The Long Corner

By – May 16, 2022

Solomon Fields is a man divid­ed: he has an artis­tic soul nur­tured by his free-spir­it­ed grand­moth­er that once brought him into the world of art jour­nal­ism, but also a prag­mat­ic brain cul­ti­vat­ed by his Marx­ist-turned-neo­con moth­er, which lat­er land­ed him in the super­fi­cial, yet finan­cial­ly reward­ing, world of New York adver­tis­ing. When a mys­te­ri­ous woman approach­es him with an ambigu­ous writ­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty that might rekin­dle his artis­tic lean­ings, he resists at first. But as his life becomes less sat­is­fy­ing, he agrees to vis­it The Cod­ed Gar­den, a sort of artists’ colony over­seen by a wealthy svengali.

The Cod­ed Gar­den is filled with lush green­ery and self-described artists spout­ing feel-good plat­i­tudes in their gat­ed island par­adise. But is it a peace­ful ashram or a malev­o­lent cult? While it’s imme­di­ate­ly clear that there’s some­thing less-than-whole­some going on at The Cod­ed Gar­den, Mak­sik, to his cred­it, keeps read­ers guess­ing exact­ly what that is: it could be any­thing from an extrav­a­gant sum­mer camp to the Island of Dr. More­au; there are moments when it could eas­i­ly turn into Jon­estown, or The Blair Witch Project, or Fan­ta­sy Island, or sim­ply a kib­butz. This ambi­gu­i­ty makes the nar­ra­tive par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling; it’s a hard book to put down.

Dual­i­ties abound in The Long Cor­ner, and it’s fre­quent­ly unclear which extremes are good and which are bad: ambi­tion or con­tent­ment? Cru­el hon­esty or bland kind­ness? The snarky cyn­i­cism of the New York art world, or the humor­less earnest­ness of the Gar­den? Dual­i­ties also lurk in Solomon’s life even when he’s not on the island — right down to the twin inspi­ra­tions for his name: King Solomon and Ger­man-Jew­ish artist Char­lotte Salomon. The very ques­tion of what it means for Solomon to be Jew­ish is a debate between two oppos­ing posi­tions: his moth­er says they’re sec­u­lar Jews,” while his father calls them his­tor­i­cal Jews.” Jews are a race, or maybe they aren’t. Jews are white, or maybe they aren’t. It’s a ques­tion of her­itage, or maybe it’s mere­ly a dis­po­si­tion, as his father says: That you even want to know what makes you a Jew makes you a Jew.”

Ulti­mate­ly, it’s the dual­i­ty with­in Solomon that mat­ters most. Even as Sebas­t­ian Light, the enig­mat­ic, pseu­do­ny­mous cre­ator of The Cod­ed Gar­den — a hand­some man, a ready­made guru” — refus­es to answer the most basic ques­tions about his own life, he chal­lenges Solomon to define him­self. Is he part of the artis­tic world, or part of its shad­owy neme­sis, as Light sees it: New York­ers. The media. The elites. The elect few mak­ing deci­sions about who gets atten­tion, what is and is not qual­i­ty, what is beau­ty and what is not.” In the end, fig­ur­ing out his own posi­tion is Solomon’s only way off this island — metaphor­i­cal­ly and literally.

Wayne Hoff­man is a vet­er­an jour­nal­ist, pub­lished in The New York Times, Wall Street Jour­nalWash­ing­ton Post, Hadas­sah Mag­a­zineThe For­wardOutThe Advo­cate, and else­where; he is exec­u­tive edi­tor of the online Jew­ish mag­a­zine Tablet. The author of The End of Her: Rac­ing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Mur­der, he has also pub­lished three nov­els, includ­ing Sweet Like Sug­ar, which won the Amer­i­can Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award. He lives in New York City and the Catskills.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Alexan­der Maksik

1. The Long Cor­ner explores the ten­sions between plea­sure and duty, true and false art, orig­i­nal­i­ty, and obe­di­ence. It is a book about the many facets of ambi­tion, grief, and imag­i­na­tion, and it tells the sto­ry of one man’s strug­gle to sur­vive his increas­ing­ly frac­tured coun­try. Besides main char­ac­ters, Sol and Sebastien, The Long Cor­ner has a large cast of vivid sec­ondary char­ac­ters — Lina, Char­lotte, Plume, Sid­dhartha, Ernst Frankel to name some of them. Which of these char­ac­ters have remained with you most vivid­ly? Which of them evolve most over the course of Sol’s time at The Cod­ed Garden?

2. What does The Long Cor­ner say most force­ful­ly about the role of art in soci­ety and in the for­ma­tion of a sin­gle individual’s per­son­al­i­ty? What does it say about the forces at work that inhib­it artis­tic pro­duc­tion? What role does art play in your life? Do you agree with Lina’s phi­los­o­phy that a life is worth liv­ing to the degree that one’s life is lived in the prox­im­i­ty to art and artists?

3. What oth­er nov­el have you read that take a work of art or artis­tic pro­duc­tion as a major motif? How do they dif­fer, in terms of their vision of art and beau­ty, from the vision of art expressed in The Long Cor­ner?

4. Do you think that The Long Cor­ner presents an accu­rate pic­ture of Amer­i­ca today, or of New York in the years of the Trump pres­i­den­cy? What does it get right? Where does it not reflect your expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­ca in recent years?

5. The Long Cor­ner is not only a book about art and Amer­i­ca today, but also a book about lan­guage, among oth­er things. What does it say about lan­guage and its corruption?

6. Why do you think Char­lotte turns out so dif­fer­ent from her moth­er? Is her embrace of cer­tain ideas, of a spe­cif­ic kind of rigid­i­ty and rig­or, a reac­tion against her moth­er? Or is it some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent? Are there peo­ple in your life who have embraced a way of being in the world that is dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to the way they lived their lives when they were younger? What pro­voked those changes, if it is some­thing spe­cif­ic and identifiable?

7. How would you char­ac­ter­ize Sebastien Light? Does he remind you of any real-life peo­ple? What explains the endur­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty and suc­cess of fig­ures like Light?

8. A review in Pub­lish­ers Week­ly described this book as a scathing satire.” Do you agree that this is a satir­i­cal nov­el? How does satire (as opposed to pure com­e­dy, sar­casm, mock­ery, ridicule, etc.) work and how does it work, if it does, in this novel?

9. Why do you think Sol resist Light so adamant­ly and for so long?

10. How do you explain Light’s final dra­mat­ic gesture?

11. In this New York Times review, Will Stephen­son wrote that “[in the end, Sol seems to under­stand] that his writ­ing can become deep­ened by expe­ri­ence, rather than cheap­ened by it.” How do we ensure that our expe­ri­ence of this imper­fect and often trag­ic world deep­en our sense of self, our sen­si­bil­i­ties, and our work rather than anni­hi­late or dimin­ish us? How does The Long Cor­ner answer these questions?

12. How does Sol’s Jew­ish­ness play out in this nov­el? In what ways does anti­semitism influ­ence Sol’s expe­ri­ence in The Cod­ed Gar­den? Is Sebas­t­ian Light an antisemite?