What happens when a New York kvetcher meets modern-day kitsch?
It is hard to imagine Rabbi Akiva eating lime Jell-O, Maimonides living in a trailer park, or Martin Buber twirling a baton. These are all, according to the famous mid-century comedian Lenny Bruce, quintessentially goyish activities. I.B. Singer is more likely to have slathered his cream cheese on pumpernickel than white bread. Bruce defined Jewishness as an allergy to the bland and banal.
A secular, urban, atheist Jew living in modern-day New York, Sol Fields, the narrator of Alexander Maksik’s fourth novel, “The Long Corner,” learned a similar lesson from his father: to be Jewish is to be “scrappy, funny, depressed, anxious, worried, nervous, tough, nuts, smart.” Maksik’s novel is the story of what happens when a kvetcher encounters kitsch.
Formerly a freelance journalist, Sol holds a lucrative but soulless job in advertising when the reader meets him. Because of a prize-winning profile he once wrote about the famous artist Ernst Frankel, he is invited to be a guest at The Coded Garden, a bizarre artists’ colony on a lush exotic island. Founded and run by a mysterious patron who calls himself Sebastian Light, the facility provides food, lodging, and studios for selected aspiring artists. Though the setting is gorgeous and the hospitality munificent, Sol is unnerved by the humorlessness of the residents, the tackiness of the paintings they produce, and the sterility of the entire enterprise. Pressured by Sebastian to write about what he observes, Sol struggles to crack the code behind The Coded Garden.
“Beauty is what we do here,” Sebastian explains. “Above all else. Beauty is our warrior cry. Beauty, our philosophy. Beauty, our act of rebellion against an increasingly hideous world.” But Sol is put off by the impresario’s pomposity and the insipid art his protégés produce. He is appalled by the rituals of domination and humiliation — including public ceremonies to expel dissenters — that Sebastian forces the apprentices to enact. Above all, Sol is at odds with the colony’s intolerance of ambiguity. What Sebastian presents as a creative paradise is in fact an artistic dystopia, a tropical tyranny run by a maniac devoid of nuance or wit.
Fonder of slogans than of thoughtful discussion, Sebastian offers “Certitudo, sinceritas et sanitas” – certainty, sincerity, and health – as his fundamental values. By contrast, he tells Sol, “your people have a taste for a certain style of humor. A tendency to irony. Here we’re interested in sincerity, Mr. Fields, in purity of thought and speech and far above all, of art.” By “your people,” Sebastian must means New York Jews, the clever, contentious ones who cringe at the word “sincere” and might dismiss Sebastian, as Sol does, as “an empty, talentless narcissist who lives in a closed loop dependent on the constant adulation of a bunch of desperate sycophants.”
If the clash between irony and schmaltz were all there is to the novel, it would be an entertaining trifle – Groucho Marx set loose at Mar-a-Largo (Maksik does make a point of announcing in his opening sentence the election of Donald Trump, as if to connect him with self-important schlock produced at The Coded Garden). However, Sol also entertains the possibility that everything he observes is an elaborate charade. Perhaps, instead of an earnest purveyor of lime Jell-O as haute cuisine, Sebastian is “a sly, brilliant performance artist who has orchestrated an incredible living installation for my benefit.” That would certainly leaven the novel with rich ambiguities, performing the miracle of turning white bread into pumpernickel. It would thrust Maksik into the company of Paul Auster, John Fowles, and Iris Murdoch as the creator of an enigmatic literary top that continues to spin after the final page.
The voices of Sol’s favorite women, his grandmother and his mother, haunt him throughout the novel. The former, a Holocaust survivor, is a bright, brash, and bawdy figure who urges her grandson to pursue pleasure above all else. “There are three true sins,” she declares: “Utilitarianism, snobbery, and orthodoxy.” Wary of self-indulgence, through art or any other opiate, Sol’s mother, by contrast, insists that “ Whatever you do, it’s got to be for more than yourself.” The quarrel between these two women reenacts the ancient tension between the id and the super ego. Like the true nature of The Coded Garden, that battle is never settled. Instead, it’s another of the unresolved conflicts that elevate “The Long Corner” above baton twirling, establishing it as a triumph of sophisticated art.
Steven G. Kellman is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.