TOTAL IMMERSION by Allegra Goodman


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Goodman's debut book of stories prods at two unlikely venues for contemporary fiction: the world of the frum--the modern devout who follow the 600-plus laws and prohibitions of Torah Judaism--and, even more unusual, those same Orthodox who are living in colony in the improbable and very un-shtetl-like paradise of Oahu, Hawaii. This double-territory's all her own, needless to say; and Goodman runs many a merry sprint across it: her object is a gentle kind of satire that depends not only on the comic elements arising out of so close-knit a society (a minority within a minority) but also on the kind of anthropological detail (brand-names, inside jokes, lots of interrupting dialogue and rhetorical speed) reminiscent of early Tom Wolfe--the Wolfe who was in love with the self-sealing insularity of certain incorrigible outsiders. As such, this is light, amusing work, impressive in its pan-shots and sharp, short needling, but comptely without facility for narrative movement: the stories go nowhere (group portraits don't, as a rule), counting instead on the illusion of fictional movement that lots of characters and lots of outsized talking can puff up. Goodman's seeming lack of confidence in her material, though, is disturbing and appears right away, in the very first story "Variant Text," featuring a ridiculous academic at Oxford named Cecil who, "Though he does not believe in God. . .remains observant. . . He finds spiritual sustenance in academic discipline and intellectual structure in the rituals of his childhood." That Goodman sees him--and too many of her other characters--as a wackily endearing walking contradiction--too self-conscious to be embarrassed either by faith or intellectual vanity--is a serious and unhappy crutch. Her characters are deconstructing eels able to defend themselves against charges of parochial narrowness by showing always another, more cultured face. It smacks a little of fashionable disingenuousness; her people take shelter behind their exotic but-I really-know-better plumage like characters in a Firbank novel. Thus, disappointedly, you believe little of what otherwise is valuable information that Goodman has the specific knowledge to bring.

Pub Date: May 24th, 1989
ISBN: 06-015998-7
Publisher: HarperCollins
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