I should have loved this book. Everything about it seems perfect–the mythologic set-up, the serious moral and philosophical issues, the historical setting, the “literary-fantasy” style.
Except it’s just not a very good book. It aspires to be. It fails. Not spectacularly. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
The story follows the improbably friendship of a Golem (a being of clay animated by Kabbalistic magic) and a Jinni (sadly, not Robin Williams) who find themselves as immigrants in the New York of “The Age of Immigration”–a wonderful set-up, especially as Wecker intends their interaction to raise some of the eternal questions–nature vs. free will, faith as freedom vs. faith as bondage, what is the nature of happiness.
This is exactly the kind of book I’ve been looking for! What happened?
It’s paper-thin and shallow and pompous and ultimately just not very interesting.
The characters don’t really develop. They’re stuck in their natures, and in the final analysis, they are incapable of meaningful change (and the Jinni is just not a very pleasant person). The eternal questions are not answered; or worse, they are answered in contradictory ways. The writing is pompous at times–literary with a sense of its literariness, where the writing comes out at you, saying, “Look at me! I can write!” instead of falling into the background as it should.
Ultimately, the story didn’t work, because the author refuses to take a firm stance on any of the eternal questions raised. This is important, because the book is not merely an escapist work of adventure. It’s a slow, character-driven story that intends to sink or swim based on its “literary” qualities. And it’s in these qualities that it fails.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but a discussion of the end is necessary to explain what I mean. Even the synopsis of the novel makes it clear that both the Golem and the Jinni have to transcend their natures to avoid a terrible calamity. Will they or won’t they? The classic set-up.
Except the terrible calamity is not terrible at all. The villain is certainly repulsive, but the stakes of his victory are pitifully small. If he wins, nearly no one will be the wiser. Nearly no one will feel the ramifications. It’s a terrible set up.
To make it worse, (slight spoiler alert) neither the Golem nor the Jinni are able ultimately to transcend their natures (end of slight spoiler alert).
So, whether she intends it or not, Wecker suggests that the answer to the eternal question of “nature or free will?” is that free will is an illusion. She has the right to believe it; it’s terrible philosophy as far as I’m concerned, but that’s ok. What is unforgivable is that there is no reason to have that happen in the novel. It’s self-contradictory, because ultimately the Golem and Jinni are left in the epilogue as though they DO have free wills, immediately after the author made it clear that they don’t.
So what is supposed to be a happily-ever-after ending is just a huge “huh? What happened?”
The more I think about the book, the more annoyed I get, which is probably not good for the impartiality of this review. But that’s ok. Books are supposed to elicit strong responses. This one certainly did for me. Just not the one I hoped.