February 13, 2003
‘Image’ Is Everything
Twenty-something Dara Horn tackles American Jewish perception vs. reality in her debut novel.
Dara Horn wrote an exuberant scene in her stunning debut novel, "In the Image," upon returning to her dreary garret flat during a year abroad in 1999. "I'd been to this dismal British market in which an entire aisle was devoted to butter and fats," the ebullient Horn, 25, said animatedly. "I recall a product called 'beef drippings.' The produce was wilting. All the milk was expired yesterday.Â I was very homesick."
So the New Jersey native did what any red-blooded American author would do: she sat down and wrote a scene about Costco. In the sequence, which parodies Emma Lazarus' immigrant poem, "The New Colossus," the young heroine embarks "on a journey to the promised land of groceries ... where huddled masses yearning to breathe free of halitosis went to stock their shelves with mouthwash."
It's a frivolous but spirited moment in Horn's richly detailed novel, which places her within the same circle of Jewish rookie author sensations as Jonathan Safran Foer. The story opens as Leora, reeling from the death of her best friend, stops speaking and instead simply examines "her surroundings as if she were a visitor, someone passing through on a long journey." Then a very different kind of tourist, her late friend's grandfather, Wilhelm "Bill" Landsmann, invites her to view his slide collection of Jewish communities abroad. Subsequent chapters travel back and forth in time to explore the archetypal journey of 20th-century Jews, describing Leora's doomed romance with Jake, a college jock turned ba'al teshuva, and Bill's wretched childhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
While the literary novel is chock full of illusions to the Bible and to Yiddish literature, it isn't above a trek (or two) to Costco. "Some might look at this as silly materialism, but there's something sort of exuberant about it," said Horn, a Harvard doctoral student in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. "It's not just because you can get anything you want, but because you have the imagination to want more than you have. It's the inspiration to decide what you want and who you want to be, which is really what it means to be an American. So in my novel, Wilhelm becomes Bill, but Jake also becomes Yehuda."
Horn began thinking about American Jewish choices when she first read Philip Roth's short story, "Good-bye Columbus," set in her hometown of Short Hills, N.J., some years ago. The year is 1959, when Jewish quotas still abounded.
By the time young Dara was growing up in Short Hills in the 1980s, the quotas were gone and so was the need for plastic surgery. Horn proudly led junior congregation Torah readings at her Conservative synagogue, traveled to distant Jewish communities with her parents. At 14, she published her first magazine article, about Jewish historical sites in Spain, in Hadassah magazine. She says she set her novel in Short Hills as a nod to "how much the suburb has changed and how much the American Jewish community has changed in 40 years."
The setting and time frame also allowed Horn to explore the phenomenon of "people becoming more religious than their parents, which intrigues me," she said. "In order to make the decision to become more religious, someone back in your family had to make the opposite decision. Neither choice is made frivolously, and I was fascinated by what makes people decide either way."
Horn never intended to explore those issues in a novel; in fact, she did not intend to write fiction until another fateful day abroad in 1999. Bored during a train ride back to her Cambridge University flat, she says she began flipping through the spiral notebook in which she jotted ideas for non-fiction articles and "suddenly began seeing how all these topics could be linked."
While her classmates frequented pubs, Horn holed up in her garret and started writing what she thought might be a series of short stories. Eventually, she linked them into a seamless, sprawling narrative that, in the tradition of Yiddish authors, frequently alludes to Jewish texts. A passage in which Bill and Leora visit a gravesite uses the structure of the Genesis chapter on the binding of Isaac. The book of Job is retold starring Bill. And then there's Costco as "The New Colossus" -- the veritable opposite of that pathetic British market Horn visited in Britain.
During a recent interview at a private home in Westwood, the fresh-faced New York author gleefully opens her novel and reads from the Costco passage, clearly one of her favorites. "[There are] Waspy families whispering to each other over piles of vegetables.... Trailer trash families brandishing their rattailed hair behind carts filled with fish sticks, Chasidic families sweating in their long sleeves," she read with relish. "[All] loading up their shopping carts like Oregon Trail pioneers supplying their covered wagons as they prepare to conquer the frontier, the parents gazing up at the towering ceilings of low-low prices, bewildered and captivated forever by this place they call America."