by Dan Jacobson.
Atlantic-Little, Brown. 191 pp. $5.95.
Dan Jacobson's new novel The Wonder-Worker is a highly unusual, exhilarating book, and in a subtle, understated way ultimately so radical that it is at first difficult to connect with the author's previous works. Jacobson, a South African who has lived in England for many years, is the author of several novels, among them The Beginners and The Rape of Tamar, but he is probably best known in this country for his short stories which have appeared over the years in COMMENTARY and other magazines and are collected in the two volumes The Zulu and the Zeide and Through the Wilderness. Most of Jacobson's stories are about South Africans, particularly South African Jews, who live in such a troubled, ambiguous relation to the larger society that their visceral apprehension of danger is too overwhelming to be articulated. Toward the blacks, whom they guiltily employ and exploit, Jacobson's characters feel a truculent, helpless shame; toward the Dutch Afrikaaners, they feel a wary, frightened disdain; and toward the English South Africans—the part of the population with whom they are most closely associated—they seem envious, eager to be liked, and eager to be like them. It is in each case a hopeless proposition, as Jacobson's stories demonstrate. Immigrants from the shtetlach of Russia and Lithuania, Jacobson's “beginners” brought with them the sad baggage of superstition and legitimate fear, and their remarkable, unexpected success in a raw, threatening unsettled land only reinforced the terrible, familiar conviction that the known may be bad enough, but it is at least known. Of course, South Africa is hardly a place where intimations of dread can be thought of as paranoid; still, the rules and conventions accepted by the Jewish middle class represented here seem exceptionally rigid, the possibilities correspondingly limited, and the punishments disproportionately dire.
Such a sense of harshness and constriction is in great contrast both to the feeling that Jacobson conveys of the land itself—vast, open, and surprisingly beautiful—and his tone as a storyteller. His manner is direct, casual, and deceptively simple. It's as if Jacobson were taking the reader out for a pleasant, ambling narrative stroll, and he is so deft that it often seems as if he were merely the medium, the vessel for the story being re-counted. Still, these are largely stories of youth, of reminiscence, of a time and place to which the author-narrator cannot or will not return. Probably no writer can go on endlessly using the material of his youth, but it is bound to become a sharper, more immediate dilemma for someone cut off from the ongoing life of the country where he grew up. Jacobson perceives this with particular incisiveness and poignance in the story “Fresh Fields.” In this story, the narrator, a young South African writer, comes to live in England, thus fulfilling his lifelong dream, and as if it were a part of that dream he meets the single older South African writer he has always admired. The old poet, now irrevocably tied to his life in England, is bitter, dried-up: he cannot write any more, and brusquely advises the young man to go back to his roots, return to South Africa. As their strange and strained acquaintance proceeds, the elderly distinguished writer begins to steal the young man's material—unpublished stories that had been sent to him—and ultimately, in an odd, complicitous move, the young narrator-protagonist, enraged but comprehending, gives up to the old man all his unpublished manuscripts and notes, saying, “I don't want to be like you. I don't want to go home. . . . I'll take my chance right here, where I am. It's my only hope.”
It seems crazily reckless, this giving away of one's youth, but is probably both brave and necessary, and on the evidence of The Wonder-Worker, Jacobson was right to take the chance. There is a special risk involved, though: for in giving up the subject matter of his early work, Jacobson also gave up its characteristic tone. He has had to find an entirely different voice and mode. This mode is already present in The Rape of Tamar, Jacobson's retelling of the brief biblical account of Tamar's rape by her half-brother, Amnon. Jacobson seems essentially interested in the issues of power and political intrigue, but because the story is told through the voice of Yonadab (in the Bible a minor figure, and in Jacobson's midrash a master politician), it is Yonadab's speculative re-creating of a specific event that comes to assume primary importance.
This genuinely difficult, perhaps mystically puzzling phenomenon—how is something—an event, a life, a world—created, re-created, actually imagined, emerges as Jacob-son's real concern in The Wonder-Worker. It is what the novel is about, and it is, in the highest sense, terrifying. Timothy Fogel, whose story is being told by a nameless narrator, is born, heralded by peculiar signs and portents, to a German-Jewish refugee father and a half-witted Irish mother. His father is a third-rate commercial artist, his mother a shop assistant, and Timothy grows up in the pinched, shabby gentility of lower-middle-class London, always an outsider. He is both by temperament an alien, and in fact the child of aliens. Very early in life, he becomes preoccupied with a neighboring “ordinary” family, the Sendins, whose daughter, Susie, he falls obsessively in love with at the age of four, and whose son, Laurence, he ambivalently befriends. He is rejected by the Sendins, unattended to by his parents, and cast out, by choice or by nature, from all ordinary nurturing social relations. His existence is relieved and redeemed by his unusual way of perceiving his surroundings, and more dramatically, by the discovery that he has miraculous, supernatural powers: he can transform himself at will into any material substance he desires. Or so it seems. For in this book, nothing is as it seems, because Timothy Fogel is not really Jacobson's protagonist; instead he is the created protagonist of the strange nameless narrator who is telling this story, perhaps even writing it down, from the confines of a bizarre and elegant Swiss sanitarium. In alternating chapters, the reader gradually puts together more about the past life of Timothy and about the present sanitarium life of the nameless narrator, who is engaged in creating his vision of a life—possibly his own, more likely his own transformed.
There are very few easily arrived at certainties in this novel, but since one of them is that the narrator is psychotic, The Wonder-Worker can be read as a sort of psychotic's journal. It seems to me that this mistakes its essential, if somewhat eerily elusive, nature. It is a book about creativity and perception, about the act of imaginative transformation. If the characters often seem somewhat attenuated, it is because they are really secondary to Jacobson's purpose. The substance of the novel is the working out of the creative process itself, and in order to achieve his end, Jacobson has relied on language. The voice is spare, hard, brilliant, and though it is often exquisitely lyrical, it is never lush. It is always precise, and precisely dizzying: Jacobson is leading us, forcing us into that peculiar, unsafe region of the mind where out of memories, dreams, simple fragments of observation and inexplicable distortion, something new, something other than ordinarily recalled or observed reality, is born as a separate entity, achieving its own necessarily mysterious integrity. It is true that both art and psychosis transform experience, but as this book succeeds in demonstrating, only one endures.