“It’s a basic human tendency to take pleasure in inflicting suffering,” says Evan, the charismatic, teenaged false prophet of David Hopen’s much-hyped prep-school thriller, The Orchard. Though this is an uncommonly bleak view of human nature, I’m inclined to believe Hopen, at least, agrees with his creation. How else to explain the sheer volume and variety of suffering his young characters endure? In fewer than 500 pages, The Orchard depicts two schoolyard arsons, one (attempted) vehicular murder-suicide, several felony druggings, one case of spontaneous blindness, and one collective and terrifying LSD trip, along with death and other tragedies. And that’s to say nothing of the expected college rejections, teenage heartbreaks, and ritual Picasso burning.
For the most part, these dramas unfold in the fictional neighborhood of Zion Hills, Florida, where 17-year-old Ari Eden has moved with his family after a pious childhood spent in Borough Park. Taken in by Noah, Oliver, Amir, and Evan, a wayward group of fellow seniors at his new Modern Orthodox Jewish high school, Ari finds himself in a world of opulence, debauchery, and ambition. There’s drinking, of course, and drugs and girls. But there are also new ideas, including the almost Übermenschian morality propounded by his new classmate, Evan Stark. “If we are, in fact, the source of our own values, then we are what’s right,” Stark argues. “Those desires we’re too scared to pull off? Well, by definition, they are profoundly moral.”
If this all sounds vaguely Leopold and Loeb-ish, that’s because it is, though with a mystic twist. Even as The Orchard chronicles Ari’s integration into the social and academic life of Zion Hills and his subsequent religious decline, it also follows Evan’s increasingly reckless pursuit of “intense truth,” something he decides can be accessed only through a face-to-face with God. Believing himself to be going beyond good and evil, Evan cajoles and manipulates his classmates—Ari included—into aiding him with his mystical experiments, with tragic results.
The Orchard is not a particularly subtle book (again, the kid’s name is Ari Eden), and many plot elements stretch the limits of plausibility. Nevertheless, those who spent their formative years at one of our country’s Modern Orthodox day schools will recognize the truth in Hopen’s depiction of Kol Neshama’s school culture. There are the extravagant, very unorthodox birthday celebrations (mixed dancing is the least of it); the often cutthroat, prep-school culture; and that peculiar coexistence of students whose goals for self-improvement range from Try my hardest to believe in the Almighty to Score 3 goals in a soccer game.
Perhaps Hopen’s portrait is overly cynical. At one point, another of Ari’s new classmates explains:
“Here are the rules, as actually practiced. On Shabbat, we don’t drive, we don’t work, but maybe we send a few texts or brush up against the TV so that the Heat game magically comes on. . . . Do we really believe in the Flood or in the splitting of the sea or in, I don’t know, Balaam’s talking donkey? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t, but either way we’re sure as hell going to make sure you understand it’s imperative that you drop several years of what’s basically college tuition to ensure your kids learn these stories and develop the very same ambivalence!”
Nevertheless, The Orchard does a fairly good job of detailing the tensions, compromises, and hypocrisies of a certain kind of Modern Orthodox Jewish life. In one scene, the group checks SAT scores on Shabbat afternoon: “Well if it makes any difference to a Beis Din . . . it wasn’t technically my sin,” reasons Noah, “Oliver went online for me.” In another, Kol Neshama accepts a sizeable donation from Evan’s philandering father in his late wife’s name, helping him save face in the community. Hopen’s casual, unlabored use of insider Orthodox language (bentching, davening, chevrah) also helps soften the more critical blows, making them feel more like internal admonishments than an airing of dirty laundry.
But such nods to realism are utterly outweighed by Hopen’s taste for theatrics, which infuses even the more mundane descriptions of teenage life. It’s not enough for the kids to be bad; they must be really bad, stuff-of-parental-nightmares bad, like when a senior ditch day devolves into a nude pool party, or when Ari’s first-ever alcoholic drink comes laced with a date-rape drug, or when, on winter break in the Keys, members of the group start snorting cocaine. Similarly, Ari’s first encounters with members of the fairer sex aren’t just awkward (as one might reasonably expect after a lifetime of single-sex education), but existentially fraught, as he becomes entangled in a love triangle with two young women, each of whom represents one side in the knowledge vs. goodness tug-of-war within himself. There’s Evan’s deeply tragic ex-girlfriend, Sophia Winter, who is wise but cold (get it?), and Kayla Gross, an underdeveloped character whose acceptance to Stern College for Women is the main indication of her purity of heart and mind.
None of this reads particularly well, especially when Hopen tries to elevate the melodrama by putting it in close proximity to philosophy and theology. Taking his cue from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Hopen seems determined that the novel be bigger than a coming-of-age story or even a losing-my-religion story. Rather, it must be a novel of Big Ideas—in particular, a novel about what could happen when you take those ideas too far. Hence, the title, The Orchard, a reference to the talmudic tale of “The Four Who Entered Pardes,” which describes the fates of four Torah sages who entered the paradisal orchard of Torah knowledge. Of the four who entered—Shimon ben Azzai, Shimon ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuya, and Rabbi Akiva—one died, one went insane, and one became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva, tradition tells us, left in peace.
The story of pardes is not in itself a bad idea for a novel (As a Driven Leaf, one of the most commercially successful Jewish novels of all time, also takes the pardes legend as its premise), but its successful execution rests upon having some sense of what secrets are in the orchard and why they are so desperately sought—particularly if your protagonists are a gaggle of wayward Floridian teens, not talmudic-era Torah sages. But rather than having Evan slowly articulate a cohesive philosophy over the course of the book—one persuasive enough to justify (or at least make understandable) the terrifying actions he takes to encounter God—Hopen just has him drop dramatic but vague hints of some great moral upheaval:
Evan closed the Zohar. “I strongly believe that achieving fulfillment here on earth hinges on unleashing our capacity to become divine. In short? I think we should channel God to empower ourselves instead of allowing Him to crush us.” I thought, for some reason, of that line from Henry James: Just so what is morality but high intelligence?
Amir scoffed. “So now you’re, like—what? An esotericist?”
Evan shrugged. “I’m what he made me,” he said, nodding at Rabbi Bloom. “What loss made me.”
“Yeah, but, again,” Amir said, “this is really sounding like a bunch of Kabbalistic nonsense. Like, are you going to tell us you believe in fairies, too? Goblins, maybe?”
“I’m obviously not talking about magic and monsters,” Evan said. “I just mean, in a strictly Zoharian sense, that conventional standards require some . . . reexamining, let’s call it. Because nothing’s really evil absolutely, right? I mean, isn’t that what Eden argued in our moral intuitionism debates? And wouldn’t you agree, Rabbi, that anything, alternate realities included, can lead us to truth, even when they first appear off-limits?”
Had teasers such as these eventually filled out into some kind of idea, this book might have managed to pull off its ambitious agenda. But as it is, The Orchard reads more like Days of Our Lives than Daniel Deronda, with Evan’s increasingly improbable actions—luring Ari onto a speedboat and allowing it to crash, secretly dosing all of his friends with LSD to force them to accompany him on a “vision quest” for pardes, setting fire to the entire school—reading as arbitrary plot escalations, rather than the inevitable consequences of a dangerous idea taken too far.
Evan never even manages to articulate his ideology well enough to persuade the other students to get on board. Basic questions such as why do you believe seeing God will help you achieve fulfillment? or even, what does it mean to achieve fulfillment? remain unanswered. Thus, the other teens’ cooperation with Evan’s mystical experiments ranges from grudging (as when Evan tries to call upon the 72-letter name of God) to forced (the speedboat incident, the LSD “vision quest”). One is left with the uncomfortable suspicion that Hopen himself couldn’t figure out what ideas would lead a wealthy, cynical Florida teen to take selective parts of the Bible so seriously that, in the span of 200 or so pages, he would attempt to sacrifice himself, a fellow student, and a goat.
This gap between the book’s motivating ideas and action is a particular shame because there are moments when Hopen shows himself capable of subtlety. Take the verse inscribed in Hebrew on Evan’s antique Cartier lighter, which appears before nearly every consequential plot development: “Is not My word like fire?” This is actually just a fragment of a greater verse from Jeremiah: “Is not My word like as fire? says the Lord; and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Note that “Evan” is the Hebrew word for stone—that is, the very thing that God breaks to pieces (his last name, Stark, means strong in Yiddish).Even better, perhaps, is the fact that this verse is embedded within a discussion of false prophets—those who, like Evan, speak “a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord.”
Or consider even Hopen’s rather erudite description of the boys’ mystical journey—a description loaded with references to rabbinic, biblical, and mystical texts. After gaining entrance to an alternate reality—apparently, either the LSD or the goat sacrifice did the trick—Evan, Oliver, Amir, Noah, and Ari find themselves in a place of pure marble, a reference to the pardes legend as told in the Babylonian Talmud: Rabbi Akiva said to them, “When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, ‘Water! Water!’ for it is said, ‘He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes.’” And here is Ari describing the experience:
“Water,” I said, fighting through a coughing fit. “Is there any water?”
Evan rematerialized before me. “Don’t ask for water here,” he said hurriedly.
Later, in the orchard itself, Ari encounters something like the primordial chaos—“I had the distinct impression that the darkness was breathing, that it had been all along, waiting patiently while shards splintered and grass withered and flowers faded”—as well as a creature lifted straight from Ezekiel: “It looked, at first, like the Vitruvian Man given wings, until I realized it had four faces: a human face at the front, the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left, the face of an eagle on the back.”
Hopen doesn’t explain much of what happens in the orchard, and though this reticence isn’t helpful when it comes to making sense of what the book is supposed to be about, the floaty surrealism does suit the scene. Still, it’s a hard landing back on earth when, only pages after the boys have departed pardes—one dead, another blind—Hopen returns to his agenda to cram every teenage trauma into one text: “Facial features dissolving under the weight of a boundless, vaguely ecstatic grief, Evan nodded. ‘She was pregnant.’”
Points, I suppose, for comprehensiveness.
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