The ProsenPeople

Fiction and Physics

Friday, October 13, 2017 | Permalink

Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this week she wrote about collective responsibility in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, and shared her favorite Jewish books and her #toberead list. She has been blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi was once asked why he hadn’t become a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman. Rabi replied:

My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist!'

Fiction writers are not scientists. Fiction writers work in a realm that values most what might or could happen, rather than one that emphasizes what, in fact, does happen. Yet our work shares important features. Fiction writing, like the work of physics, is a process of exploration, not declaration. The fiction that I like best doesn’t offer answers or advice. Writers of my ilk, like the theoretical physicist, pose and explore questions, hoping to bring them into sharper relief in an effort to deepen our understanding. Perhaps we discover a definitive answer to a question or two, yet anything resembling an answer to anything large, anything important, anything of serious consequence, only serves to provoke new questions.

My novel Barren Island opens not with a question, but with a prompting for a question: “Ask about the smell,” advises Marta Eisenstein Lane, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. This has always been the opening line, from the moment I started writing the book one Thanksgiving weekend to the day I finally handed it off to two author friends some seven years later.

I was, when I began Barren Island, a writer of short stories, of essays, of longform nonfiction, and of poems. But I, the author, had commenced writing with a question of my own that was different than Marta’s. My question: I wonder what that was like? was a question that I believed I could address in the space of a short story, albeit a long one. Instead, it took 400+ pages before I was confident that I had explicated the question.

The question—my question, not Marta’s question—came about after reading a newspaper article that featured a man who had grown up on the historic Barren Island in Jamaica Bay, New York. Barren Island was the site of glue processing plants, the last of which was closed by Robert Moses in the 1930s. Workers and their families lived on Barren Island from the time that these plants opened in the nineteenth century. Many of them lived their entire lives there, some without ever leaving. Imagine living within sight of Brooklyn or Manhattan yet never going there.

Though the Brooklyn and Manhattan of the 1850s were markedly different than they are today, they were already remarkable loci of aspiration, industry, and immigration. They were also the sites of expulsion, land theft, and indentured servitude. Then came World War I and with it a nation, and an island, inculcated by modernity. How, I wondered, did the residents of Barren Island navigate the changes that were the hallmarks of The Interregnum, the years between WWI and WWII? What about the Great Depression? What about the labor movements? What about a Europe that was unable to stabilize following the Armistice? One question led to another led to another.

There was no way for me to know for certain. I am neither a historian nor a scholar of urban life. I never saw a photo of Barren Island until long after the novel was completed and the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library digitized their photo collections. But unlike theoretical physicists, who calculate provable theorems, I had to rely on what is referred to as ‘acquired knowledge,’ meaning the flotsam and jetsam of information that one absorbs as an avid reader, observer, and listener. I also knew that I wouldn’t want to tell an untrue story about real people, so I shifted my story to Barren Shoal, a place that resembles Barren Island but is an invention of my imagination. Unlike the physicist, I had no obligation to the facts about Barren Shoal because there were none. The place that I wrote about never did nor ever would exist, nor would the characters that I placed there.

Some of the novel’s events that take place off-island did indeed happen, and to those facts I stay true, whether it was Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin or the German-American Bund rally in 1939 at Madison Square Garden. And I titled the book Barren Island in order to honor the actual people who lived there, the very real people whose stories I do not tell, so that they, too, will be remembered. I made certain to honor the truth without hindering my imagination.

Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.

Talking Books with Carol Zoref

Thursday, October 12, 2017 | Permalink

Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this week, she wrote about communal sin and collective responsibility in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

What books of Jewish interest or by Jewish authors are currently on your nightstand?
Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark, in anticipation of hearing her speak at the 92nd Street Y with Jenny Erpenbeck. As soon as I finish the Krauss novel, I will dive into Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which was recently translated from German by Susan Bernofsky—they are a trifecta of smart writers/translators. In nonfiction, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths by Emily Katz Anhalt. Anhalt, a classics scholar, shines light on how the Greeks struggled with human violence and the desire for moral evolution.

What’s the last great book you read?
Impossible question, but the work I keep recommending is by the twentieth-century Soviet author Vasily Grossman. His novel Life and Fate is a masterpiece. All of his other books—fiction and reportage—are outstanding.

What’s the best classic Jewish novel you recently read for the first time?
Pioneers: The First Breach by S. An-sky, translated from Yiddish by Rose Waldman. I was seated next to Rose at the Jewish Book Council Network Conference last spring, where she showed me the beautiful new edition of this ninety year-old novel about the reach of Haskalah, a Jewish enlightenment movement, into small-town life.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
There’s nothing that no one has heard of. Rather, there are authors whose work doesn’t receive the attention that it should or that it used to. Grace Paley is the perfect example. She was widely admired while she was alive, both as an author and a political activist. She is shockingly unknown by younger readers and writers a mere ten years after her passing. Those of us who teach can help to set this right by keeping her magnificent short stories front and center. Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently released The Grace Paley Reader last spring. Buy it. Then go out and buy the individual collections of short stories.

Which Jewish writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?
In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I’m always ready for fiction and nonfiction by Cynthia Ozick. I’m sad that I won’t be reading anything new by Philip Roth, unless he breaks his promise and comes out of authorial retirement. I was bowled over by Paula Vogel’s play, Indecent, when it appeared last year off-Broadway. I was cheered that it received such a warm welcome when moved to Broadway. It’s heartening to know that there is still a place uptown for serious drama. The recent re-staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures by the Classic Stage Company demonstrated, yet again, the insights about colonialism revealed by this beautiful musical. David Remnick is keeping The New Yorker on fire, both as editor-in-chief and as a writer.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
I read any time that I can, however much or little, day or nightsimultaneously a novel, a book of poems, a collection of short stories, and something nonfiction. I’m happier with an actual book in my hands, but I’d rather read electronically than not at all. When I travel, I no longer get anxious about what to bring along or worry that I will run out. If I fall in love with a book that I’ve read electronically, I buy a hard copy.

How do you organize your books?
I don’t. That said, ask me for a book that I own and I’ll pull it off a shelf pretty quickly.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was not a Jewish author nor is there a single Jewish character in “Huck.” But it’s a novel that I return to again and again: a story of immoral and moral behavior in immoral times, of the development and collapse of conscience, of hope and hopelessness, and so much more. It was a gift when someone told me to read it again as an adult. It is loathed by people on the Right, it is loathed by people on the Left, and it is adored by me. I could go on—and I’ve been known tobut I’ll let it go at that.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
I’d rather recommend a book than dis one. However, the last novel that outraged me was Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. The plot premise—that illiteracy resulted in a woman becoming a concentration camp guard—was infuriating. I read the whole thing in the hope that the novel, not the character, could redeem itself. There is no guarantee that literacy shapes ethical behavior, nor that education guarantees insight.

What do you plan to read next?
David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar, Der Nister’s story collection Regrowth, and Joan Silber’s forthcoming novel Improvement.

Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.

The Second Amendment, Yom Kippur, and the Las Vegas Massacre

Tuesday, October 10, 2017 | Permalink

Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Every time a mass shooting takes place, great numbers of Americans hope that Congress will pass “common-sense gun laws.” How could they not? people ask. These were elementary school children. These were people at a prayer meeting, at a dance club, at a movie. Great numbers of Americans also worry that Congress will pass gun laws which, they believe, would flout the Second Amendment. It is a violation of my constitutional rights, people declare. I have the right to protect my loved ones and myself. I have the right to bear arms.”

On only one thing do all agree: mass murders are a bad thing. Yet, somehow, massacres take place frequently, most recently in Las Vegas. In many cases, the perpetrators acquire their weapons legally. Are these murders, therefore, the responsibility solely of the shooters, or do we, as a nation that aspires to function by the rule of law, somehow bear responsibility as well?

Every year at Yom Kippur services, we repeat aloud the Al Chet in the third-person plural. We have sinned against You… It is tempting to protest that it makes no sense to confess to sins we did not commit. Why should we confess to the sin of swindling when we, in fact, have been swindled? Wouldn’t it make more sense to acknowledge our own actual acts of wrongdoing? Chanting the Al Chet, as I’ve come to understand it, is our collective way of challenging ourselves to take responsibility for and do better on behalf of every community to which we belong, regardless of our personal shortcomings. I might not have defrauded anyone, ever, but have I looked away when someone else has? Did I, at the very least, tell my representatives in Congress that the TARP bailout in 2008 needed to be accompanied by the prosecution of subprime mortgage sellers and others who willingly brought our financial system to its knees? That someone needed to go to jail?

Each group selectively emphasizes the clauses of the Second Amendment that best supports its position. The National Rifle Association and its supporters, including some legal scholars, focus on "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Millions of others, including other legal scholars, emphasize the opening clause, "A well regulated Militia…," pointing out that a massively-armed individual in an expensive Las Vegas hotel is neither well-regulated nor a militia. Regrettably, parsing the language of the Second Amendment has not brought us any closer to common cause or common sense.

Renewed conversations about the Second Amendment are guaranteed to get us nowhere unless we read the text through the lenses of both common sense and shared responsibility. Should people be able to purchase and own guns? While this is not a choice that I would make, I could not object were it done in a well-regulated fashion, meaning through common sense gun laws that remove military-grade arms from the public sphere. And it’s my responsibility to make that position known to every political candidate who wants my vote.

The sins of premeditated murder will never disappear. Sins never do, which is why the Al Chet will never be shorter. But fewer mass murders and fewer deaths sound good to me. It’s the responsibility of all of us to make certain that we move towards this goal in a manner that is responsible, respectful—meaning with common cause—and driven by common sense.

Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.

Original image via Flickr/Talya Modlin