Morals to Make You Feel Good

Over the past couple of weeks, I read two books in parallel. And the two books paralleled each other in surprising ways. Both were novels. Both were novels with weak storylines. Both storylines were weak because they existed mainly to hide the fact that each chapter was, in fact, a short story. This is where the similarities end.

One of the books was terrible, with each chapter more tedious and odious than the last. The other was wonderful, with each chapter giving me hope for humanity. One has over 1000 reviews and seems to be doing just fine on Amazon. One is unheard of, had only one review on Amazon, and appears to be out of print. One won the Pulitzer. The other did not. One made me question just how the Pulitzer is awarded if it can be awarded to such drivel. The other made me wonder if talented writers should just give up hope of ever appealing to the general public.

That first, the Pulitzer-prize winning book, was A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I do not recommend it. The second is Minyan by Alan Gold, and I can’t recommend it enough. (Aside from the part where it might not be available.)

Give This Book a 10! (which is funny if you know what minyan means)

I want to start with Gold’s book because I think it’s incredibly important in today’s world. It’s the story of a Rabbi whose Friday night shul is about to drop below the minimum required attendance, known as the minyan (it’s not a misspelling of minion). In order to draw a bigger crowd, he changes the Friday-night playbook, and instead of reciting pious sermons to his congregation, he tells a story. It’s the story of a shipwreck, a prostitute, and a pot of honey. I won’t go into details, but you can see how such a story might grab the room’s attention. Then, the following week – and the following chapter – a member of his congregation tells a story. As word spreads of the new Friday night entertainment, the congregation grows, and so it goes for 11 weeks. There’s a little strife amongst his congregation about stories told by women or stories that don’t have a clear moral, but most of the book is dedicated to the stories told by the Rabbi and his followers.

And these are simply charming stories. The represent real humanity. The up, the downs, the challenges, the successes, the lost, and the found. And I argue they’re especially important now, not just because many of them act as a reminder of a horrible history that must never be forgotten, but also because they give clues for surviving the horrors of life that seem so close to repeating themselves.

Many, not all, but many of these are stories told by Jewish characters who lived in Eastern Europe during the rise of Hitler. These people survived because they foresaw danger while their neighbors insisted things couldn’t possibly be that bad. They survived because either they or their families had the foresight to escape. The stories, even those that have nothing to do with the Holocaust, are a reminder that we can’t ever sit back and assume the worst won’t happen: we must take action.

And yet, through it all, the stories always left me with a happy, pleasant feeling – warm fuzzies, if you will. The characters who tell each story are nicely drawn out, and their personal flaws and foibles, their own hypocrisies and biases, all come out in the story-telling. I found myself savoring each story, looking forward to my evening chapter. Yet I wasn’t disappointed when I missed a night because that meant I could enjoy the book longer. For an author to tell tales of refugees escaping the Holocaust and leave me feeling wonderful about the world and hopeful for humanity is an impressive feat.

I’d Rather Get Beat Up By a Goon

Egan’s book had potential, but though I give her credit for her creative attempt, the book didn’t just fall flat, it sank into a valley of despair. She strung a story together of disparate characters who were all, in some way, connected — primarily to one of two “main” characters. The first two chapters were dedicated to the each of the two main characters, and every chapter spreads out from there in a spider web of human events and lives. The first chapter is deceptively good. The character is well drawn out, she’s interesting, I care about her, and the chapter itself is very well written. I happily read that chapter and looked forward to the rest. But it’s all downhill from there.

Some reviewers on Amazon complained of the difficulty of keeping track of each character and how they were related, but I didn’t find that much of a challenge. The challenge for me arose in, pardon my “French,” giving a shit. First, the characters were despicable and/or pathetic, even the successful ones – though I think that was part of the point Egan was trying to make: financial success or fame do not guarantee that a person is worthwhile. But…duh.  This is hardly a deep insight.  Egan seems to subscribe to a juvenile life perspective that says,” only the dark, painful side of life is real.” It’s very teen-angst for a woman in her 50s, and I would have hoped that New York Times reviewers and Pulitzer-prize officials would see through this narrow, depressing view of life.

But no – the reviewers loved her work so much I can’t help but wonder if they got paid. Or perhaps they’re still very young themselves. Egan’s book felt very much like an excellent college writing experiment, right down to the PowerPoint chapter. Yes, she wrote an entire chapter as a PowerPoint, and it’s just as awful as every other PowerPoint presentation you’ve had to sit through. The book is the kind of thing I’d give full marks to a student for experimenting with, but the final result is far too shallow and lacks any true understanding of human nature.

And in case you’re wondering, one of the characters in the book refers to time as “the goon squad.” So, yeah, time comes to visit us all. Deep, right?

I’m going to be disgruntled for a while that this drivel won such a high literary prize.

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