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Monthly Archives: July 2008

Thoughts on “The Jewish Messiah” by Arnon Grunberg

The Jewish Messiah

This was a thrilling, hysterical, maddening novel, and I’m so glad I read it. It had been on hold from the library, and when it came in two weeks ago, it leapt to the front of my pile of Book Expo books and became my top priority. I’d become interested in Grunberg’s novel after hearing him interviewed on KCRW’s Bookworm and learning of the book’s quirky satirical premise: the eccentric grandson of an S.S. officer takes it upon himself to “comfort the Jews.” He joins forces with a rabbi’s son, who becomes his lover, and winds up the trigger-happy fascist leader of an emboldened Jewish state.

Wonderful. The premise reminded me of a story idea I once had which I liked but never developed. The idea was that the grandson or great-grandson of Adolf Hitler becomes the savior of the world. His name: Lenny Hitler. I figured if your last name was Hitler, you’d sure as hell get a lot of grief growing up, and what if that turned you into the most sensitive, caring, altruistic person ever (with some of that old Hitler charisma thrown in for good measure)? Anyhow, as I said, I never went anywhere with this (very different) idea , but you can see how I found Grunberg’s premise attractive.

So enough about my silly ideas, how was the damn book? As a comedy: brilliant. As a novel: wonderful but deeply flawed. As a subject for analysis: dizzying. The first three-quarters of the novel I loved. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud so much. Xavier Radeck, the protagonist, is a brilliantly quirky, idealistic, and fatalistic hero. It was a joy to watch the bumbling blossoming of his relationship with Awromele, the rabbi’s son, as they set out to translate Mein Kampf into Yiddish and make promises “not to feel anything” as they fall in love. Xavier, who pretends to be Jewish by birth, gets a botched circumcision which causes him to lose a testicle. For the remainder of the novel, he carries this testicle – which he calls King David – with him in a glass jar. When Xavier becomes determined to be a painter, he explores his passion by painting an unending series of portraits of his mother holding the testicle. Later on, many people believe King David to be the Messiah.

Grunberg creates a large cast of richly drawn unusual characters. The following scene, between the autistic rabbi and his put-upon wife was so funny, I had to scan it and include the page here. All you need to know is that the rabbi’s son has gone missing, and he has organized a meeting of the Committee of Vigilant Jews to deal with the problem. Click here to enjoy (you may need to zoom in to read clearly).

Now that’s comedy, folks. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The joys of the book started to fade for me over the last fifty pages, as the story turned from a dark (and often grotesque) comedy into a satire with a capital S. Throughout the book, Xavier spouts philosophy on art, death, life, and suffering. At times, his words are profound (“art is suffering”). Often, though, they seem nonsensical (“suffering is the emergency exit of beauty”). As the book wears on, the latter becomes more true. As Xavier and Awromele land in Tel Aviv and enter the world of Israeli and then global politics, the philosophy takes over and the narrative absurdity is pushed (at least for this reader) to the point of unbelievability. While I give Grunberg credit for not pulling any punches in his race to the climax, there were just a few too many “that wouldn’t really happen” moments for me to accept in those last fifty pages.

Despite my reservations about the ending, I will always choose a brilliant-but-flawed novel over an unproblematic-but-unmemorable one. The Jewish Messiah has its issues, but the riches abound. It is funny, thought-provoking, and positively fearless.

Dr. Blogstein, I presume . . .

Tomorrow night (7/29), I’ll be appearing on Dr. Blogstein’s Radio Happy Hour on Blog Talk Radio to chat about The Scanal Plan and verbally loiter. The show starts at 9pm EST, and I’ll be on around 9:30pm. If you miss this show live, it will be available for a week on the good doctor’s website (www.drblogstein.com), and archived forever at: www.blogtalkradio.com/DrBlogstein.

It should be a fun time.  Tune in.

We Can’t Drive Sixty-Five

We went car shopping this weekend, and encountered a curious and frustrating new phenomenon. At three consecutive dealerships, we were told that test drives could include street driving only.  No highways.

When we balked at this restriction, two out of the three dealerships bent the rules for us, but the third one stood firm.  As I don’t recall having this trouble when we shopped for cars last year, I can only assume this is a new policy, one that is the product of skittish new insurance rules.

I’m not sure what astounds me more: that a car dealership would expect someone to purchase a vehicle they have never driven on the highway, or that customers are ostensibly playing along.  Who in their right mind would buy a car they have never driven over 35 mph?  When we got the final “no” from dealership number three, we told them politely we wouldn’t be wasting any more of their time.  Or purchasing any of their cars.  And we left.

A test drive that never leaves third gear isn’t foreplay.  It’s a tease.

Al for President

Did any of you actually listen to Al Gore’s recent speech on renewable energy? I folded laundry to it today, and let me tell you, it is some powerful stuff (the speech, not my laundry, although my laundry is also powerful). I know that in this soundbite age, it is rare for any of us to listen to a whole speech from start to finish, but I really recommend it in this case. Some highlights:

“We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change…”

“Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses. And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand.”

“When we send money to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day, they build new skyscrapers and we lose jobs. When we spend that money building solar arrays and windmills, we build competitive industries and gain jobs here at home.”

“Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.”

But listen to it yourself. The whole thing. Fold laundry to it. I recommend. Go to www.wecansolveit.org to hear the whole speech. Then sign the petition. And try not to spend too much time wondering how the last eight years might have turned out differently. If only… That way lies madness.

Our Car Crash, or: The Perils Of Attempted Yoga

A week ago Saturday, C and I got into a car accident while trying to drive to a yoga class. This is ironic in that “attempted yoga” ended up being the culprit that led to a week of stress for the two of us.

Totally the other driver’s fault, of course. This unfortunate woman was listening to her navigation system and rolled through a stop sign, unaware that the major avenue she was crossing did not have stop signs. We couldn’t brake in time and hit her passenger side door. Our airbag deployed, burning C’s thumbs, which were on the wheel, but otherwise having no effect. I got a small dose of whiplash which led to a backboard and a stretcher and a dramatic ambulance ride to Santa Monica hospital. Good times were had by all.

I will spare you any overwrought analysis of the car crash, but will make the following observations:

1. Contrary to popular belief, car crashes do not happen in slow motion. They do, however, provoke multiple episodes of instant replay.

2. When airbags explode open, they really explode. As in, there is an explosion. Which involves heat that burns thumbs, and a chemical reaction that has a distinct odor. My first sensory observation after the impact, a split second before the pain kicked in, was a strange burning smell.

3. It’s worse to be the driver. My injuries were perhaps more serious and dramatic than C’s, but her scars (physical and mental) will take longer to heal. After the crash, I felt angry, but that quickly subsided after 20 minutes or so. C felt guilty for a week (even though it was the other driver’s fault). Guilt is worse.

4. I continue to dislike automotive navigation systems. I still believe they cause more problems than they solve, which is why they rank right behind automatic toilets on my list of least favorite man-made contraptions.

5. I really like Vicodin. I mean, seriously, I really do. It’s–what’s the word?–ah yes: delightful. So what if it made me constipated and unproductive for much of the following week. Nobody’s perfect, right?

Now, 10 days later, I’m feeling mostly better from the whiplash, although my back and neck are still knotted up. It looks like C’s car is totaled, so we have some car shopping in our future, which thrills neither of us. We both still flinch more than usual while driving these days. That jumpiness will take a while to subside.

Nobody wants to be in a car crash, but these things happen. You just hope that, when they do, they are small enough that you can walk away, that the event can serve as a wake-up call and not a goodnight.

So here we are, wide awake, thankful, over-worked, and in need of a good stretch.