Rosenbaum’s latest (Second Hand Smoke, 1999, etc.) promises an engagement with the relations between art, suffering, and memory, but delivers Mel Brooks without the rim shots in the tale of a blocked Jewish mystery writer whose daughter resurrects ghosts to release his creativity.
The “golems” of the title aren’t traditional golems, but just ghosts—the “golem” was conceived in Jewish mythology as a protector of the Jews of a Prague synagogue. These are the spirits of Primo Levi, Paul Celan, and Jerzy Kosinski, among others, all major Jewish literary figures who committed suicide after lives of remembering the Holocaust. Invoking them gives Rosenbaum’s lightweight fiction a claim to a gravity that the story doesn’t sustain, an especially excruciating failure in the absence of any suggestion of engaged familiarity with the work of these artists. Oliver Levin is a successful mystery novelist whose daughter Ariel ends up with freeing him from his writer’s block. With a handful of mud from the banks of the Hudson, she inadvertently summons up the shades of Celan, Kosinski, and Levi, as well as Jean Amery, Piotr Rawicz, and Tadeusz Borowski, not to mention Levin’s parents, Lothar and Rose, who, like the writers, killed themselves after surviving the Holocaust. The eight ghosts proceed to transform New York City—gas is eliminated as a heating source, the Yankees lose their pinstripes, smoke of all forms is eliminated—and daughter Ariel finds herself startlingly endowed with a gift for klezmer music. Though the ghostly shenanigans are related amusingly, the upshot is Levin’s compulsion to commit suicide himself after getting in touch with his feelings. The ghosts, feeling bad, encourage him to stay alive, and the whole group, father, daughter and ghosts, fly down to Miami, where Lothar and Rose lived, to close the story oceanside.
Rosenbaum has high ambitions, but here he disorients with a kind of jokey hilarity that disrupts his philosophical asides, rendering The Golems of Gotham an unstable mix of camp and earnestness.