Fic­tion

The Golem and the Jin­ni: A Novel

By – March 7, 2013

It’s going to be hard not to com­pare Helene Wecker’s first nov­el, The Golem and the Jin­ni, to the fan­tas­ti­cal (and fan­tas­tic) book Jonathan Strange & Mr. Nor­rell. Both are rare finds in the con­tem­po­rary book world: ele­gant, anachro­nis­tic sto­ries of mag­ic and mir­a­cles in a his­tor­i­cal-fic­tion world more accept­ing of it than our own, set against a lush nar­ra­tive voice that’s equal­ly as mag­i­cal as its characters.

The book starts with the birth of one of its char­ac­ters and the rebirth of the oth­er. In a Euro­pean shtetl, a young man pays an old rab­bi to cre­ate a bride for him — a female golem who will do what­ev­er he says. En route to their new life in Amer­i­ca, the young man falls sick and dies, and the golem finds her­self launched into a world she bare­ly under­stands. As a golem, she’s sup­posed to ful­fill the wish­es of her mas­ter — but with­out a mas­ter, she’s con­fused and direc­tion­less, and try­ing to cope with her arrival in turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry New York City. Across town, a Syr­i­an tin­smith acci­den­tal­ly frees a jin­ni hun­dreds of years old who’s equal­ly unac­cus­tomed to the cus­toms of the New World, and is equal­ly uncom­fort­able with the demands imposed upon him by his own new master.

Weck­er delights in her own world­build­ing, cre­at­ing mag­i­cal rules and nat­ur­al laws and then twist­ing them, craft­ing a sto­ry that’s equal parts folk­tale, fable, and adven­ture. Like its long-lived pro­tag­o­nists, the book takes a slow-burn approach to its plot. In the wrong hands, it could be tor­tur­ous­ly bor­ing. In Wecker’s, it’s exact­ly the oppo­site, and we find new things to savor on every page.

A Con­ver­sa­tion with Helene Wecker

by Dani Crick­man

Helene Weck­er is the author of the The Golem and the Jin­ni. The debut nov­el fol­lows the con­verg­ing sto­ries of two myth­i­cal crea­tures who must find their place with­in turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry immi­grant New York.

Dani Crick­man: I love the sim­plic­i­ty of the title The Golem and the Jin­ni and how well it encom­pass­es the sto­ry. How did you come up with the title? Were there any oth­ers you considered? 

Helene Weck­er: The title nev­er was any­thing oth­er than that in my mind, from the first twelve pages that I wrote which was back when I was at Colum­bia and it was for a work­shop. I thought it would be a children’s book or a novel­la or some­thing short, and it had that fairy­tale feel to it. It was meant to have a sim­ple title, like those of the sto­ries from The Thou­sand and One Nights.

When it start­ed to become appar­ent that this was going to become a long, more adult book, and it was going to take me a while to write it, I had a num­ber of peo­ple tell me, You’re going to have to change the title before it gets sold. No one knows what a golem is, not as many peo­ple know what a jin­ni is as you think.” There were a cou­ple of times when I start­ed to think of oth­er titles, and I just couldn’t come up with any­thing. Every­thing was too vague or metaphor­i­cal. Lat­er on, my edi­tor, my agent, and I were all work­ing on titles, and we still couldn’t come up with any­thing. For some rea­son, this book was just com­plete­ly resis­tant to any oth­er title. So that was what we end­ed up going with. It’s a conun­drum we resolved by not doing any­thing about it in the end.

DC: The golem and the jin­ni have believ­able per­son­al­i­ties that are both admirable and flawed, as well as oppo­site yet com­pat­i­ble to each other’s. Was it dif­fi­cult to find char­ac­ter­i­za­tions for them that worked? 

HW: Yes, it was. Dur­ing the sev­en years it took me to write the book, it went through a num­ber of iter­a­tions, and the char­ac­ters them­selves went through a num­ber of iter­a­tions. Espe­cial­ly the golem. At first she was very much more like an automa­ton. She had her own free will, but she had much less insight into oth­er peo­ple. Her abil­i­ty to hear oth­er people’s desires and fears was added in three or four years after I start­ed writ­ing the book, because it was clear that she did not have enough agency. She did not inter­act very well with oth­er char­ac­ters because she didn’t under­stand them well enough, and because of that she wasn’t as inter­est­ing a char­ac­ter her­self. It was like watch­ing a robot move around and have to learn about peo­ple, which could be an inter­est­ing sto­ry, but it wasn’t enough. Not for this.

The jin­ni was also hard to pin down because I want­ed him to be ar­rogant and mer­cu­r­ial with­out being a total jerk. I want­ed him to still be some­one a read­er could relate to or be inter­est­ed in. With him, it was find­ing that bal­anc­ing point. He was fun to write, in that it’s some­times fun to write the bad boy, but I didn’t want to go to nuts with that.

They both took some fine-tun­ing, and it helped to think of them in rela­tion to each oth­er. They weren’t cre­at­ed in a vac­u­um. I was think­ing, How am I going to get them to spark off each oth­er? What about the one is real­ly going to piss off the other?

DC: You said the book took sev­en years to write. Was that because an exten­sive research went into it? 

HW: I did a lot of research. The first few years, it was fifty-fifty research and writ­ing. There were so many top­ics to research. I knew some­thing about the Low­er East Side Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty fabled in song and sto­ry and movie; a lot of that I’d received from being part of Jew­ish cul­ture. But I knew almost noth­ing about the Syr­i­ans who were liv­ing in New York at that time, and it wasn’t until I start­ed to do the research that I real­ized that they were for the most part Arab Chris­tians, they weren’t Mus­lims. That was a sur­prise. Then I had to research Maronite Catholics and Ortho­dox Chris­tians from what is now Lebanon. My head start­ed swim­ming try­ing to deal with all this and learn about it. In the flash­backs, there’s Bedouin cul­ture, and that was some­thing else I had to look up.

I read so many books. I read Call It Sleep by Hen­ry Roth, which was writ­ten in the 1930s about a Jew­ish boy grow­ing up in the 1890s, and got a lot of details from that. I trolled through The New York Timess online archives and the New York Pub­lic Library’s online pho­to archives. The fact that all of that infor­ma­tion is online right now…I don’t know if I could have writ­ten this book ten years ago.

At one point, I wrote a back­sto­ry for the jin­ni that got com­plete­ly out of con­trol. It became this whole extend­ed thing where he dis­guised him­self as human and rode with a car­a­van for weeks. I real­ized this tan­gent had tak­en on a life of its own and I had to cut it back. I’d lost two weeks of writ­ing and forty pages. If I had known then how much I was going to write and cut! I think about that and laugh. This book was, at one point, sev­en hun­dred and some pages long. I tossed every­thing in there. There were mag­i­cal amulets, there were mag­i­cal books, there were three or four oth­er main char­ac­ters that got con­densed down into one per­son. It was like this spec­tac­u­lar sea crea­ture that just kept grow­ing and grow­ing. It took my agent and lat­er my edi­tor to say, You could do a lot more with less here,” and they were absolute­ly right.

DC: What was the most dif­fi­cult thing for you to let go of as you cut the sto­ry down? 

HW: There was one scene in par­tic­u­lar to­ward the end that I had always had in my mind, an impor­tant moment for Arbeely. The cop­per flask that the jin­ni was in had been destroyed and Arbeely had to cre­ate anoth­er him­self out of tin­plate and put in the seal that would keep some­one inside it. He was doing some­thing he wasn’t even sure he believed would work, it was going to be very dan­ger­ous, and he’d have to give all his ener­gy to it. It was going to be this great moment for him, the culmina­tion of every­thing he’d gone through in the book, but it end­ed up get­ting com­plete­ly cut out.

DC: When I picked up the nov­el, I expect­ed it to be focused on Judaism and Islam. I was sur­prised to dis­cov­er that the jin­ni in the nov­el isn’t con­nect­ed to Islam in the same way that the golem is con­nect­ed to Judaism. Rather, he’s more broad­ly con­nected to Arab cul­ture, Bedouin cul­ture, and the Syr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty, which is a mix­ture of Chris­tians and Mus­lims. Was this your first intention?

HW: My very first idea for the book was that it was going to encom­pass about a hun­dred years and it was going to be more of a fable, the sto­ry of these two crea­tures who are both liv­ing in New York, and who check in with each oth­er every once in a while over a hun­dred years. It was going to be a very com­pressed sort of sto­ry telling the evo­lu­tion of the Jew­ish and Arab com­mu­ni­ties of New York from the late 1800s to the turn of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. In my orig­i­nal idea, it was the jin­ni who was going to work at a bak­ery, mak­ing bakla­va for a hun­dred years. But that didn’t sur­vive the first work­shop ses­sion. Every­one said, You’ve got to slow down, the fun is in the details.”

At the same time, I nev­er real­ly thought of the jin­ni as par­tic­u­lar­ly attached per­son­al­ly to a reli­gion, because in my mind he was absent of devo­tion and intro­spec­tion and con­tem­pla­tion — things that are by nature anath­e­ma to him. The reli­gious aspect, the Islam, was going to be drawn out in the sup­port­ing cast. Only lat­er did I real­ize those char­ac­ters would be Chris­tians and not Mus­lims. At the begin­ning, that was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing to me. I was struck by my own igno­rance of the facts, and it meant the sto­ry coudn’t be more of an alle­go­ry of the cur­rent times, of what peo­ple think of Jew­ish and Arab coex­is­tence. I would love to come back to that. If it had been about Judaism and Islam, my main con­cern would have been keep­ing from being preachy and beat­ing peo­ple over the head with what­ev­er I was going to say.

DC: Char­ac­ters in the book dis­cuss the nature of faith and super­sti­tion, and they all offer dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. What is your per­spec­tive? Where do you think the line between the two is? 

HW: In writ­ing this book, I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to play with this for myself and look at all of the dif­fer­ent argu­ments and per­spec­tives. I think the prob­lem is that I agree with all of them. As is com­mon in Re­form Judaism, I grew up with a very strong Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and almost com­plete­ly absent Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. What was empha­sized was the Jew­ish life cycle, Jew­ish his­to­ry, learn­ing Hebrew, get­ting bar and bat mitz­va­hed, the sense of learn­ing to be a Jew in the world, in Amer­i­ca — not any sort of faith or belief in God.

In the book, a char­ac­ter asks, Do you believe in God?” and the per­son who answers says, When so many peo­ple believe, who am I to say oth­er­wise?” I feel that pret­ty strong­ly. I have no author­i­ty to say one thing or the oth­er. I love and respect and embrace the conun­drum of belief and supersti­tion and faith and the fact that at the end of the day none of us real­ly know.

DC: Does your own per­son­al sense of Judaism man­i­fest in this story? 

HW: It does, in the idea of wrestling with ques­tions and being linked to the urge to tell and hear sto­ries. If there is a Jew­ish part of my soul, that is what that is. That is where the book comes from: wrestling with God, wrestling with the ques­tions of life.

DC: Any hints about what read­ers might expect from you in the future? 

HW: I would love to write some­thing set in the years lead­ing up to and dur­ing World War I. I came across a lot of inter­esting mate­r­i­al that was too late for The Golem and the Jin­ni about what was go­ing on in the US from 1913 to 1917. We were being iso­la­tion­ist toward Europe, but at the same time, the machine age was real­ly begin­ning. Changes in soci­ety and how peo­ple relat­ed to each oth­er were tak­ing place. That would be a very inter­est­ing back­drop to set some­thing against.

The uneasy sym­bio­sis between sci­ence and faith is some­thing that also real­ly inter­ests me. There’s this fal­la­cy that peo­ple come to that all sci­en­tists must be athe­ists, which seems sad and unnec­es­sary to me. Some of our great­est sci­en­tists have been great believ­ers in God and found absolute­ly no strife about it in their own heads. I’ve had this char­ac­ter in my head: a bril­liant sci­en­tist who’s a very devout man. I’d like to put him in some­thing, but I don’t know what yet. We’ll see.

Matthue Roth’s newest book is My First Kaf­ka: Rodents, Run­aways, and Giant Bugs, a pic­ture book, which will be released in June 2013. His young-adult nov­el Losers was just made a spe­cial selec­tion of the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion. He lives in Brookyn with his fam­i­ly and keeps a secret diary at www​.matthue​.com.

Discussion Questions

1. Com­pare the Golem and the Jinni’s ori­gins. How are their per­son­al­i­ties reflect­ed in their ori­gins? How are the crea­tures sim­i­lar, and how do those sim­i­lar­i­ties draw them togeth­er? How are they dif­fer­ent? What are their indi­vid­ual strengths — and what makes them weak? How do these influ­ence their choic­es as events unfold? How do the Golem and the Jin­ni make each oth­er bet­ter beings?

2. What are Cha­va and Ahmad like when we first meet them? What about at the end of the sto­ry? How do events impact who they are and what they believe about them­selves and each other?

3. Why do you think Helene Weck­er chose to set the sto­ry in turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry New York? How do the expe­ri­ences of the Golem and the Jin­ni mir­ror those of their fel­low immi­grants? Are their mag­i­cal pow­ers all that set them apart from their human neigh­bors? How might the sto­ry unfold if it were set today? What would Ahmad and Cha­va think about mod­ern Amer­i­ca? Would it be eas­i­er or more dif­fi­cult for them to adapt and blend in to con­tem­po­rary urban society?

4. What do we learn about life — about what it means to be human — from Ahmad and Cha­va? How does each reflect par­tic­u­lar aspects of the human char­ac­ter, both our noble incli­na­tions and our flaws?

5. What is your opin­ion of the char­ac­ters, the Golem and the Jin­ni? What do you like best about each of them? If you could have a mag­i­cal pow­er, what would it be?

6. Describe the Jinni’s rela­tion­ship with the tin­smith who released him, Arbeely. Why does he keep the Jinni’s secret? What about the rela­tion­ship between the Golem and Rab­bi Mey­er? Why doesn’t he destroy her?

7. Numer­ous sec­ondary char­ac­ters are cen­tral to the Golem and the Jinni’s sto­ry: Saleh, Maryam, Anna, Matthew, Sophia, Michael. Choose one or two of them, and show their role in the sto­ry and in the lives of Cha­va and Ahmad. For instance, think about Sophia’s love affair with Ahmad and Michael’s rela­tion­ship to Cha­va. How are these humans trans­formed by their involve­ment with these super­nat­ur­al beings? How is Saleh con­nect­ed to Ahmad? What do we learn about Ahmad from his inter­ac­tions with young Matthew?

8. Ear­ly in the nov­el Rab­bi Mey­er and his nephew, Michael, are hav­ing a philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion about faith, tra­di­tion, and moder­ni­ty. Michael tells him, As long as we keep to our old beliefs, we’ll nev­er find our place in the mod­ern world.” His uncle replies, Of course, this won­der­ful mod­ern world that has rid us of all ills, of pover­ty and cor­rup­tion! What fools we are, not to cast our shack­les aside!” Do you agree with Michael? How can we keep our tra­di­tions and faith while still embrac­ing change? How is this strug­gle reflect­ed in both Cha­va and Ahmad’s characters?

9. What is Yehu­da Schaalman’s role in the sto­ry? What dri­ves him? What lessons can we learn from his expe­ri­ences? What does he want from Cha­va and Ahmad? Towards the end of the nov­el, Cha­va and Ahmad dis­cuss Schaalman’s char­ac­ter and the choic­es he has made. Are we slaves to our natures? Can we change them?

10. What par­al­lels do you see in this sto­ry set a cen­tu­ry ago and our own lives today? What ele­ments make the sto­ry his­tor­i­cal and what makes it mod­ern? What do you think will hap­pen to Cha­va and Ahmad?