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This is a wonderful novel; interesting, courageous and powerfully written. Before I get to it, though, I'll start with some philosophy. Think of the great egalitarian phrase from the U. S. Declaration of Independence, ". . . all men are created equal." Here's what I propose it means, that (1) every person is born with exactly the same set of moral rights and obligations, and (2) the only way to acquire a right or obligation different from anyone else's is by consenting to take it on and consequently, (3) the only way to accurately answer the personal identity question 'Who are you?' is by referencing the actions and agreements you have taken. f
This egalitarian idea has been historic dynamite; turning the tables on slavery, sexism, child labor, racism and many other hurts and indignities. It has undermined aristocracies, theocracies and monarchies. It contradicts the cruel charge that a black teenager who loves Shakespeare is "acting white", that the successful Hispanic woman who leaves the neighborhood is a betrayer, that gays have a duty to each other to be out of the closet, that ethnic Bosnians should hate Croatians and Shiites should shun Sunnis. As a moral idea, egalitarianism forms the essence of enlightenment moral and political thought and is the core of democracy. To affirm the opposite, that unchosen traits (race, ethnicity, nation, tribe, gender, disabilities, parental desires, destiny, fate, etc.) have the moral power to obligate one to a specific form of life, is "essentialism". In pre-urban times essentialism would cement tribal loyalties, conferring on members a host of benefits. Today it can sometimes create a sense of belonging (as well as the requisite exclusions), no matter how philosophically dubious the underpinnings of that belonging are. Yet on the whole I (and our novel's hero Anne Rosenbaum) can think of no idea in human history that has caused more conflict, exploitation and misery than has essentialism.
In You and Someone Like You teenager Sam Rosenbaum travels from Beverly Hills to Israel, hoping, as so many others have, to deepen his sense of who he is. He frolics with American Jewish friends in Eilat, picks avocados in the Galilee and is recruited for an Orthodox study group while standing before the Western Wall.
"Are you Jewish?" says the man.
"Yes I'm Jewish," says Sam.
"Would you like to understand who you really are?"
Sam's father Howard is a secular Jew, a literature Ph.D. and a Hollywood mogul. Sam's Scotch-English mother Anne Hammersmith Rosenbaum is David Hume and John Locke in the skin of a tenacious and brilliant mother and wife. When the mother of a budding Jewish girl asks Howard, "Is Sam Jewish?" narrator Anne reports, "... Howard doesn't reply, 'Go fuck yourself.'" Instead, Howard the ironist delivers his dismissal with cleverness. He wonders about the "ish" at the end of "Jewish". It usually means "sort of, but not exactly", "'Not large' one might say, 'but larg-ish." Or reddish or sweetish. In his semantic musings he considers but rejects alternatives, Jewate (as in Latinate) or Jewese (as in Japanese). But through it all he doesn't miss the irony. "Ish" denotes a mixture as when green is yellowish since it's derived of blue and yellow, and in that sense Sam in fact is Jew-ish, a mixture of Semite and Gentile. Anne notes, "'Oh', says the woman. Her worst fears are confirmed."
Having agreed to get the truth about, "...who he really is," Sam rides the van with other westernized Jewish teens to an Orthodox compound. After a kosher lunch Sam innocently reveals that his mother is not Jewish. Chandler Burr relates elsewhere that what occurred then in the Rabbi's office is taken from his own adolescent excursion to the hard ground of Israel, in search of his own essentialist identity.
But something else is happening in the Rosenbaum family. We get our first clue in a surprise. As Sam was leaving for Israel, backpack overflowing, Howard wrapped him in a father's hug, "I'm so proud of you," he said. Lest the reader miss the significance, the author has Sam point us to it. "Why are you proud of me?" he asks.
Burr's treatment of the issues of self-identity, essentialism and the intimate troubles they cause is more powerful than Zadie Smith's in On Beauty. This is likely because the members of the racially mixed family of Howard and Kiki Belsey seem to wander about on their own, unconnected, at least in comparison to the Rosenbaums with Anne's mighty efforts to hold her family together.
For a hint at the power of Anne's character and Burr's writing, take a look at Howard's reaction to the events of Sam's brush with Orthodoxy. Again, Anne is narrator, Howard blurts,
"'What the fuck did he think he was doing,' ... For an instant, I'm confused ... then it occurs to me ... Howard means Sam's answering, 'Yes, I am Jewish.' ... Not that I care about Sam's being Jewish or not. Or what it might mean to whomever. I care about Sam, but I can attend to him later; in the immediate it is Howard's tone of voice that concerns me, and whatever is behind it, and I start by putting my hand gently on his shoulder and saying, 'Howard,' but he moves away from my hand, gets up suddenly and very fast, walks away from me toward the house."
"Sam explained his conclusions [about the Jerusalem event] to me (apropos of absolutely nothing; it's nothing, nothing, nothing from them, Signal Unavailable, and then all of a sudden one evening they're standing in the kitchen ... vehemently expressing their thoughts as you try to hide your surprise.)"
The story of the Rosenbaums is told from Anne's viewpoint and wrapped in her leadership of reading groups of scriptwriters and directors from Howard's studio. When direct communication from Anne to Howard becomes too difficult she sends him messages through her commentary on the selections she chooses for her groups (from: G. Eliot, Tolstoy, Trollope, Auden, Forster and Anthony Lane on Edward Lear). Anne Rosenbaum is one of the strongest and smartest woman characters, both as she is written and who she is, that I have encountered in recent literature.
There is much more to this story; the inner workings of the film industry, the educational challenges of an outed gay child and the application of great literature to everyday life. This work will be disturbing to some, I have seen it characterized as a diatribe, and surely Chandler Burr will take some heat. But it is a novel that is highly recommended and has not received the notice it deserves.
© 2009 John Mullen
John Mullen is professor emeritus of philosophy at Dowling College. He is the author of three books including the widely read, Kierkegaard's Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age. His short stories and flash fiction have appeared in various literary journals, for example, "The War on Terror" in Diddledog: A Journal of Flash Fiction, "The Coprological Visions of Judy Dallas: A Retrospective" in The Cynic Online Magazine in the summer of 2008, "Gone Dad" in Boston Literary Magazine summer 2008, and "Loving Marilyn Maples" to appear in City Lines Magazine in August 2009. He lives and writes in Gloucester, Massachusetts.