The ProsenPeople

Lessons from Bereshit for Contemporary Novelists

Thursday, March 16, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jacob Bacharach shared the story of braving his mother’s book club and telling her friends the Bible is weird. With the release of his novel The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates this Tuesday, Jacob has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The first thing you think you remember about Abraham is probably the smashing of the idols, an incident that occurs nowhere in the Torah.

It was a later addition contained in midrashic commentary written sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries CE, a millennium after the likely date of the actual composition of the texts we think of as Genesis. The fine narrative details of this, and the implied internality they lend to the character of Abraham—his father, Terah, as an idolater and idol-maker; the young Abraham’s dialogues with a series of customers; his confounding of Nimrod, who at Terah’s behest tries to get him to worship fire, water, the wind—are all missing from the original, in which Terah, merely the last in a genealogy, tells his son Abraham (still known as Abram), Abraham’s wife Sarai, and his great-grandnephew Lot, to gather their shit. They set out, for no particular reason, for Canaan. They only make it as far as a place called Haran, somewhat confusingly, because that is also the name of Abraham’s brother and Lot’s father, who has already died. Terah, now two hundred and five, dies in Haran.

Only in the next chapter does the Lord appear to Abraham to tell him, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee,” upon which the motley company—now somewhat enlarged by slaves and other possessions—heads to Canaan, where they wander briefly before discovering “a famine in the Land” and immediately hightailing it south to Egypt.

This commences a series of wanderings, confrontations, and misdirections. Twice, in order to keep nasty foreign rulers from abducting and marrying his own wife, Abraham claims Sarah is his sister, with somewhat odd results. In Egypt, for one, “the woman was taken into Pharoah’s house” and made his wife, a situation only resolved when God, quite absent any explicit request from Abraham, sends “great plagues,” a foreshadowing of Exodus.

(This is also pretty clearly a polytheistic world, in which the God who eventually makes a covenant with Abraham is still sometimes simply God “Most High”—the strong implication is that there are others who are merely lesser.)

The gang wanders some more. Abraham and Lot argue and split up. Abraham has his first son, Ishmael, with the Egyptian maidservant Hagar. We pause for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the flight and sad end of Lot. We return to Abraham sending his “sister” once again into the hands of a king, this time Abimelech, who also takes her as a wife before God comes to him in a dream and gives him the lowdown. When Abimelech awakes he confronts Abraham in anger, but then, for some reason or other, gives him a bunch of livestock and lets him live high on the land.

Then comes the miracle of Sarah’s pregnancy, the birth of Isaac, and God’s terrible demand for the sacrifice of their young son.

It is not at all the neat narrative we remember from Hebrew School, but for a writer of contemporary fiction, it’s a fascinating template on which to overlay a more modern story—personally, I thought a good analogue for the land-obsessed, peripatetic nature of the tales was a world of natty real estate development—precisely because it’s so weird and diffuse and because its characters are hardly even that. As the authors of the midrash were able to back-project their own ideas about monotheism in narratives that expanded and altered the more ancient texts, so too can a novelist today hang a story set in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries on top of the protean, biblical text.

One narrative idiosyncrasy I do try to take from these myths, even as I mutate and expand them, is permission to make a story a bit odder, a bit vaguer than a lot of contemporary fiction permits. I’m not opposed to narrative sense or to characters with a recognizable psychology, but if I have a complaint about a lot of current writing—at least, current American fiction—it’s that in both plotting and evocation of inner life, stories can become schematic: they can seem to suppose a clear causal path from plot point A to plot point B, from initial characterization through challenge through epiphany and change that, even when a character errs terribly, makes a kind of deep, logical sense. But who makes deep, logical sense? What I like about the old stories, slender though they can seem, is that they permit a senselessness to their lives, an unmooredness that seems to me to resemble, perhaps only accidentally, the incomprehensibly real lives we lead.

Jacob Bacharach is the author of The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates and The Bend of the World. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Ha'aretz, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and many others.

Related Content:

How to Tell Good Christian Ladies the Bible Is Weird

Monday, March 13, 2017 | Permalink

Jacob Bacharach’s second novel sets the story of the biblical Patriarchs and their families in the rust-belt river valleys of western Pennsylvania. With the release of The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates this Tuesday, Jacob is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Several months after my first novel came out, I made one of the braver decisions of my life and went with my mother to talk about it at her book club. That novel, The Bend of the World, was about aliens, conspiracies, drugs, corporations, and the persistent inability of young men, even as they neared and entered their thirties, to grow up. It was—as its author remains—pretty deeply skeptical that there was even such a thing as growing up. It was full of gay people calling each other “fag,” drunken benders, and a really silly, irresponsible amount of profanity. It was, in other words, an awfully weird book for your mother’s book club.

I’d know many of the women in the group since I was a boy. We’d moved to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a small town a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of Pittsburgh, when I was in sixth grade, and my parents still lived there at the time. To be back as an adult trying to promote a novel in which flying saucers may be real, fat drug dealers cavort in weird woodland orgies, the best advice comes from a sasquatch, and at least one person commits, or appears to commit suicide, was easily as surreal as the actual contents of the story. Nevertheless, most debut novelist—most novelists, period—are never reviewed in the Sunday New York Times or interviewed on Fresh Air or sent on book tours or lauded with award season praise. You desperately hope to move a few copies of the hardcover, and if your mom’s friends mean ten or twelve sales, then you’d better show up at meeting and sing for your supper.

I don’t suspect that most of them made it all the way through, but it was more fun and less painful than I imagined. There is a certain attitude shared by both the cool literati and the Very Serious Writers gang that ladies’ book clubs are a middlebrow anachronism that only ever want to read historical drams, fizzy divorce stories, and biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, but it seems to me very close to miraculous that, regardless of tastes, in a society in which even refrigerators have screens and the last hotel I stayed in had a ghostly television hidden away behind the bathroom mirror, ready to bombard you with HBO while you shaved, there remain popular groups of people who not only buy books and read books but gather every few weeks to talk seriously about books. The women, even the ones who gave up on my book after the hundredth “fuck,” were interested, inquisitive, and generous in their questions. They were a hundred times more engaged than any audience of English majors at any college reading I ever gave.

The conversation drifted around to the question of what, if anything, I was working on next. I had just begun to sketch out a new project, what would eventually become my next and forthcoming novel, The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates. It didn’t yet have a title, but I knew vaguely that it, like my first novel, would be set in Western Pennsylvania, and I knew that it would somehow parallel or reference the Abraham narratives in Genesis.

Among the women in the book club were a couple of very devout Catholics and at least one devoted Evangelical. I, of course, am Jewish, though far, far away from anything anyone might call believing. I suspect the subject took them a little bit aback, and someone asked me why this, in particular, was of any interest to me. I thought about it, and then I said that I’d been rereading stories from Tanakh—I was fascinated by the very ancient origins of the stories in Genesis and Job—and that what struck me, what interested me, was how thoroughly we misremembered them, how the popular recounting of the stories of Creation and the antediluvian world and the stories of the Patriarchs had flattened them into coherent tales that satisfied quite modern ideas about the shape, texture, and structure of narratives, but that how, when you returned to the original texts (well, the original texts in translation; my Hebrew is, shall we say, less than spotty), what you found was an extraordinary strangeness. The stories are odd, discursive, sometimes highly poetic, often repetitive, sometimes rather shambolic. They self-contradict. There is no psychology. You feel lost in their depths; contradictorily, you feel unable to break the surface. They are, in a word, fascinatingly alien.

Maybe I shouldn’t have used that particular word, given the literal topic of the book that I’d just written and they’d just read; I could see how it sounded, to a certain ear, a little bit like an insult. But it struck me then, as it strikes me now, the closest word to expressing the distance between ourselves and some of our oldest stories, and it seems important to be able to describe why their alienness is so addictive to me.

Jacob Bacharach is the author of The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates and The Bend of the World. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Ha'aretz, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and many others.

Related Content: