From the cov­er of The Like­ly World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

When I was in col­lege, my aunt and uncle kept an open door for Shab­bat. Three blocks away from my dorm, on Fri­day nights, I had a stand­ing invi­ta­tion to rau­cous, spir­it­ed con­ver­sa­tion at a table laden with apri­cot chick­en thighs and warm chal­lah. As they will not let me for­get — thir­ty years lat­er — I rarely came.

When I did show up, it was because I had a new romance. My taste in boyfriends was noto­ri­ous­ly ter­ri­ble. Many peo­ple feel their young rel­a­tives could do bet­ter, of course, but I had a spe­cial tal­ent — crim­i­nal records, no fixed address, drug habits. I would appear wear­ing too much eye­lin­er and drag­ging my lat­est stray, as if seek­ing approval. The only one who ever received any­thing like the third degree was the one I married.

I was in what Her­man Wouk, in his 1955 sen­ti­men­tal clas­sic Mar­jorie Morn­ingstar, calls a black woods.” On one side of these woods is a roman­tic fan­ta­sy. In Marjorie’s day, this took the form of a top-flight Jew­ish wed­ding; in mine, it had become more amor­phous. I want­ed love, but I didn’t have a very good idea of what that might look like. Des­per­ate peo­ple seemed to need me, and that felt close enough. On some lev­el, I knew bet­ter — I brought my unsuit­able part­ners to Shab­bat not for approval, but for some­thing else it took me years to find, some­thing I would even­tu­al­ly call wisdom.

____

Wouk’s nov­el fal­ters in the glare of 2020. It plays Yid­dish and Chi­nese accents for laughs. Three entire chap­ters tran­spire in Mex­i­can brown­face, and it can­not imag­ine a future for its ambi­tious hero­ine beyond tragedy. In one respect, how­ev­er, it is ahead of its time: it artic­u­lates the inten­si­ty of young women’s desire. After neck­ing ses­sions with her bacon-gob­bling para­mour, Noël Air­man, Mar­jorie Morn­ingstar, raised by devout immi­grant par­ents, is com­plete­ly with­out resources to com­pre­hend her feelings:

She would wake as though out of hypnosis…with almost no mem­o­ry of what had been hap­pen­ing to her, but with a sense of shame and a black ter­ror at this utter loss of self…it was like insanity.”

This is what exists on the oth­er side of Wouk’s black woods, why the girl is so lost on her way to that bridal fairy­tale. Erot­ic feel­ings can be like altered states, a dizzi­ness inside of which ratio­nal deci­sions feel impos­si­ble. This is for adults; for young peo­ple, they can be far more bewil­der­ing. With rare excep­tions, we refuse even to admit girls have them.

In the nov­el I wrote about this time and theme in my own life, The Like­ly World, the nar­ra­tor Mel­lie is no bet­ter equipped than Mar­jorie was to nav­i­gate between her roman­tic day­dreams and the new sen­sa­tions from her body. Adults in Mellie’s day are bet­ter at talk­ing about con­sent, but, Mel­lie says, Also harm is done by not talk­ing about the oth­er, the impuls­es that come from our­selves, from the things we invite…I felt it and did not even know what it was, did not know how to call it desire…That was how desire got pow­er over me, by being unacknowledged.”

I hadn’t read Mar­jorie Morn­ingstar before I wrote The Like­ly World, but the themes the nov­els share make me feel as if I tapped into a larg­er nar­ra­tive. Like Mar­jorie, Mel­lie falls in love at a Jew­ish sum­mer camp with a charis­mat­ic and stunt­ed artist. Old­er, wis­er, bet­ter guid­ed — these young women might have moved on, but with­out a frame­work both girls remain in the grip of these dam­ag­ing affairs long past their nat­ur­al sea­son. The heart­break that fol­lows — Wouk sug­gests, and I believe — is in part the result of the altered state of ado­les­cent arousal.

Old­er, wis­er, bet­ter guid­ed — these young women might have moved on, but with­out a frame­work both girls remain in the grip of these dam­ag­ing affairs long past their nat­ur­al season.

One great dif­fer­ence between my nov­el and Wouk’s is that evoke this state through the device of a lit­er­al drug; the drug, called cloud in my nov­el, is fic­ti­tious, but it might eas­i­ly be a man­i­fes­ta­tion of Wouk’s black woods. It is in moments of sex­u­al bewil­der­ment that Mel­lie reach­es for this sub­stance, which induces short-term mem­o­ry loss quite akin to Marjorie’s Utter loss of self” — Mel­lie for­gets what has hap­pened, but the dam­age remains.. She tells us, It is me I’ve put through this night, even if the cloud allows me to deny it.”

Anoth­er respect in which The Like­ly World dif­fers from Mar­jorie Morn­ingstar is that it includes the voice of an old­er nar­ra­tor strain­ing towards a bet­ter life. This is the Mar­jorie we nev­er get to hear. Although we encounter her when she is old and gray, we do so through the eyes of a for­mer admir­er to whom she is now but A shell” of her­self. It’s not easy to imag­ine the jour­ney from the black woods to mature wom­an­hood, but I felt that it was impor­tant to see how girls might reach it and by what means in my novel.

In the black woods, Noël Air­man tells Mar­jorie she is alone. She Can find no guid­ance any­where. Her par­ents pre­tend she has no prob­lem. Reli­gion gives her milk­sop­py advice…” Noël is right that advice is use­less — what is want­ed is some­thing more expan­sive, more pow­er­ful, which we might call wisdom.

It exists in the mar­gins of Wouk’s sto­ry, but for Mar­jorie it is unreach­able. Wis­dom is embod­ied in Uncle Sam­son-Aron who rec­og­nizes his niece’s com­ing of age with­out being judg­men­tal about her dal­liances. Wouk also evokes wis­dom in the beau­ty of his Passover and Bar Mitz­vah scenes. Mar­jorie expe­ri­ences a stab of jeal­ousy at the lat­ter. Bnai Mitz­vah, in her day, aren’t for girls. These ele­ments point us to what is miss­ing to help Mar­jorie reach a healthy adulthood.

____

I’m a col­lege pro­fes­sor now, and I talk about it with my stu­dents: the dearth of wis­dom in our world. We read Wal­ter Ben­jamin, who laments the loss of sto­ry­telling as a means of pass­ing mean­ing from one human to the next, which has been sup­plant­ed by infor­ma­tion.” I ask my stu­dents to con­sid­er where they find wis­dom, but I don’t tell them exact­ly what I mean by that. Instead, I teach them how to read.

I ask my stu­dents to con­sid­er where they find wis­dom, but I don’t tell them exact­ly what I mean by that. Instead, I teach them how to read.

Wis­dom is all around us, but it is clut­tered by noise. It’s like my aunt and uncle’s Shab­bat din­ners when I was in col­lege — close by, but still improb­a­bly hard for me to reach. In The Like­ly World, it is present in the form of many unper­ceived sto­ries, wait­ing for us to listen.

Towards the end of The Like­ly World, the old­er Mel­lie emerges at last from her depen­dence on cloud. At this moment, she is in a recov­ery meet­ing, and a rab­bi stands to speak. In our faith, we believe there are thir­ty-six Tsad­dikim Nistarim. These are hid­den peo­ple, right­eous peo­ple who appear at crit­i­cal moments, and save the rest of us idiots from our­selves,” she says. I believe I must have met each and every one of them to make it here today.”

____

I took a long time to come to Judaism. But slow­ly, by many hands, I found my way to a reli­gious prac­tice that is mean­ing­ful to me. The first time, as an adult, that I sat in a tem­ple I belonged to and heard our beloved rab­bi chant the sh’ma, I wept. That day, I arrived at a first glimpse of what G‑d might be for; you could bring G‑d the prob­lems you could not solve with human will — you came to him in your black woods. Like most insights, it was obvi­ous, but it took years for me to absorb it.

My daugh­ter is prepar­ing for her bat mitz­vah, in a world where her com­mu­ni­ty now vis­its through a screen. She faces a host of new prob­lems nav­i­gat­ing her ascen­sion to adult­hood, many of them arriv­ing through that device. I don’t have much more in the way of answers than Wouk offered Mar­jorie, but my daugh­ter, like my stu­dents, is learn­ing how to read. The same uncle who host­ed my occa­sion­al vis­its long ago will work with her on her Torah por­tion, help her artic­u­late its wis­dom. I can­not make those hands reach for my daugh­ter, but I have raised her to look for them. When she stands before us, next May, we will also lis­ten to her.

Melanie Con­roy-Gold­man is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges where she was a found­ing direc­tor of the Trias Res­i­den­cy for Writ­ers, which has host­ed such nota­bles as Mary Gait­skill, Lidia Yuk­nav­itch, and Jeff Van­der­Meer. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in jour­nals such as South­ern Review and Sto­ryQuar­ter­ly, in antholo­gies from Mor­row and St. Martin’s, and online at venues such as McSweeney’s. She also vol­un­teers at a max­i­mum secu­ri­ty men’s prison with the Cor­nell Prison Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram. Her work is rep­re­sent­ed by Bill Clegg at the Clegg Agency. She lives in Itha­ca, New York with her hus­band, daugh­ter, and step-daughters.