Fic­tion

City of Laughter

  • Review
By – February 12, 2024

Temim Fruchter’s com­pelling debut, City of Laugh­ter, fol­lows four gen­er­a­tions of women who are haunt­ed by seem­ing­ly intractable secrets and super­sti­tions. In the present day, grad stu­dent Shi­va is strug­gling with the loss of her father and her mother’s inabil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate. She copes by throw­ing her­self into a research trip to War­saw, search­ing for both her family’s ghosts and the ghost of Yid­dish folk­lorist S. Ansky. Her moth­er, Han­nah, is prone to silences that trace back to her own moth­er, Syl, who placed obses­sive super­sti­tious defens­es against a neb­u­lous super­nat­ur­al threat — a threat that itself orig­i­nates from the haunt­ed birth of Shiva’s great-grand­moth­er, Mira. 

The women’s ances­tral shtetl of Rop­shitz is known as the City of Laugh­ter,” the home­town of a famous bad­chan (wed­ding jester). Yet laugh­ter sig­ni­fies some­thing more com­pli­cat­ed than joy; it sug­gests an emo­tion that can’t be expressed in words, a some­times dan­ger­ous erup­tion that chal­lenges the bound­aries of what peo­ple — women in par­tic­u­lar — are per­mit­ted to feel and con­fess. Laugh­ter is uncon­trol­lable; it push­es bound­aries; it upsets soci­etal expectations. 

Shi­va and Hannah’s par­al­lel jour­neys of self-dis­cov­ery are part Chelm sto­ry, part pos­ses­sion nar­ra­tive, and full of jux­ta­po­si­tions wor­thy of any Tal­mu­dic argu­ment. The dyb­buk motif, bor­rowed from An-sky’s ground­break­ing play, reflects the theme of dou­bling that appears through­out the nar­ra­tive: Der Dibek (The Dyb­buk) is the sto­ry of a wed­ding pre­vent­ed by a funer­al, one that’s haunt­ed by the specter of what might be an unspo­ken queer desire. The secrets and silences that haunt Shi­va, Han­nah, Syl, and Mira blur the lines between life and death — and they do so most clear­ly when Syl’s life ends just as her granddaughter’s begins, leav­ing them almost, but not quite, close enough to touch. 

City of Laugh­ter sug­gests in its qui­et, poet­ic way that a wed­ding might also be a kind of funer­al: the funer­al of an unspo­ken, unspeak­able truth. What is unspo­ken some­times speaks loud­est. It breaks out in wild laugh­ter in the dark­ness, in the joy­ous shriek­ing of a wild beast. In Shiva’s fam­i­ly, queer­ness, the desire of women for oth­er women, is both a dybbuk’s haunt­ing weight and an angel’s unde­liv­ered mes­sage, car­ried through the gen­er­a­tions. Every­thing has been here for longer than you can imag­ine,” the nar­ra­tor remarks, in the midst of a wist­ful glimpse of a past encounter, full of queer poten­tial not yet real­ized. And what has been here is worth search­ing for, uncov­er­ing, and speak­ing about. City of Laugh­ter brings the read­er along on the search — some­times mean­der­ing, some­times rush­ing ahead on the uncer­tain time­line of self-real­iza­tion — to an ulti­mate­ly sat­is­fy­ing resolution. 

Discussion Questions