Reviewed by Joe Winkler
The Book of Life
by Stuart Nadler
Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown; 256 p.
I think I hate Stuart Nadler. Jealousy will do that to a person.
Nadler’s writing flows so effortlessly that you almost miss the immense density and complexity of his debut book, The Book of Life. He writes with the pen of a master, but with the genuine passion of a novice. I’m tempted to go through each of the seven stories, dissect them, find their power, and steal it for myself. But so much of the book depends, curiously, on mysteries that I don’t want to reveal. Instead I want to focus on both the craft and the themes of this weighty book.
Nadler skillfully presents a variation on themes: Themes of pervasive infidelity, unwillingness to communicate, the need for atonement, forgiveness, loneliness, disorder, death (and lots of it), the perils and promises of memory, theology and belief, and of course, rounding out this overstuffed collection, that basic Jewish theme of guilt. Each story centers on some sort of frayed relationship, whether father to newly religious son, son to his philandering mother, husband to unfaithful wife, grandson to grandfather, and of course man’s relationship to tradition with the specter of the dead in the background.
Nadler’s stories work off that overused Yeat’s phrase, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But here, amidst the ruins, Nadler finds traces of redemption in the hazardous terrain of tattered relationships. Nadler provides no easy answers as to how to navigate this land. So many of his characters stumble upon their unwillingness to communicate, to say what they truly want to say. But in the world Nadler creates, the attempts, the subtle gestures, the weight of the unspoken, their comic absurdities, bring out the deep humanity of the characters.
To achieve this end, Nadler employs numerous tools and motifs that in hindsight tie the book together. The book is permeated with a strong sense of place, but also of displacement. Here, setting, written in beautiful prose, serves not only to ground the reader in the immediate now, but acts as its own character, as valium, as a status symbol, and as reservoirs of memory. Place forever haunts, taunts, bewitches, and entrances these characters. So many of the stories, beneath the surface, read as a search and a struggle with the concept of Home. Nadler confronts the reader with uncomfortable questions about this basic human need. Is home the physical place in which you grew up, or a place you feel comfortable, safe? Is it in the arms of a spouse or of a lover? Can we create a home in our memories, or in the objects that explode with associations, and why do we so desperately need to feel safe, to feel settled in a home?
Nadler also loves secrets, or from the poetic realm: turns of an unpredictable nature. Many of the stories open with some sort of unrevealed secret, or small mystery that Nadler evades by flitting back and forth between the past and the present. This technique builds up tension based on our innate desire to know everything. But when the reveal finally comes, it comes not as an explosive release, but most often as a whimper, a sigh at the tragic-comic beauty of life with all its limitations and flaws. Nadler emerges as an exquisite writer of ellipses. His stories build toward confrontation, towards defining choices and moments, but he chooses to glide past them, to leave them unwritten so as to focus on the effects of the choices as opposed to the choices themselves.
Besides place, Nadler focuses on the flaws of his characters, but with such great empathy you begin to love the characters as much as it seems the author does. Nadler’s narrators, almost exclusively male, all suffer from a slew of similar flaws. Flaws, which in the beginning engender the desire to shake these people and say, “Wake up! Stop resigning yourself to the cycle of tragedy! Communicate! Use some self-restraint.” Then, though, you realize this whole time you’ve been yelling at yourself.
In a similar vein, these stories, thankfully, rarely follow the conventional arc we come to expect. Nadler plunges us into the lives of other people, with little introduction, so that the reader must work to put the pieces together, and in the end, leaves us with little resolution. This style allows the story to grow with time in the readers mind. It falls upon us to “finish” these stories in our hearts and through our imagination. In this vein, Nadler weaves his story between the present and the past, which not only hooks us in, waiting to discover what happens, but forces us to confront the problem of memory itself.
In the best manner, without slipping into inconsistency, Nadler creates unpredictable human characters. Besides creating an odd sense of suspense and tension in non-suspenseful stories, this tool mimics for the reader the ambiguity these characters live with, the ambiguity we all actually live with. Do we really know our parents; can we fully trust our memories, our lovers, and our friends? Do we know ourselves and our beliefs as well as we like to think we do?
For such a heavily Jewish book, the quasi-theology here flies imperceptibly under the radar, almost as the scenery to each story. These characters are obviously Jewish, not only in their style and preoccupations, or in the holidays they keep or do not keep, but, more importantly, in their struggle with Jewish identity. The theology mostly flows from the complications and beauty of human love, the temptations and the self-restraint. The last page of the last story acts as one of the most surprising and insightful expression of the complex interplay between human and Divine love.
The story, entitled Beyond Any Blessing, tells the tale of a grandson who lost his parents at a young age. Danny, the grandson then consequently lived with his Rabbi grandfather until college. The grandfather, one of the more delightfully unpredictable characters, has just been fired from his rabbinical position after countless years, and to pile insult upon injury, he’s getting evicted from his apartment. He accepts all of this with humorous aplomb. The grandson returns to help his grandfather with the transition, but instead gets caught up in old temptations and in rusty family dynamics. Though they fight their way throughout the story, the piece ends on a note of beauty, of connection. The Grandfather, dying from old age, clings to one memory, the first time he saw a man and woman in a loving embrace, a memory he shares with his grandson:
They seemed very passionate about one another, this man and woman. I was young and I didn’t know very well what love looked like, and so I kept watching. It was wrong of me, but there was something about the two of them in the water, with the sun and the wind and the light of the Charles. It all seemed so wonderful to me. It was the first moment in which I knew with certainty that God existed…Any man who has a doubt in God needs to see what I saw that afternoon, Danny…It was the most pure moment.
After a story full of missed opportunities to connect, to give, after a story full of frustrated expectations, Danny and his grandfather finally connect in that elusive realm of memory and belief. Danny, in the end, might still doubt the power of this memory to compel belief, but he relays to us, the readers, the memory. A memory that is as unexpected as it is compelling. In a book full of mere traces of transcendence, finally, in the end, transcendence shines through in this pure moment of dialogue, in the conveyance of this mundane memory that crosses between the generations.