“I once said in an interview: ‘What we need is a memoir without a self. A memoir about somebody other than ‘me.’ An understanding that the story of other people connected to ‘me’ might communicate more than the usual ‘me.’ ’”
So Hannah Groff, the narrator of Zachary Lazar’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant, introduces her book—Lazar’s book—an “odd new ‘memoir,’ ” as Hannah puts it, “about people mainly other than me.” Such narrative conjunctions—Hannah and her book, Lazar and his, getting to one’s truth by way of another’s—are typical here. The novel’s form even gives them a visual presence, dramatizing the process of Hannah’s writing by drawing various sources—Lazar’s own photographs, poems, “quotations, scraps of memoir, reportage, scripture, newspaper clippings”—into a rich consideration of Jewish identity. A number of stories and voices coexist in the novel’s pages: among them the American Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, petitioning Israel for citizenship in his old age; Gila Konig, Lansky’s Israeli mistress and a Holocaust survivor; David Bellen, a poet murdered in mysterious circumstances after writing a book in which King David appears in the guise of an Israeli gangster; and Hannah herself, a journalist from a well-off Jewish family, living in New York. Through the dense weave of their stories, the novel suggests something like a communal understanding of self, or—conversely—an unearthing of self from community.
Lazar’s blend of fact and fiction, which populates the lives of well-known historical figures like Lansky with imaginary ones like Gila, will be familiar to readers of his previous novel, Sway, which involved members of the Rolling Stones and the Manson Family, among other emblematic figures of the 1960s. “I think the transaction with people thinking about public figures is mostly imaginary anyway,” Lazar explains, “because we read something about them and then we fill in the blanks—that’s what’s fascinating about them, that there are blanks to be filled in.” In addition, Lazar says, what he calls “public domain figures” have “a kind of iconic power to them that’s worth exploring and exploiting in fiction.” Lazar understands this power as operating somewhat like a modern mythology—a subject that greatly interested him when he was young. “I don’t really want to be writing about Zeus and Apollo,” he says, “so this gives me a different way to do that.”
Of course, when it comes to characters like Meyer Lansky, whose association with the mob resulted in numerous deaths and acts of violent crime, mythology can be a dangerous register in which to play. This is especially true, as it happens, in Lazar’s case. “A lot of the impetus behind this is personal,” he admits of his inquiry into Lansky here. When Lazar was six years old, his own father was murdered in a parking garage by mafia hit men, a crime that became the subject of his memoir Evening’s Empire. And yet despite this, Lazar says, stories of such gangsters retained their allure for him, a disjunction he finds somewhat baffling. “Unlike anyone else in my family, I am still sensible to the folklore of this stuff,” he says. “I love to watch the Sopranos, for example. So part of this novel is me figuring out what that romance is about, and how it exists and persists when we know that underneath it is murder.”
Lazar doesn’t try to resolve this contradiction, and neither does his novel. Instead, he complicates it further by looking at the ways in which a similar sense of combined romance and ugliness might be said to coexist in the modern Israeli state, merely by putting these things—Lansky, King David, Israel—as it were, in the same room. “The original idea was simply to juxtapose these stories somehow,” he says. “What did they say about each other?”
Toward the beginning of the novel, Hannah, researching an article about the murder of David Bellen, travels to Israel for the first time: “Your name is Hannah, the El Al security screeners said, a Hebrew name. They asked, more than once, ‘Why have you never been to Israel?’ ” Lazar himself made two trips to Israel—also his first—in the process of writing this novel. “When I was younger I was in full rebellion against everything, including my Jewishness,” he explains. “I just never had been very interested in going there.” For Hannah at least—whose lack of interest, as the El Al screeners suggest, is acknowledged with a certain sense of shame—what Israel can or should mean to an American Jew is linked to her feelings about Jewishness in general. “My lack of interest,” Hannah says in the novel, “was so long-standing that perhaps I should have wondered more about it. On a deeper level, I might have realized, I had never wanted to face too directly the idea of myself as a Jew.”
Writing about Israel, and especially in the way Lazar does, including its violence and disrupting its myth, one runs quickly into politics. “I remember on the second trip I was in some part of Jerusalem where you can see the separation between the east and west part of the city,” Lazar recalls, “and there’s a museum on the Green Line where you can see the boundary. The image was very powerful.” In the novel, though, conflict largely comes from within Israel itself, between different generation of Israelis, the yored and the olim—those who left and those who stayed—and those who, like Lansky, came from elsewhere. As for his politics, Lazar says the experience of writing the novel, and traveling to Israel, changed them. “What I didn’t know before this project,” he says, “was that there is this existing culture of Israel that is distinct from every other culture in the world. And if that culture were to disappear, it would be tragic. I don’t think that people who are on a certain political side of this thing see that. That’s part of what I was trying to put into the book.”
Similarly, Lazar says, the process of writing this novel became a negotiation with his own sense of himself as a Jew. “I wanted to try to widen that sense of Jewish identity to include history,” Lazar says, “and violence. The story that is told to you when you’re growing up Jewish is a story of victimization, and I don’t think you should hide that, but I also don’t think it’s a sustaining narrative.” Or, as Hannah puts it in the novel: “Perhaps the reason I have never wanted to face too directly the idea of myself as a Jew is that all roads seem to lead to the Holocaust memorial, as if it is the Holocaust that makes one a Jew.”
In part, Lazar says, this facet of the novel was inspired by Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “All About Atlantis,” from her collection of the same name, which discusses the suppression of traumatic memory in Jewish families. Eisenberg’s story, Lazar explains, taught him that “who we are is not only the stuff that our parents and our grandparents tell us. It’s also the stuff that they don’t tell us.” In this sense, Lazar says, I Pity the Poor Immigrant is a “memoir by proxy” for him too, though not because it has anything to do with the facts of his own life. “It has to do with me finally looking at myself as a Jew,” he says. “I had never really thought of myself that way, and this was my way of doing that.”
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate and the New York Times Book Review, among other places.