Can You Fall in Love with a Concept?
By BEZALEL STERN
Joy Comes in the Morning
By Jonathan Rosen
400 pages. Fararr, Straus & Giroux. $25.
Welcome, ladies and
gentlemen, to Split Decision. This issue, we're looking at Jonathan Rosen's Joy
Comes in the Morning. Below, writer
Bezalel Stern lays out his complaint that Rosen's heroine is a less-than-round
character. Click here to for a
different opinion, from Rachel Rubinstein, a professor of literature at Hampshire
Joy Comes in the
Morning, a new novel by Jonathan Rosen about a suicidal Holocaust survivor,
his suspiciously Jonathan Rosen-like son, and the female rabbi who brings love
and hope back into their lives, is in many ways incredibly trite and
condescending. With its matzo-thin plot (it doesn’t take a Talmudic scholar to
prognosticate the end of the novel from its first 50 pages) and its often
forced dialogue, the book could be considered in many ways a literary failure.
So I was more than a little surprised to be taken in by this novel so
fantastically and completely. Rosen weaves a story in Joy Comes in the Morning that is at the same time predictable and
heart-wrenching, moving and clichéd. I often found myself agonizing and
identifying with Lev, the novel’s main character and (perhaps) Rosen’s
fictional doppelganger. The man-boy with the soul of a poet and the job of a
reporter struggles his way through a world that has seemed to have grown up
without him, leaving him behind, lost and uncertain. Although “he had been
taking Krav Maga…Lev often found himself envisioning violent scenarios, despite
the benign safety of Giuliani’s New York and his own gentle nature.” A child of
a survivor, Lev cannot escape the nightmares of his father’s ghoulish past.
As the previous quote suggests, time and place are central to the story’s
narrative. The action takes place at the cusp of the 21st century. It is 1999.
America is enjoying an unprecedented prosperity. The horrendous attacks on the
twin towers are two years away, but they could just as easily be 200. Looked at
in ironic retrospective (as Rosen must be doing), the comparatively mundane
lives and sometimes unbearably banal problems of the Friedman family and
Deborah Green, their friendly neighborhood rabbi, are chilling in their lack of
metaphysical uncertainty. To be sure, the novel’s characters have problems,
enough problems to entertain one through a quick 400-page read, but the
wistfulness of a pre-9/11 world easily overshadows Lev’s commitment issues and
Deborah’s spiritual crisis.
By far the least developed character and most disappointing creation in this
book is the Reform rabbi, Deborah Green. Deborah, in many ways, represents
Rosen at his most didactic. This is how the model Jew should be, Rosen implies
throughout the book. A virtual George Washington of late 20th-century
Jewry, Deborah can do no wrong. From the novel’s opening sequence, when she
bends down to tie the laces of an older, frail man (who turns out to be Henry
Friedman, Lev’s father), to the picture-perfect wedding at the end of the
novel, Deborah always manages to do just the right thing.
Combining a ceaseless desire to do good with a healthy measure of skeptical
doubt, the woman cannot be anymore perfect, and becomes, in this way, less
human then symbolic, conceptual. When, as she often does, Deborah breaks out
into spontaneous song (people are often both joining in and breaking down in
tears at the celestial beauty of her voice), it was enough to make this
reviewer blush in shame. Characters like this should not inhabit good
twenty-first century fiction because they don't live in this world either. Far
from adding to the story, Deborah’s symbolic nature detracts from it. Can
anybody really imagine falling in love with a concept?
And this, ultimately, is where Rosen’s novel fails. In many ways Rosen is a
good writer, and I believe he has the potential to be a great one. But, if
novels are meant to teach, they are not meant to teach by means of stuffing ostensible
“truths” down one’s metaphorical throat. It was disturbing to me that, while
Deborah’s beliefs and struggles are given the time and opportunity to be
glorified, the major Orthodox character mentioned in the novel, Reuben,
Deborah’s ex, is described only briefly as showing “more anxiety about the
state of her kitchen” than compunction in sleeping with her. When the author
describes “Modern Orthodox men” as “macho sissies," he takes his point a
bit too far.
Without the extreme moralizing and the perfect rabbi, Rosen could have created
a sound, stable book. Perhaps even something that had some lasting quality.
Unfortunately, he chose the way of moral turpitude, brushing his New York Jews
in thick paints of black and white, and not allowing enough gray to shine
through. If he had given Deborah a single fault, the novel would have been much
more of a lasting read. As it is, I fear that Joy Comes in the Morning will be gone from most reader’s hearts and
minds by the afternoon.