. Utilizing elements of the fantastic, the text offers a compelling and challenging push back against contemporary mass cultural assumptions about Anne Frank and her eponymous diary. Moreover, and self-consciously, The Ghost Writer is an exploration of the craft of writing –specifically, an exploration of Henry James’ influence on the craft.
In the novel’s pivotal scene, the young Nathan Zuckerman reads James’ “The Middle Years,” and then uses the book containing that story to eavesdrop and, eventually, to invent a story of his own. The young Zuckerman is in the process of writing a bildungsroman, and he has taken a trip to see the mythological and plodding EI Lonoff, a figure who is something like a surrogate father for Zuckerman, and who provides the young writer with an artistic push. That Roth’s novel and its novelty are facilitated by Zuckerman’s strategic placement of the James collection on Lonoff’s desk, and by his subsequent eavesdropping, begs some consideration.
The centrality of James in this story and in the Rothian aesthetic – an eye for ambiguity and a deep, near-religious concern for the psyche – has me of a mind to consider the role of James in shaping American, and more specifically Jewish American novel writing. More specifically, to what extent does Roth’s fiction succeed in terms of the criteria James puts forth in “The Art of Fiction” (1884)? In an often-anthologized passage, James writes:
It goes without saying that you will not write a good novel unless you possess the sense of reality; but it will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that sense into being. Humanity is immense and reality has a myriad forms; the most one can affirm is that some of the flowers of fiction have the odour of it, and others have not; as for telling you in advance how your nosegay should be composed, that is another affair. It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience; to our supposititious aspirant such a declaration might savour of mockery. What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative–much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius–it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelation.
It was with this contemplation of James and Roth in mind that I began Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut novel, Green – what could be identified as a memoir-cum Jewish, Boston-based (Jamaica Plain in particular), racially aware, hip-hop bildungsroman. It’s shelved accordingly at The Strand.
Graham-Felsen‘s novel is both an ambitious and a timely effort. The novel tracks and explores with unflinching honesty the protagonist David Greenfeld’s development of a complex racial awareness in early 1990s Boston. Graham-Felsen’s depiction of the city, its tensions and its denizens, not only reads as a product of thoughtful reflection on experience, but also allows us to understand more clearly the nuances of the city, including its relationship to the Celtics and the diversity of Larry Bird fanboys.
Green opens by establishing the central tension that will drive both plot and character within the text: David is the only white boy at his Jamaica Plain middle school. He is the son of two Harvard-grad war-protesters and has a brother with spectrum disorder, all of them living the urban farming dream in the shadow of the Shaw public houses.
David’s life at school confronts him with bullying and isolation, despite a seeming fluency in the tropes and folkways of 90s urban living. That he doesn’t have the right gear and doesn’t want to go second-hand shopping with his mother proves no impediment to attempted passing, as she buys him a costly, flashy outfit: “the Machine.” Though “the Machine” is stolen when David is held up on the neighborhood basketball courts, this sartorial assault—one which leaves David in his underwear and betrayed by what he thought was a new friend—provides a codex to the novel, a text in which the tension between what David would like to be true and reality are at odds. He is a Romantic stuck in Boston. Perhaps a rather excellent place for a Romantic in the 1760s, but our David finds himself in a Boston of a different epoch, one in which he is outmatched.
The novel continues to develop along a familiar, but not inorganic arc. Soon, David makes a friend (and a friend of color at that) in the studious and religious Marlon. David and Marlon experience middle school, prepare for and take standardized school-entrance exams (Latin is a conduit between Jamaica Plain and the Crimson), play ball, and ritualistically watch tapes of Celtics games. Marlon joins David’s theatrical troupe and proves himself a powerful singer. David pursues a young Latina named Carmen. Consistently, David is bullied. Graham-Felsen concludes his novel eschewing the comforts of best friends marching, chins all the way up, into the future just beyond the setting sun. An incident with a late night and a white girl has David put his developing secondary sex characteristics ahead of his principle friendship. As such, the novel concludes with David attempting to write an apology to Marlon, aware that he has messed things up and also, perhaps, aware that when it came to Marlon, he didn’t quite know the territory.
Graham-Felsen has attempted to document the racial coming-of-consciousness for a white boy growing up in a non-white environment. As he has previously noted, he wanted to write about a myriad of racially driven issues in the novel, not to deep-dive into just one. The novel is meant to be far-reaching, perhaps even overzealous in its scope. And it is—as it should be to capture the focalization of a 6th grader only now entering into an understanding of race in America.
The gulf of perception dramatized within the novel – what David is able and ultimately unable to understand about race – is startling in its maturity. Accordingly, what is dramatized is the very real gap or blind spot which has continued to perpetuate violence against vulnerable populations: an unwillingness or inability to see “the other” which continues to plague our cities and citizens.
The confusion of Graham-Felsen’s protagonist—a sometime self-hating white-boy and Jew— is rendered thoughtfully and honestly, as is David’s grappling with his Jewishness in a secular household while simultaneously growing up in Jamaica Plain, and attending a POC-majority middle school. (The biographical similarities between author and protagonist here work in the favor of the text in its narrative selection criteria.) Moreover, the bits of a youthful, shameful Onan which show up here, trace back and trace well to the best of what Roth was able to do with this vice and the implications of introspection and reflection therein.
Additionally, Green is especially timely in an age of BLM, although this, while a helpful trait, is by no means the principle achievement of the novel. Rather, the novel’s success hinges on its ability to speak to the specific nature of this Boston-based 1990s racially-bound strife and injustice and then use the specific to address the eternally human. This is where the novel is most successful and why it matters: Graham-Felsen is unwilling to make his protagonist some sort of hyper-woke “good” Jew/ white-boy.
The trouble is, it is hard to believe in David Greenfeld. Narrated in the first-person, the novel sometimes struggles with characterization and diction. When these details are right (the prize of a collection of Celtics tapes, the ritual of their viewing, the depictions of bullying, the significance of those Hornets colors, the distracting stink of a classroom that “smells like Wise onion rings,” an incident in which David shows up to a party with a half-bottle of Slivovitz transferred into an empty seltzer bottle), the novel soars; I believe in David.
However, sometimes a kind of bombast takes hold, and the posturing, posing aspirational white-boy is exposed. David wants to be accepted, but his diction exposes him as something of a fraud. Compellingly, this misused discourse is never the subject of his torment – the only admonishment that David receives from his peers of color comes when they label him “corny” for sounding stereotypically “white”. Nevertheless, casual turns of phrase throughout the book are sometimes cringe-inducing: “he took a shrap in the shoulder”, “I feel mad guilty”, “came here from the Dominican.” David doesn’t think his parents “feel Israel.” “Fiending for unreachable rims”; “stacks”; “muenster.” This list could be much longer, but needn’t be. Graham-Felsen notes in his acknowledgments “my nice friends who helped inspire the language of Green: Pete Nice, B-Bills, Whitt Wiz, and Willy Styles,” and perhaps this tells us what we need to know.
The false force of Green’s prose is all the more poignant in that it interferes with what is one of the finest 3rd Generation (3-G) Holocaust survivor narratives. David’s development from “I don’t need anyone knowing I belong to that weird, wimpy tribe” to an awareness of his own Jewishness and his link to the Holocaust coincides with his acceptance of the limitations of knowing the “other” and a larger movement in the direction of self-awareness and, ultimately, self-actualization. This development is masterfully crafted—restrained and written with respect for the reader and survivor alike. This is where the diction feels settled: it is a language of honesty and vulnerability befitting the thematic development of the text, a narrative unity.
Ultimately, Green is a novel that succeeds in its implication of over-identifying with the other. The narrative voice, for all its urban bombast, signals an eagerness to identify with a population of color and a population living in public housing. It is here that we are able to see the limits of multi-directional memory. Rather than over-identify, and hence move away from empathy, the individual must move towards an I-Thou relationship with the other.
Here is where one finds the literary DNA of James and Roth on display. Green’s narrative success is clearly one of detail, clearly a victory for the mind of the writer and the Jamesian spider web. Furthermore, the novel’s character-driven resolution, at its best, recalls Roth’s own narrative admonishment in The Ghost Writer regarding the reification and consumption of an Anne Frank made too familiar and deprived of nuance. These are large shoulders to be standing on as a young novelist undertaking a diverse array of challenging themes.
Perhaps the success of Graham-Felsen’s debut can be attributed to the extent that David is unable to “get it”. This resolution is directly pegged to a language and hence outlook that approaches the other as more “it” than “thou”. The bombastic, aspirational urban diction simultaneously seeks proximity and distance, an instructive set of lexical choices for anyone attempting to approach or understand the other.