Something Borrowed

Does the fake have a hold on the Jewish imagination? From Moses and Esther (those ur-passers), to the many golems (clay posing as human), to modern literature’s halls of mirrors (would the real Philip Roth please stand up?), subversion and manipulation of identity recur as both game and necessity.

Fakery animates Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life. Protagonist Slava Gelman emigrated as a child from the Soviet Union and now wants to be a writer and an American. To do so, he has taken a job at Century magazine (a lightly fictionalized New Yorker, where Fishman himself once worked), moved to Manhattan, and cut himself off from his family: “[T]o strip from his writing the pollution that refilled it every time he returned to the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn . . . he would have to get away. Dialyze himself, like Grandmother’s kidneys.” When this grandmother, Sofia, dies, Slava is drawn back to Brooklyn and into the broth of familial guilt, resentment, and scheming. The funeral has barely ended when his grandfather Yevgeny—in both the Old World and New a bender of rules and broker of special arrangements, baffled now by his grandson’s American qualms—asks Slava to write a Holocaust restitution claim letter for him. The catch is that Yevgeny, an evacuee to Central Asia, is ineligible. But if Slava could write something that borrows a few details from Sofia’s life in, and escape from, the Minsk ghetto … Thinking that this will help him understand his grandmother’s life, among other self-justifications, Slava agrees. He finds the undertaking not as distasteful as he imagined; with writerly grandiosity (and troubling, if perhaps deliberate, vagueness as to who, precisely, is having this thought), the novel declares, “The letter, this new life, had taken all of forty-five minutes. What the Nazis took away, Slava restored.”

Yevgeny lines up other claims-letter clients—all of whom have suffered, though not in ways deemed worthy of compensation by the German government—and Slava takes them on with decreasing reluctance. He finds himself pulled between Brooklyn and Manhattan, family and autonomy, and the love interests Arianna (a fact-checker, an American Jew whose name happens to derive from “Aryan”) and Vera (a fellow immigrant and childhood friend of Slava’s, whose name means “faith” in Russian), as his inventions begin to take over his life.

Reichsmark 1924-1948
Deutsche Reichsmark, 1924–1948.

Fishman’s sharp prose, controlled yet ambitious, offers pleasure from the very first page. In her coffin (open at the funeral, despite the rabbi’s gentle demurral), Sofia seems “unpersuaded of death . . . her face diplomatic and cautious”; when eyes turn toward the few young people present, they feel suddenly “marooned in their obviousness.” He understands the serious game of family sparring, in which every blow lands but none is fatal. And Fishman excels at offering a deep, undramatized sense of character and setting, as in Slava’s memory of his visit to Lenin’s tomb:

On the opposite side of the glass encampment, a young boy—Slava’s age but with straw-yellow hair and limpid blue eyes—also studied the dead man’s face. Slava had slipped his hand free from his mother’s to demonstrate his adultness to the man under the glass and noted with pitying sympathy that the other boy still clung to his.

Pity and sympathy, mirrored children, faith and fact-checking, two countries, past and present, truth and fiction, life and death, dictated religion and cobbled-together custom, historical accuracy and emotional verity, on and on. The book is rife with such doublings, oppositions that threaten to collapse into, or imitate, one another. These echoes echo, in turn, the double burden of Slava and his fellow immigrants—“Here you’re not a Jew anymore. Here you’re an immigrant. Go back where you came from, Commie”—and assay fraught, and fertile, territory. Fishman, though frequently very funny, is not afraid to confront his characters with serious issues.

 

With such wonderful ingredients—a talented author, hefty themes, a clever and wide-ranging conceit—why does the result so often seem like a lukewarm stew? One problem is that in A Replacement Life, all of life’s difficulties are essentially literary. It’s a conceit captured most perfectly in the title (though not the text) of Keith Gessen’s 2008 novel All the Sad Young Literary Men. Men like Slava are sad because their literary genius is not recognized, and since they are young (and perhaps because they are men), they cannot imagine a greater tragedy. In A Replacement Life, Sofia’s death receives roughly the same emphasis as Slava’s failure to get published in Century. In response to the restitution claim form’s request to “[D]escribe, in as much detail as you can, where the Subject was during the years 1939 to 1945,” Slava conjures a series of vignettes that have less to do with the question than his own sense of what might make a good story. For his grandfather’s letter, he creates a tale about facing punishment for losing a herd of partisans’ cattle that ends with a pat, packaged insight: “Some irony, saved by the Germans from being killed by your own.”

Literature itself is of course a perennial topic of literature, but much of this novel’s text-wrestling seems denatured. The inescapable 20th-century Jewish-American writers, with their crackling incorporation of life into literature and vice versa, gave their characters the classics and (furtively, reluctantly), Jewish religious texts. By contrast Slava seems to reach only for magazine articles; he expresses surprise that Arianna has reread The Stranger, and when a friend mentions The Master and Margarita, notes that he’s read Bulgakov’s novel, but only “In class.” Is Slava really someone passionate about the written word? Or is literature merely the locus of his inchoate ambition and aggrieved entitlement?

It’s the writer’s job to pare messy life into shaped narrative, but it’s the writer’s art to hide the artifice. As A Replacement Life progresses, its narrative frays. Slava seems to have no friends at all, Arianna reveals that after seven years in New York, she’s never seen the ocean, and Israel Abramson, a Brooklynite client originally from Minsk (a city of close to two million) declares with wonder, “I’ve never been to Manhattan . . . All those lights. They show it on television. Can you sleep, with all those lights?” Slava writes another restitution letter in an imitation of his Albanian doorman’s mangled English: “[N]obody who say nice Polish girl from village give food hush-hush over wall is saying accurate. Wall was impossible. And there was not being nice Polish girls.” These all seem like lapses, characters constrained by theme or sacrificed for queasy laughs.

This flattening subordination may explain why so many supporting characters are literally that: driven to praise, admire, and support Slava, assuring him of his authorial specialness. Before they begin dating or even really speaking, Arianna is determined to help Slava’s career; when he asks why, she says, “You’re not like the others.” On meeting Slava, Vera’s friend Leonard says “You observe. It’s a gift.” Even the German bureaucrat who investigates Slava’s faked histories is impressed with Slava and concerned about his prospects: “Are you leaving the magazine, Mr. Gelman? I think you can do anything. This is beneath you.”

A Replacement Life ends with scenes of both genuine emotion and saccharine sentimentality, as if Fishman didn’t quite trust his readers. One hopes that in his next book Fishman will allow his characters to proceed along paths that feel less planned, experienced as opposed to written: in a word, like life.

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