Very Real Things: Joshua Henkin’s “The World Without You” Reviewed

The World Without You

By Joshua Henkin

Pantheon, 336 p.

Sometimes in sports, announcers, or writers refer to a player or a team as putting on a clinic whether in scoring, passing, defense, or tenacity. Regardless of the skill, this idea speaks to a “how to” lesson in the perfection of craft, technique and style. For some reason, this description comes to mind when I think of how to describe Joshua Henkin’s, beautiful new book, The World Without You. To clarify, perfection doesn’t connote that this book automatically attains the status of a masterpiece or classic, though it helps, rather it attests to a perfection of craft. In short, Henkin makes few if any mistakes.

Even the title has a poetic perfection to it, leaving us readers off on a note of ambiguity to play a game of melancholic Mad libs. The World Without You_______ – hurts, lacks color, isn’t a world worth living in, or, is a much better world. The book itself, a quiet, subtle stunner shows off the manifold talents of the author through the most artistic way possible: in his trick of invisibility, of non-existence on the page.

Not that the book lacks obvious beauty, or lyrical passages. While he never goes overboard, Henkin does provide us with such beautiful and insightful sentences as: “ Everyone who knew us says Leo and I were great together. Our tragic love story. There’s no love like the love that’s been erased.” And, “Lily can see a glistening shard of moon hanging like a comma in the darkness.” Rather, the beauty flows so naturally within the books and the voices of the character that it never impedes the plot or feels glued on.

Henkin, acting as if he never even heard of the anxiety of influence, takes upon the challenge to write a novel of family dynamics in the wake of death. (Spoiler alert: things do not go well, for anyone.) Leo Frankel, a journalist, with shades of similarity to Daniel Pearl, the youngest of an white upper middle class family dies in Iraq. His death shatters each member of the family differently, and the books finds the characters putting themselves together with different success rates of adhesion. The book, in contrast to Henkin’s previous Matrimony which took place over 20 years takes place over a long July 4th weekend, the date of Leo’s death (Henkin, not one to veer into politics for no reason, barely explores the perfect irony of Leo dying in Iraq on July 4th.) Also in contrast to Matrimony, TWWY lacks a central protagonist or even two. Instead, we get five wondrously strong women – A mother, three sisters, and a sister in law – sharing the burden of voice with their men and children as vivid side points. Even the husband David, a central person in the plot, though we do hear his viewpoint and his interiority, he still floats in and out of the story, existing on the periphery almost like the ghost of Leo.

Perhaps for a few small missteps, Henkin succeeds in transcending this chosen genre and plot because he writes so well, both in the honest, but warm portrayals of his characters, and through his maturity in staying away from easy melodramatic emotional porn. Even the climax of the book, the event that ties everything together, the one year memorial of the death of Leo goes off with a whimper and a sigh, as does most of life’s events. He stays the course he sets for himself and his characters throughout the book and thereby does his story justice. In the manner of the great American tradition of taking a microscope to the mundane, nothing necessarily happens in the book, but that’s part of its charm, because of course, everything happens, internally.

In what I’ve read so far, few point out the badassery of Henkin, a male author, writing five brilliantly drawn women characters. What recent male author has done that? In the past year or so, numerous women have bemoaned the male author’s inability to write enjoyable, plausible female characters, or about sex. Here’s hoping Henkin’s contribution balances the scales considerably.

As a person from the Orthodox Jewish world, when a writer opens up about intimate communal details or sensitive issues you perk up, your antennae light up. You want to see if they got things right, for whatever reason. In a way this feels very territorial, a real desire to protect your family, regardless of the issue.  Here, Henkin does get it right, and deals fairly with those issues for the most part by avoiding any lengthy exposition. Though, I can see some people wonder why the two perhaps most annoying characters are religious, but to me his portrayal, says less about religion and more about his characters.  More importantly, he uses Jewish sources and religious ideas in a seamless and literary manner, reminiscent of some of the best Yiddish writers of yore. He takes numerous basic Jewish wisdom we receive throughout our education and reinterprets them as emotional questions.  In this sense this makes him a master of both the insular and the universal, the specific and the general. I really cannot think of any writer of Jewish descent In America doing something similar, in a sense weaving aggadah i.e. Jewish legends and wisdom throughout the story in numerous creative and poignant ways. We not only find it in the thoughts and words of Noelle and Amram, the Orthodox couple in the family, but in the thoughts of Thisbe, the non-Jewish sister-in-law. Not that this necessitates any previous knowledge of Judaism, but for a Jewish reader, it creates an added layer of complexity, of fun.

On top of all of this, he brushes upon, even if just tangentially, pretty much ever contemporary topic I could imagine: the War in Iraq, the Bush Presidency, the conflict in the middle east, the political divide, the economic crisis, unemployment but does so in a way that evades any feeling of staleness because he grounds any concept, or political idea, or even any theme in obsessed over characters. These characters, in a book that often flirts with perfection of craft, play the central role. Each character, to put in the way of creative writing 101 is round, fully fleshed out, alive, lives beyond the page in our minds; if they walked into our rooms we would hug them, tenderly, most of them at least, and pick up the conversation with ease. We know them both because they signify people in our lives, but because they exist as sui generis creations. You might not like them, and some of them, I know you will not like, but at no point will you find them staid, or cliched, or predictable. What else can you actually ask from an author?

I don’t know, but something in me wants more, if only a little more.

I can’t begrudge an author for writing a gorgeous, moving, almost perfect book. But something in me, maybe, my own immaturity, my desire to not give up on the ideals of youth: chaos, anarchy, some shaking up of everything established, wants a little more sense of displacement. The downside of perfection, especially in art, is that it sometimes create a sterility, a feeling of peering at something through museum glass, through a frame, over a do not touch sign. Perhaps this sentiment stems from nothing more than jealousy, but it persists even after two readings. Regardless, quibbling over pages that retain stains from my tears seems like a nagging effort.

On just a separate note, in the academic world, teachers often coast by on their credentials despite their inability or lack of a desire to teach. In reading Henkin, and in speaking to him, I feel wholly heartened that he heads the prestigious creative writing program at Brooklyn College. He exudes not only such a talent for the craft, but such a passion for technique. I think we can all find joy in his young career both as a writer of loving, tender portraits of flawed humans, and as a teacher passing on these magical tools of fiction to the next generation.

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