November 11, 2004
3 Novels Explore Life in Cold War Era
"Meritocracy: A Love Story," by Jeffrey Lewis. (Other Books, $18).
The memory of the Holocaust has haunted the Jewish imagination for three generations. It represents the rupture in our communal history, its shadow falling on everything else. And yet, we have amassed new memories since. Three books by local authors use the legacy of the Holocaust in their attempts to grapple with many facets of the Cold War.
By the 1960s and '70s, when these three novels are set, Jews had established themselves at the vanguard of the United States. As if trying to make up for all that had been taken from them in midcentury Europe, Jews rose to the highest levels of education, politics, science and cultural production, benefiting from the new spirit of meritocracy that, as Jeffrey Lewis puts it in his novel of the same title, was the result of "a slight softening of the contours of traditional anti-Semitism, in the guilty aftermath of catastrophe."
"Meritocracy" tells the story of a group of friends, all recent Yale graduates, who travel to Maine before one of them, Harry Nolan, ships off to basic training. Elegiac in tone, the novel mourns all those promising young men lost to the Vietnam War, while consciously drawing parallels to today's political landscape, dominated as it is by other sons of privilege who attended Yale and Harvard during the late 1960s.
The novel's tone is pitch perfect, slow and contemplative, shadowed by tragedy before it even strikes. Nostalgic, too, because even though this is a work of fiction, it is far too autobiographical (the narrator's name is "Louie," which we learn, late in the day, is a nickname bestowed by Harry) not to absorb its author's mourning for his own youth, his generation's potential that was never, as the novel makes clear, fully realized.
This is beautiful story, one that captures the fears and hopes of a generation of well-educated, well-positioned young people that thought itself blessed, but found that, like all those around them, they were not immune to life's misfortunes. Its weakness lies precisely in its title, and in the author's ruminations on the meritocratic ideal in this country, which are unnecessary, because their meaning is illustrated through the events of the book. That one flaw notwithstanding, "Meritocracy" is a beautiful book: evocative and immeasurably sad.
Kate Wenner's narrator, Marea Hoffman (named for the dark seas of the moon) is of the same generation as Louie, Harry and their friends, but she has run from them, as she has from all reminders of her past. After seven years wandering the earth, she returns to New York to face herself and her father's legacy: as a scientist with the Manhattan Project, he helped build the atom bomb. Marea, who grew up with the arms race, witnessed the tension between her pacifist, Quaker mother and her ally, Albert Einstein -- a family friend and Marea's "Grandpa Albert" -- and her father, who both believed in and was tortured by his work.
Marea is a quirky, unstable character, but also smart and full of humor. She engages four different therapists to try to get to the heart of herself -- her inability to put down roots and her need to forgive her mother, whom she blames for her father's early death.
Jeffrey Lewis will appear Sunday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books, 475 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena. (626) 304-9773.
"Dancing With Eintein" is a novel that grapples with the many layers of memory: how one generation's needs for absolution get passed down to the next. Wenner has written a luminous book: the characters, from Marea and her New Age, baker boss, Andrew, to Albert Einstein, himself, are all portrayed with depth and nuance.
The book's ending is somewhat abrupt. Marea suddenly is able to commit to a place, relationships and the idea of a future. By this point, though, we have grown so fond of her that we want a happy ending for her.
Kate Wenner will appear Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at a private residence in La Canada-Flintridge. For reservations and directions call the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656. $10. Both Lewis and Wenner appear as part of the Jewish Book Festival.
The last and least of the books considered here is Leora Krygier's "When She Sleeps." From the uninspired title to the overwrought writing, this book telegraphs its desire to be "deep," in the parlance of the late 1970s, when its story takes place.
"When She Sleeps" follows the experiences of two teenage girls, half-sisters who have never met. Vietnamese Mai is the Amerasian daughter of a linguistics professor and an American army doctor who tried to get his lover and daughter out of the country, and has never forgotten that he failed to save them before the fall of Saigon. Lucy lives in the Valley, spending all her time in the darkroom, filtering her experiences through the manipulation of photographs.
The girls form a psychic connection through the dreams that Mai "steals" from her mother and transmits, without knowing it, to Lucy, so that by the time they meet, the sisters already share knowledge of their parents' past that has previously been closed to them.
The idea of this story has merit: the time has come to think about the results of the Vietnam engagement, especially, as is done here, by refracting it through the lens of the Holocaust. There is much to say about the relationships forged between American servicemen and their Vietnamese girlfriends, as well as the children they produced. This is not the book to do that, though: The characters are all too one-dimensional and similar for the novel to truly ground itself in reality (even a magical version), and the language is so self-conscious and forced that it never soars.
Leora Krygier will appear Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 380-1636; and Sunday, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. at Village Books, 1049 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades, (310) 454-4063.