A prize-winning, controversy-stirring novel in the author’s native Italy, this debut won’t likely have a similar impact Stateside.
Piperno’s novel depends almost entirely on the voice of its first-person narrator, 33-year-old Daniel Sonnino. And though Sonnino says that he’s a fledgling novelist (as well as the author of the scholarly All the Anti-Semitic Jews: From Otto Weininger to Philip Roth, something of a scandal in academic circles), his narration lacks the most rudimentary elements of most fiction: plot momentum, character development, introspection, a compelling voice. Instead, this extended monologue proceeds in fits and starts, digressions and disjunctions, that keep circling toward the romantic triangle that gives the last quarter of the novel its focus. Up till then, Daniel is primarily a bystander, and not a terribly observant one, as he details his family’s descent from riches to socially marginal, and his own identity crises as the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Plainly, themes of ethnicity aren’t all that Piperno has transplanted from Philip Roth, for Sonnino is both a fetishist and a compulsive masturbator, as well as a participant or bystander in plenty of other bodily perversions and embarrassments (flatulence and worse). And references to Roth are but a small part of the novel’s literary name-dropping, as the text makes mention of Tolstoy, Hemingway, Twain, Austen, Fitzgerald (or at least Gatsby), both Arthur and Henry Miller, David Leavitt and Bret Easton Ellis. Either Sonnino is more of a literary construct than a cohesive, convincing character, or Piperno is showing off his library. (Or both.) In addition to the tension between Catholic and Jew, the novel encompasses the cultural differences of Italy, Israel and America. Ultimately, it challenges the reader to weave together the various strands to discover how the different fates of two grandfathers, partners and then rivals, leave legacies that lead to the unrequited love that humiliates the narrator.
Plenty of coming-of-age novels are more cohesive and coherent than this.