Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, December 21, 2015

Dara Horn, _A Guide for the Perplexed_

I WAS WONDERING about the four-year-gap between Horn's third, All Other Nights (2009) and this, her fourth (2013), when I saw in the little author bio that she has four children. Four years seems blazingly quick, in those circumstances.

Internet gazillionaires keep showing up in the fiction I'm reading these days--Dave Eggers's The Circle, Joshua Cohen's The Book of Numbers, now this...apparently there's one in the new Jonathan Franzen as well. Horn's Josie Ashkenazi has invented an app that functions as your own personal, infallible super-memory. It's called Genizah--like Horn's other novels, this one is saturated in Judaica--and in another strand of the novel, Horn gives us the historical figure Solomon Schechter, the scholar responsible for salvaging the contents of the famous Cairo Genizah, which included some correspondence of Moses Maimonides, who, yes, figures in yet another strand of the novel (which, for all its strands, comes in at a nice, compact 336 pages).

Sounds complicated, I know, but things cohere nicely. Our theme is memory, both human and mechanical, both individual and collective, both of the living and of the dead, and the crucial point is that siblings never forget.  If you have a sibling, you know it's true.

This brings us to Judith, Josie's older, never-quite-got-it-together sister, to whom Josie has given a job in her company despite Judith's having no particular talents and despite Judith's having, when the two were kids at camp, abandoned Josie in some kind of pit (while in the pit, Josie has a vision that becomes the genesis of her amazing app).

It's a initiative of Judith's that takes Josie to Cairo, where she is kidnapped by terrorists. For most of the present of the narrative, she's a captive, trying to get a message out to her family.

Gradually, back home, while they wonder what has become of Josie, Judith moves in with Josie's husband and daughter, in effect occupies Josie's life--a Paul Auster sort of twist, I thought, cf. Leviathan. Judith finds that Josie's life suits her and faces an ethical crisis when Josie, during a hiccup of inattention by her minders, manages to place a call home.

This sets up a Sidney Carton / Charles Darnay big finale. Wasn't too crazy about this, actually, seemed a little contrived, but given the unlikelihood of the rest of the plot, I hardly have reason to complain. The novel as a whole was cleverly done, and I enjoyed reading it, so why quibble?

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