An elegant NYU professor at the peak of his powers and pleasures is reduced to a quivering puddle by a violent, unsought, yearlong spiritual awakening.
For 52-year-old academic superstar Andrew Cohen, the term charisma is a “cheap inadequacy.” “His dress and appearance, his speech and body language, his ideas and their expression—all had a refined aristocratic finish that splendidly gilded everything he touched.” He has a 26-year-old girlfriend, Ann Lee, and a stunning apartment overlooking the river; he publishes in the New Yorker; he even has a good relationship with his ex-wife. Was a character ever more cruelly set up for a fall? Namdar’s debut follows poor Andrew for a year beginning on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Elul in 5760, or Sept. 6, 2000, when he has the first of many increasingly intense spiritual experiences which will ultimately destroy his sanity and his life. The myriad subsequent chapters are each identified by both a Hebrew and a regular date and grouped into seven “books.” These books are separated by pages telling a second story set in ancient Israel and designed in the style of the Talmud, and this is just the tip of the iceberg vis-à-vis the self-importance of this apocalyptic, overwritten, bloated screed against assimilated American Judaism and self-satisfied elite academics. Between the fusillades of exclamatory prose, the innumerable dream sequences, hallucinations, and visions, the detailed and repetitive descriptions of vile pornography and disgusting physical phenomena, the tedious chunks of student papers and other quoted material, the clear hostility of the author toward the main character, the brutally slow pace and repetitive plot development, and the bizarre, ill-advised handling of 9/11, one begins to wonder if Namdar is intentionally punishing the reader. Is S&M a literary genre? Maybe in Israel, where this novel won the Sapir Prize, that country’s equivalent of the Man Booker.
Consider yourself warned.