WITH all the hoopla surrounding Dara Horn’s newest novel All Other Nights, I thought I would take a look back at some of her previous work, specifically, The World to Come.
It is a must read. There’s a reason why everyone is excited about this doctoral candidate in Yiddish and Hebrew Literature at Harvard. Horn is a novelist whose imagination at once inhabits its own universe while simultaneously dissecting the worlds of philosophy, history, psychology, mythology and faith.
In The World to Come, she creates a cohesive drama that travels from New York City to 1920s Soviet Russia to suburban America, on to Vietnam, back to modern US all the while outlining one family’s history, and navigating all kinds of obscure Yiddish literature, Biblical sources, philosophical concepts and whimsical profoundities.
Sounds like a nearly impossible feat?
Well, this brilliant and young storyteller (she is too young to have lived through Vietnam) has managed to synthesize language, imagery and spirituality into a compelling message.
The novel begins with Ben Ziskind, a game show researcher, who outwardly leads a monotonous and dull life in New York City. Inwardly, he is a depressed man, who is mourning his mother’s death, his recent divorce and, as the reader learns, earlier family tragedies.
The only piece of excitement in his life that seems to propel the novel forward, or, rather, should I say, backward in time, is Ben’s stealing a $1 million Marc Chagall painting from a Jewish museum.
It is a curious action for someone from a highly intelligent family, with a good education and a solid job. But Ben’s motives reveal a number of subplots to be digested by the reader.
The most compelling is the intersection of Ben’s family and Chagall’s back in the Boys’ Colony at Malakhovka, an orphanage in Russia in the early 1920s.
Here the reader meets Der Nister, “the hidden one-the unknown” Yiddish writer whose name suggests the anonymity he suffers throughout his lifetime, juxtaposed to Chagall’s later fame in Paris.
The full understanding of Horn’s use of Der Nister as a part of her literary moral or message is only understood, along with the trajectory of other characters, once she illuminates what the world-to-come means.
Horn’s grasp of Der Nister’s stories, rarely read during his lifetime, and almost forgotten today, are eccentric yet profound insights into human behavior — another tie-in to her overarching message: Is the world-to-come a place, an “end” if you will, as traditional faith has it defined, or is it a concept, or perhaps someplace else altogether?
ASIDE from bringing back into light the obscure and unknown stories of Yiddish writers silenced in the Gulag, Horn also displays her literary techniques masterfully.
One symbol that is ever present in both uplifting and gruesome ways is the womb. She manages to weave the womb starting with the horrors of the pogroms of 1919 in Russia through to what seems to be the climax, when Ben’s twin sister might need to give birth unexpectedly, and then to the ultimate climax of the novel (I don’t want to give it all away), where the reader gets to visit the world of the womb.
What seems to be the ironies and coincidences of how the characters of this novel meet in the past and present is not only a reflection of Horn’s great talent for weaving complicated plots, but also the thrust of her message: opportunities present themselves in our lifetime, defining moments of choice, and what are we going to do with those moments that define our lives here and forever?
Horn’s treatment of death, a subject that is usually morbid, tragic and sits heavily on the human consciousness, is so straightforward that it is actually a refreshing look at what we call “the dark side.”
At times she uses humor to address the subject, but mostly she uses insight conveyed either through a story within a story, or a dialogue, which makes death more than palatable.
Take one of the stories that both Ben and his sister Sara remember their father reading to them. It is about a “dead town,” where ‘“no one ever really died because no one ever really lived. No one ever made any choices, no one ever did anything good or bad. No one ever did anything at all! People in our town die and come back, they don’t remember anything, and no one remembers them, because there is nothing to remember. They just crawl out of their graves, go home, put on their pajamas, and go back to sleep!’”
Not your typical bedtime story for kids, but a good lifetime story for adults. Then again, Horn doesn’t stick to anything typical in this novel. Aside from her moral message is how she structures it into her novel: the end, the climax is really just the beginning . . .
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