How This Night Is Different
By Elisa Albert
Free Press, 199 pages, $18.
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‘In her backpack for Auschwitz, Shayna Markowitz packs the following,” begins one story in Elisa Albert’s debut fiction collection, “How This Night Is Different.” The sardonic, mischievous wit of such a line, and of the collection as a whole, sets Albert apart from most of our celebrated young (or youngish) Jewish American women writers today. Those with a yen for bawdy, outrageous Jewish prose, prose red in tooth and claw, must turn increasingly these days to the boys — Gary Shteyngart, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, et al. All of which makes “How This Night Is Different,” which owes a clearer debt to Philip Roth than to Cynthia Ozick, such a refreshing contribution.
The scaffolding holding together the collection would seem none-too-promising. Albert fixes her eye on several well-trod loci of contemporary Jewish experience. There’s a Passover Seder story, a brit milah story, a bat mitzvah story, a Yom Kippur story, a funeral story, etc., all set amid the spiritually sterile landscape of Southern California. But to her credit, Albert manages to make these shopworn jewels sparkle anew. Most of her protagonists are young, disaffected women, only nominally Jewish yet yearning for fulfillment, spiritual and otherwise, all the same. Given our spate of brainy, overachieving, morally upright female protagonists (impressively drawn as they may be), there’s something altogether winning in the sad, oversexed saps that populate the pages of Albert’s collection.
Consider, for example, Erin in “Everything But,” a new mother who yearns in synagogue to reclaim a connection with her husband through shared contempt of their niece’s opulent bat mitzvah, replete with its Great Women From History theme: “Say something derisive about the pink kippoth, Erin silently begs him. She opens a siddur to a random page and rests it in her lap. Please, she prays, say something harmlessly sardonic about the theme. What would actually be the harm in his rolling his eyes with her in tandem at this heinous display of Diaspora largesse?” There is linguistic brio here, and it permeates the pages of this book.
Albert is particularly good at identifying and eviscerating the callowness that afflicts certain segments of affluent Jewish suburbia. In “So Long,” protagonist Miri casts a jaundiced eye at her longtime friend’s newfound religious ardor, particularly her decision to shave her lovely hair and don the traditional sheytl. After the friend tersely explains that it’s a loophole, of sorts, Miri reflects, “Here she sits, daintily sipping her kosher champagne, the girl who was hospitalized freshman year of college after doing her own weight in Jell-o shots at a frat party.”
What redeems these stories from smugness is Albert’s underlying concern for Jewish continuity. One need only scratch beneath the surface of the scathing satire to locate her protagonists’ historically drenched sensibilities, their yearning for a viable, meaningful Jewish life in the here and now.
For example, “The Living,” a story set in one of the now common Jewish teen tours of the concentration camps, is marked by cringe-inducing teenager banter — “‘I’m starving, and I only have like three Power Bars left,’” a minor character bemoans the day the teens visit Auschwitz. “Shayna makes a mental note to offer Jamie some of her date-nut bar later, at an especially crucial, emotionally pitched moment. At the crematoria, maybe.” Yet when Shayna stumbles across a room full of gray hair at Auschwitz, the story transcends the realm of mordant humor: “Shayna catches sight of a long gray braid, winding its way through piles and piles of yet more hair…. It’s like a punch in the gut, and she holds on to the wall, dizzy…. Never before has she heard or read accounts of a long gray braid, shaved off a dead girl’s head after she’d been gassed. What color had it been? Was it there for Shayna to see and for Shayna alone?” This yoking together of youthful ebullience and moral seriousness characterizes Albert’s collection.
“How This Night Is Different” is not without its flaws. Two stories here are little more than sketches, and I’m still not quite sure whether to find the final story — a fan letter of sorts to Philip Roth by an aspiring writer named Elisa Albert — amusing or just plain silly. All the same, the bulk of this spirited collection heralds the arrival of an audacious new voice on the Jewish literary scene.
Andrew Furman is the author of the novel “Alligators May Be Present” (University of Wisconsin Press) and chair of the English department at Florida Atlantic University.