Sunday, March 06, 2016
Book 14: What It Is Like To Be Human, Seen From The Eyes Of Those Who Don't Want To Be.
It's hard to know where to start, so I'll just give a plot synopsis: A golem-- a clay being in Jewish kabbalah tradition, made to serve humans -- is created by an old, shady man, at the request of a rich furniture maker who is going to America. The book takes place at the turn of the century -- last century -- and the rich man wants the golem for a wife. Shortly after he brings her to life, he dies, and the golem ends up walking to New York along the bottom of the East River; there, bewildered (she's only been alive a few days) she's found by a rabbi who takes her in, knowing what she is.
Meanwhile, a tinsmith in Little Syria in New York works on a copper flask and sets free a jinni. The djinn in this book are sort of fire spirits, with great power, roaming the deserts. They're not Robin Williams' friendly sort of djinn. This jinni is trapped in human form by an iron bracelet around his wrist.
From there, the book quietly meanders along as the golem and the jinni learn about their new lives and begin to explore New York, eventually bumping into each other and striking up a friendship. Neither of them needs to sleep, so the golem has been spending her nights sewing clothes and looking out her window, while the jinni has been walking around New York getting to know the city and becoming something of a well-known man.
The first half of the book is deliberately paced: not slow, but methodical, as each sets into his or her own life, and as other characters are introduced and fleshed out; it's not until past halfway that the events that help set the plot in motion all come together. The golem has taken a job in a bakery, and her friend Anna has accidentally gotten pregnant. Anna's boyfriend is no great prize, and there is a confrontation that drastically shifts the direction of everyone's lives, in part because the golem's creator, Yehudah Schaalman, has come to New York seeking the answer to eternal life -- and his magic points him in the direction of the jinni.
The book is fantastically well-done; the magic is interwoven with the typical immigrant's-story details so skillfully that it feels real; it's not hard to picture a New York where a jinni and a golem could wander Central Park at night. From the tiny details about the two major characters (the jinni in his spare time sculpts tiny silver figurines based on animals from the desert, and cannot ever get an ibis he is working on to seem right, while the golem finds herself growing cold and stiff when winter comes) to the fleshing out of the secondary characters -- Mahmoud Saleh, a doctor stricken by possession from a minor jinn causing him to see everything as decayed and rotting, forcing him out of his profession into a life roaming the streets selling ice cream for pennies is one of the greatest side characters I've come across in a long time-- the book just breathes life.
What's interesting about the book, too, is that even though each of its main characters has been put into human form, they don't really want a human life. The jinni is always searching for a way to free himself from the iron cuff, to get back to his true form and return to the desert; he chafes at the need to hide his identity and slowly, if only partially accidentally, begins to tell more and more people, each one having a particular justification. This, of course, causes trouble with the man sheltering him, Boutros Arbeely, the tinsmith, who doesn't want the world to find out about the jinni, for fear of what they would do to him.
The golem, meanwhile, can read people's thoughts, and sits night after night in her lonely room, listening to the desires of people around her and staring out the window; she is so afraid of making any sort of mistake that might let people realize it is her that she rarely enters life at all -- and when she does, there is usually some terrible result. These are never her fault, but she blames herself anyway.
It's kind of a fascinating way to look at life, examining it through the eyes of two beings who reject it, each for different reasons. Before he was bound by a wizard a thousand years ago, we learn, the jinni was fascinated with humans, following a caravan through the desert and spending time trying to learn more about them. Now, thrust into the middle of a city full of them, he is constantly angry and trying to escape, not liking the limitations placed on him. The golem, though, is all too aware of what she might do to cause trouble; her first day in New York, she sensed a young boy was hungry and took a knish from the hand of a man nearby and gave it to him, nearly causing her to get arrested (or worse) until the rabbi stepped in. She has been repeatedly warned that she might accidentally destroy herself or those she loves, so she rejects humanity in order to save them (and herself) from her own actions, or mistakes.
There are so many dimensions to the book, it's hard to sum them all up. It's the kind of book that feels like a masterpiece, each little piece falling into place and making for a beautiful story. The finale is both surprising and masterful, with the end result being a long and detailed story about a quirky friendship in which each friend helps the other to accept, at least a little bit, some of the excitement in a life that is neither a prison nor and adventure.