Tag Archives: literature

Helen Schulman on This Beautiful Life

by Beth Kissileff

Helen Schulman is the author of novel This Beautiful Life, her fifth novel, which takes on the contemporary issue of privacy and the Internet. The plot is ripped from the headlines of The New York Times: A teenage girl sends an older boy a graphic video of herself in extremely sexualized positions. The boy, unsure how to respond, forwards the video to his closest friend for advice. It goes viral and he is soon called into the office of his New York prep school’s headmaster. The aftermath of the boy’s suspension from school creates extreme tension for his parents and younger sister, fraying their thinning family ties. While there are not explicitly Jewish themes in the book, the mother and children are Jewish characters; certainly Jews need to be aware of a tale of a Jewish family facing an issue that is part of modern life. It is a cautionary tale of making (potentially) public through the Internet what in all other eras would remain a solely private affair. IntheMoment spoke with  Schulman about her work.

What is the task of a novelist today?

I can only talk about my task. I’m not prescriptive about other writers’ work. Everyone has their own passions and ideas. Manifestos about fiction are kind of silly, I think, although they do draw a lot of attention to themselves, which is probably why writers sometimes write them.

What I hoped to do in my last two books (A Day At the Beach and This Beautiful Life) was write about the way we live now.

Why did you choose to write with Daisy [the character who sends the suggestive video] at the novel’s opening and closing but never in the middle?

I wanted to begin by casting a spell over the story, and I hope the prologue turns the reader into a voyeur of sorts, almost as if the reader herself were sent the video. This was something I hit upon well into the first draft of writing the book.

I ended with Daisy because I think she hovers over the whole story, the mystery of who she is and who she may become, and I hope that her resolution sheds light on some of the ideas I was wrestling with throughout the book. I found her both resilient in terms of her life force and devastatingly sad.

I want to ask about the character Liz as a mother  – is she too involved or not enough?

I think she is both too involved and not involved enough. It is extremely difficult to be a good parent. Life is very complicated, made up of rainbow shades of gray, and our internal contradictions and conflicts are what make us human. Liz needs to both let go of her children and hold on to them; it’s her timing that is sometimes off. I think she is a person who when faced with lousy choices makes worse ones. She loves her children with all her heart. In some ways she is blinded by that love.

What is going on with the women’s roles in this novel?

There is a phenomenon I have seen where many well-educated women, lawyers and Ph.D.s and MBAs, for example, don’t work. They often don’t work for good, loving, parental reasons – they want to raise their children, and their former careers and their husbands’ present ones don’t allow for much flexibility. These women are smart and capable, and I was interested in the choices that they made (because they have choices). What happens when you take well-trained people out of the workforce —where do their energies go? How do they feel about themselves? How valued are they? What happens to women when their self-worth is wrapped up in the home and in their appearance? What is the effect on the children they raise?

How do the Jewish identities of Liz and Jake [mother and son] impact them?

Liz is Jewish, and so are her children. Her husband is not. They have had a good marriage up until this point and they love each other, but there is some tension over their mixed status in the marriage, which adds  another layer of complexity to their relationship. I think moving to New York City offers both a sense of relief and new kind of self-recognition for Jake as a Jew.

Are there Jewish themes in the book?

Liz would probably identify herself as a secular Jew, and if she were to attend a temple it would be a Reformed temple. I think that for most of her life she has tried to live an ethical life and she has a lefty, liberal sense about her. She believes in social justice. She believes in the power of education. A lot of her ideas about how to live and construct a life get shaken when Jake forwards the email and she quickly realizes that they, her family, are in over their heads. Although her first impulse is to have her son apologize and own his behavior, she is dissuaded as soon as she realizes that the other parents and the school itself are pulling out the big guns. It’s then that she loses her ethical bearings and betrays her own moral code. She says to her husband  ‘I want you to be an a—hole”[to deal with the problem]. In an effort to save their child, both parents do things they never thought they would do.

The characters who are willing to reveal themselves online are Liz’s former flame Feigenbaum and Daisy.  What connects them?

What is so fascinating about the Internet is that we can reach almost anyone at almost any time, anywhere in the world. Yet we often simultaneously forget this fact –that once sent or posted our messages, images, etc. can indeed go to almost anyone, anywhere, at any time. And at this point, there is no taking them back.

Adults and teenagers make  the same mistakes (look at Anthony Weiner, for instance). We’ve been given this monumental gift, this ability to connect, and we don’t yet truly understand its ramifications. Politically, the Internet provides exciting capabilities –look at how it helped to inspire the Arab Spring. But Twitter and Facebook also helped to perpetuate the London uprisings. Somehow, I don’t think we realize fully what happens when we give up privacy and the inability to wipe the slate clean.  With the Internet, forgetting is over.

The First and Final Nightmare

By Symi Rom-Rymer

When 69 year-old Sonia Reich ran out of her Skokie home late one February evening in 2001, no one knew why.  Insisting that a man was trying to “put a bullet in my head,” she refused to go home. This anecdote opens the haunting book, “The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich” by Chicago Tribune Jazz critic Howard Reich.

Holocaust memoirs have conventionally ended in 1945 with survivors emerging from the years of darkness and terror, hardened but resolute. Reich’s hybrid memoir/biography, however, is part of a growing trend of books by children of Holocaust survivors who explore what happens next.  The end of the war seemed to give his mother a sense freedom and even allow her to achieve modest prosperity.  She arrived in the United States in 1947 at 16 years old and built a comfortable American middle class life for herself: a husband, two children, and a house in Skokie, a predominantly Jewish, middle-class suburb of Chicago.

But behind the veneer of normality, a different life was playing out.  It was the life of a woman still on the run from those who threatened her as a child.  Reich tells how his mother would triple lock the doors to their house and unconvinced of their strength, would check them over and over again.  She would keep a vigilant watch at the living room window at night, afraid of who might come to threaten her family.

Growing up, Reich knew little of his mother’s Holocaust experience except that she was on the run for three years.  Like many children of survivors, his childhood was deeply informed by his mother’s experiences without really knowing her stories.  Family get-togethers would often devolve into shouting matches and contests over whose Holocaust experience was the worst, but Reich simply assumed that was normal. He never drew the connection between their experiences during the war and their current psychological states.   But his father’s death put an end to his ignorance.

In the years following her husband’s death, Sonia’s world slowly contracted. She no longer ventured out for the small excursions she used to enjoy: going to the local Jewish deli for matzoh ball soup or going shopping. She instead started to spend most of the time seeking refuge behind the walls of her house, until the fateful day the anonymous man in her head chased her out of her house, insisting he would kill her.

It turns out, however, that the man was not so anonymous, nor was he truly a figment of Sonia’s imagination, conjured up by a delusional mind.  He did exist, albeit 59 years ago, in the form of a Nazi soldier who threatened to kill 10 year-old Sonia by putting a bullet through her head in her hometown of Dubno, Poland. Reich eventually realizes his mother is suffering from late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the psychological condition now most commonly associated with recently returning war veterans.   As Reich digs deeper into the illness and its causes, he comes to understand that it afflicts not only soldiers but civilians exposed to the traumas of war as well.   Moreover, the extent of his mother’s PTSD is so great that not only is she suffering from the usual symptoms (sleeplessness and hypervigilance among others) but that she also, as Reich writes, “had so deeply absorbed her childhood traumas into the fabric of her being that there simply was no way she could ever escape them…they were replaying themselves in an endless loop in her traumatized psyche.”

The book’s greatest strength is the powerful and personal way Reich brings to light this little-discussed form of PTSD.  As difficult as it was for many the post-war era to come to terms with the Holocaust, it is similarly difficult to accept that there was often no happy ending for its survivors.  This not a simple case of denial by loved ones, or indeed by the survivors themselves.  According to Reich, even the medical community does not fully understand or recognize the causes of late onset PTSD.  By opening up a painful part of his life to readers, however, he offers an invaluable opportunity to better understand the life-long toll that such a trauma can have.

Editor’s Note: Read a review of Howard Reich’s book, written by Moment editor and publisher Nadine Epstein, here. And learn about the film Prisoner of Her Past, based on Reich’s book, here.

James Frey’s Messiah of the Subways

by Amanda Walgrove

What would the Messiah be like if he were walking the streets of New York today? James Frey takes a stab at answering this question in his new book, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. After revealing that his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces was mostly fictive, Frey was swiftly ostracized by the literary community and, famously, by Oprah Winfrey, who had previously championed him. In a brave attempt to redeem himself, Frey has written an addendum to the most famous book of all time, revealing the second coming of the Messiah—this time, in the Bronx projects.

Pulling out all the controversial stops, Frey’s Christ character, Ben Zion Avrohom, also known as Ben Jones, is a former alcoholic who impregnates a prostitute, smokes pot, and engages in homosexual relations. After surviving a horrific work accident, Ben suffers from epileptic attacks in which he converses with God and gradually develops a band of devout followers who fearfully build a shelter in the Manhattan subway tunnels. Ben Zion preaches that the 2,000-year-old Bible is antiquated and that “stories that had meaning then are meaningless now…those books are dead.”

Having been dumped by his publisher after the Oprah snafu, Frey is taking precautions this time around, publishing only 11,000 copies in the United States and self-publishing e-books online. And just in case we didn’t understand that he was making a statement in the face of religion, the book was released on April 22: Good Friday. Frey is prepared to take criticism, saying, “I’m sure the religious right will go crazy because the story of Ben…is hardly the Messiah they have in mind. But I don’t really care. I just did what I always do — tried to write the best book I could.” However, with all of the controversy brewing before the book was even released, Frey must have anticipated that any hopes of praise for good writing would be overshadowed by passionate religious dialectic.

John Murray, Frey’s publisher in the UK, is using a “word of mouth,” or more specifically, a “word of YouTube” strategy to inspire an audience of readers. In one video, Frey expresses in a monotonous discourse: “I believe the first two volumes of the Holy Bible were written by people like me, storytellers, who wanted to create some piece of work that made sense of the world they lived in…I believe these books should never be considered pure fact or literal truth, but works of art.” Frey is quick to attack organized religion through the doctrines of Ben Zion, speculated to be Frey’s alger-ego. Ben Zion defines the institution as “a beautiful con, the longest running fraud in human history.” It is true that the scribes of the Bible could not have imagined the world we live in today, rife with nuclear power, cyberspace, advanced physics, and social reformations. But the power of the Bible lies in its ability to transcend generations and encapsulate values that speak to each human.

The UK’s Channel 4 released a review saying that for those who can get past the offensiveness, “It’s a sensitive and very moving exploration of the human need for love.” One of Ben Zion’s converts says, “God is what you feel when there’s love in your heart,” which may be the closest Frey gets to adhering with the messages of the Hebrew Bible and Yahweh’s notion of steadfast love. But if Frey is looking to stimulate acts of kindness, he may be going about it the wrong way by writing a book that invites readers to “Be enraged.” And if he is looking for redemption, as does his Christ character that is martyred by the media, he may only be placing himself on a higher pedestal. The Guardian wrote a scathing review, saying that Frey is “less of a writer than a professional celebrity, which means that he can count on being rewarded for behaving badly.” Considering the millions of devout followers garnered by Twittering celebrities, no matter how outrageous they may be, that claim may hold some truth.

Regardless of whether Frey finds success with this radical book, he certainly has chutzpah for writing something that he believes to straddle the line between religious text and fiction. If anything, he will create a dialogue by asking how much power we give to the fictive word and how much to the religious. Is there a fine line? Slapping the adjective “Final” before “Testament” not only presents Frey’s book as an addition to holy texts but also as a conclusive one. Frey nullifies all further attempts at creating pseudo “testaments”—that is, if you take his word as truth. Rather than prejudging a text that can be seen as folly, treason, or literary genius, the author first invites us to judge for ourselves. Stepping into the shoes of a modern religious scribe, Frey asserts that his goal was to “create a mythology, to tell a story, to make a work of art…whether I was able to do it or not will be determined by readers, and by time, and by history.”