Monday, August 13, 2007

The Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel

So here's the thing about Matthue Roth. (I have written previously about this author, and his book, "Never Mind the Goldbergs," here.) I have several issues with his writing, and they bother me for a very good reason; and that reason is, I think he might be the guy to write The Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel. This is something my friend and I have been discussing for quite some time - that someone needs to write the Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel - a novel about the American Orthodox culture that is honest without speaking loshon hora; that is all inclusive and brings in tiny little corners and basement groups of the community that people ignore; that is creative and truthful and beautiful without being sappy and moral-driven. Something that is truly a work of art, and can therefore accomplish things the way only only real art can. We've been talking about which one of us should attempt it and from what angle, and if the world is truly ready for something like it, since high-school.

And then I discovered Matthue Roth and became supremely jealous because I think he'll get there first.

I have two main issues with Roth's work as a novelist:
1)Inconsistencies and inaccuracies; generally details about the frum community that are mis-portrayed or insufficiently described.
2) A sometimes sloppy writing style, which has the tendency to drop in little details or concepts that are muddled and confused to begin with, and which are then never picked up again or explained in any way.

And it's a shame, because if not for these two things, Matthue Roth's work could be that tremendous testimony to Jewish Orthodox life, with all it's nit-picky faults and glorious sub-culture detail, that we've been waiting for.

As a BT, Roth hasn't grown up in the Orthodox community. Which is fine when, for example, in his autobiographical "Yom Kippur A Go-Go," he's describing his experiences in the orthodox community as a BT. It's a little less fine when, as in his novel "Never Mind the Goldbergs," he's trying to describe life inside the OJ community as a teenager. There are a million little inaccuracies in "Goldbergs" that frustrated me, speaking as a girl who did grow up inside the OJ community and can relate to Hava and the struggles she experiences.
And the funny thing was, I related to Hava's struggles as a Jew in a non-Jewish world much more than I did with her struggles as a slightly different Jew within the OJ community. I already ranted about my frustrations with this novel in the post I linked to above, so I won't re-hash that. But.

Roth is very very good at depicting the periphery personalities of the Jewish community. A lot of his characters remind me of people I know. Which, first of all, is exactly what good art is supposed to do; and secondly, makes sense, because that's what he knows. What he's not as strong at is portraying the OJ community from the inside. This would prevent him from being able to write a full-length feature on the OJ community, complete with the wide angle shots and all the tiny little shades, crevices, and details.

There are also the little stylistic issues in his writing; tiny things he sort of drops and then never picks up again, artistic allusions that are never really explained or understood. But that's an editing thing, a matter of cleaning up the prose a little.

But I am a huge fan of his writing. Similar to other authors that I am a fan of (Zoe Trope, Dave Eggers,) Roth's lyrical, honest, rythmic descriptions manage to hit home no matter how much of his work you may or may not identify with. His writing, like Trope's and Eggers', makes me want to live more, write more, be more, as a person with a world at my fingertips to take advantage of. And, of course, makes me want to write the way they do. There are many reasons why I may not be able to write the Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel, and why it should be Roth. And this is why the little things that bother me about his work do bother me.

Because I don't expect that kind of thing from authors like Tova Mirvis, and Naomi Regan, and Libby Lazewnik, or any other author who writes about the OJ community. While they are all, to greater and lesser degrees, talented authors, they're still not going to get it, because they focus on pieces and not on the whole. Or because they don't know the bits of the Jewish community that need writing about. They're too cynical, or not cynical enough. Roth strikes that balance, and he does know that world. And because he has the potential to write that novel, I really wish he would. But he has to bone up a bit on his facts and clean up his inconsistencies. If he would, I truly believe he has that potential the way no Orthodox author of our day does.

17 Comments:

Blogger Tobie said...

I did love Yom Kippur a Go-go (well, except for the self-indulgent bits), but I felt like Matthue Roth is never going to be the typical Modern Orthodox Jew- his experiences and his personality are so strong, so distinct, so out there that every novel will be his story, in a way, and the story of his community. Which is great. he's an awesome dude. His take on Orthodoxy was tough and unapologetic and cool. But (without having read his books) I don't know if I can see him pulling off a more comprehensive picture- all the characters in the autobiography were believable and engaging and often eerily familiar, but they weren't 99.9% of the Modern Orthodox Jews that you're going to meet. So I think there's still a lot for the Great Orthodox Novelist to accomplish.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Modern Orthodox? Why limit yourself so my darling? While yes neither of us is exactly chassidish, we still have quite a bit of experience in the chareidi community. Actually, I have more experience in the chareidi community than the MO community...

My essential point here was that the Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel would have to include the periphery community, and that's what Roth is so good at capturing. In my humble opinion.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

Miri, lubavitch is many things, but not cheredi.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

HNC-
I would beg to differ. Do you really want to turn this into a violent game of semantic categorization? Because frankly, I'm game if you are...;)

4:28 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

having been fairly beaten once today i'm not going to contest you're objection.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

I am not cheredi. Never, cheredim are absolutely crazy.

Although maybe there is a difference between the lubavitchers who live in places like chicago and crown heights, and the lubavitchers that go out on shlichus, who generaly tend to be alot more chilled out. At least the shluchim the rebbe sent out are. (and so are their kids. You can ALWAYS Tell the rebbe's shluchim's kids from the local kids at crown heights yeshivos. The rebbe's shluchim's kids are generaly sane.)

(I am not anxious to have my clock cleaned a second time today, you did a fine enough job of it on my blog.)

6:23 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

So look, I don't know how you're defining chareidi. but the fact of the matter is that yes, there is a tremendous difference between Chabbadnikim who are out on shlichut and those who grow up in a large communities. The large communities tend to be fairly high-pressure places, in terms of standards and expectations. I would say that they probably are a lot less chilled out than the shlichut people.

1:11 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

fine, now I'm game.

I'll debate it on two conditions:

A we do this bseder, first defining cheredi, then examining lubavitch

B we do this based on ideology and hashkafa, not actual practice.

If so, I'm game ;-)

5:21 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

A) chareidi- any group of ultra-orthodox Jews, who adhere to standards and chumras that are higher/stricter than what the majority of Orthodox Jews hold. (Frequently but not always identifiable by the dressing in black and hats or shtreimels.)

Lubavitch falls into this category with it's extra-strict kashrut rules (paskes and leibers, cholov yisrael, glatt meat, 212 pizza, etc), the stringencies they go to when preparing for Pesach (needing to grind everything from scratch etc) not to mention the other standards of observance they expect from your typical layman, such as csaying chittas every day in addition to the regular daily learning and davening. Oh, and the strict adherence to the no-trimming the beard rule. Things like that.

PLus, of course, they wear the black hats, and the kappata, on Shabbos. ;)

8:28 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

Miri, see my blog. I've got a rather larger list of requirements for someone to be cheredi.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Nemo said...

Lubavitch is so un-Chareidi. I don't even know where to begin...

Definitely don't buy into the whole Charedi political system. No time to really elaborate.

Also, to the chagrin of many Lubav Rosh Yeshivas, it's impossible to lump all Lubavitchers into a singular personality, mode of dress, etc. While there may be many idiosyncrasies which exist almost universally- the lack of which might make one's Lubavitch status questionable- nonetheless there is no "quintessential" Lubavitch character model which, for better or for worse, primarily makes up the "Charedi" world.
---
BTW, how did your blog become a discussion about Lubavitch, especially on a post which had little to do with it?? I did want to comment on the actual post, but now I've lost my train of thought.

{Sorry I've been quiet... actually been accomplishing something with my life recently}.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

"
{Sorry I've been quiet... actually been accomplishing something with my life recently}."

Sorry, I mean, sorry I've been so quiet RECENTLY...

9:40 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Hey Nemo -
Did you finally get a job? Mazal tov! That's really exciting for you.

I'm not really sure, iit just sort of always turns in that direction. Possibly because you and Yoni are my main commenters at the moment. This one was about Matthue Roth...oh, we were mentioning our experiences in the frum community, that's how. BTW, Yoni assumed that when I was talking about my chareidi experience, that I was only referring to Lubavitch. But let's not forget I did spend four years in Bais Yaakov high school...(that was really more the experience I was referring to originally, since Tobie and I attended the same high school, and her elementary school was MO.)

4:58 AM  
Blogger Nemo said...

"let's not forget I did spend four years in Bais Yaakov high school"

Sheesh... How could I forget if I never knew?

4:01 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

I can never remember which of my readers have read how much of my blog...I posted about it somewhere, but it may have been before your time. Meanwhile, the whole thing together has become such a huge part of who I am that I forget not everyone knows everything about me. mayhap I can find it and link it...

4:09 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

http://spoonicus19.blogspot.com/2006/11/so-truth-is.html

4:12 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

seem to have lost the hang of this somehow...anyway, it's entitled "So The Truth Is," I don't know if you want to bother finding it.

4:16 AM  

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