The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, an American-Jewish novel
A family reunion over a holiday weekend is an occasion for confronting a son’s loss, and questions of love, religion and politics.
The World Without You
by Joshua Henkin. Pantheon Books, 324 pages, $25.95
By Shana Rosenblatt Mauer
If Joshua Henkin’s new novel, “The World Without You,” were to be made into a movie, it would, in all likelihood, be a cross between Robert Redford’s 1980 film “Ordinary People” and Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July.” Like the first movie, it portrays the emotional and psychological fissures suffered by a family after a child dies − in this case, after Leo, the only son in the Frankel family, is killed in Iraq in 2004 while on assignment as a journalist. Driving the plot are the sadness and guilt that plague Leo’s parents and sisters after his death. And like the 1989 Oliver Stone film, which starred Tom Cruise as an emotionally and physically crippled Vietnam veteran, it focuses on the broader social environment in the U.S. in which those directly affected by the Iraq war feel a sense of rage and alienation from their countrymen who are seemingly untouched by the conflict. The novel also references the grassroots political opposition to the war, widespread anger with the George W. Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq, and the controversial U.S. election that resulted in Bush’s victory in 2000.
Over the course of a July 4 weekend, the Frankels converge for Leo’s memorial in Massachusetts, near their summer home in the Berkshires. Although each of these characters represents a type that may be recognizable from everyday life, Henkin manages to describe them in refreshing ways. It is easy to identify with them and empathize with their problems, conflicts, dilemmas and reactions.
Even Noelle, the Frankel sister who lives in Israel, and is depicted as the family’s Orthodox zealot, is portrayed realistically, and not as an outrageous caricature.
Moreover, Henkin exercises linguistic and narrative restraint that is rare in contemporary novels. For example, the sexual tension between lovers is poignant and intense rather than graphic and overexposed. When Clarissa Frankel and her partner Nathaniel make a brief stop at a roadside hotel as part of their ongoing effort to overcome infertility, which requires taking advantage of the opportunity offered by every ovulatory cycle, the scene is not erotic. Instead, it is fraught with the desexualization of the technical practicalities of conception. “Sex stripped of all sentiment,” Clarissa thinks when considering their attempts to have a baby. She knows “it won’t always be this way, but at the moment it’s hard for her to remember what sex was like between them, hard for her to envision anything other than what it is now.” Though it seems obvious that such a scene would be void of any scintillating sexuality, many current novels seem to play sex for thrills no matter the context.
Similarly, Henkin does not resort to prose designed for shock value. Late in the novel, Noelle, the family’s religious maverick, goes on an outing with Leo’s widow, Thisbe. The two women come upon a deserted lake. Noelle, in an act of atypical immodesty, promptly strips and then plunges into the water. However, the incident is treated as a reflection of Noelle’s troubled psyche, not a chance to infuse the novel with highbrow pornography. Henkin handles it delicately. As a result, it is not titillating, but poignant, revealing the struggle undergone by a woman who is questioning her decision to lead a life that forces her to conceal not only her body, but other essential parts of her identity.
It is likewise to Henkin’s credit that the family’s recollections of Leo are complex and multi-layered, depicting a son, brother and husband who is recognizably human, not an otherworldly saint. When family and friends’ reminiscences about Leo do occasionally become unrealistic, Thisbe rejects the efforts to deify him and insists on more authentic memories. At one point, Leo’s sister asks about their marriage, and Thisbe responds honestly: “Sometimes we were great and sometimes we weren’t.” By the time he left for Iraq, she had no longer found him the “affable, winsome” boy he was when they first met. Recalling their early courtship and the subsequent hardship in their marriage, she admits, even after his death, that “she’d have chosen that teenager over the man he had become.”
The novel seems more generic in the way that it employs the tropes of “July 4” and the “modern American Jewish family.” In particular, it evokes Ayelet Waldman’s recent novel “Red Hook Road,” which also examines the grief of a Jewish family whose child is killed on July 4. Like the family in Waldman’s book, the Frankels are headed by an ambitious, professionally successful mother (Marilyn Frankel, a physician, is described as “dogged, implacable”) and an underachieving father who fills the void in his life with myriad hobbies that his wife belittles. Moreover, the two novels focus on the marital strife of a grieving couple, as well as the anger and confusion of the surviving siblings in a way that makes Henkin’s book feel slightly redundant.
A greater problem with the book is the scenes, dialogue and narrative that deal with Jewish matters. Writing in 2001 about Tova Mirvis’ novel “The Ladies Auxiliary,” literary critic Ruth Wisse observed that Mirvis seemed to feel “obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness - saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block.”
The same could be said of “The World Without You.” Henkin, who was raised in a religiously traditional home and is the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi, is Jewishly aware. His previous two novels, “Matrimony” and “Swimming Across the Hudson,” to varying degrees, explore Jewish concerns, and “The World Without You” is heavily laden with Jewish content. It is his efforts here to make that content accessible, however, that lead to some contrived narrative digressions.
Jewish marriage manual, most notably, the sections that decipher the lives of religiously observant Noelle and her husband, Amram, are tedious. When Amram rebuffs Noelle’s romantic overtures, Henkin uses the encounter to educate the reader about Judaism and sex: “Already the laws of family purity are designed to help the mood. For the five days of her menstrual period and seven days afterward, she and Amram are forbidden to have sex. Then she goes to the mikvah and comes back clean; they’re supposed to be rejuvenated.” The lesson, unfortunately, does not enhance the novel, but weighs it down; its tone is more consistent with a Jewish marriage manual than a literary text. In contrast to the short stories of Nathan Englander or Jon Papernick, which are comprehensible to readers despite their richly coded Jewish and Israeli references, Henkin slips into a voice that is too didactic when trying to make Noelle and her family knowable.
Similarly, Noelle and Amram occasionally speak like religious automatons, spouting right-wing, Zionist rhetoric. At one point, Amram responds with banal platitudes to a television program about Israel’s rescue raid on Entebbe (which took place on July 4, 1976): “They turn our heroism into entertainment while they rebuke us at the UN.” Noelle tries to explain to her parents that their attempts to prepare kosher food are inadequate. She apologizes, but then muses to herself:
“What do her parents want her to do? Eat something that’s not permitted?” This stilted tone is conspicuous, particularly since Noelle and Amram speak with much more natural cadences when they are not being religiously indignant.
Looming over the novel is the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and murdered while researching a story in Pakistan.
The reader is given scant information about the details of Leo’s murder. However, a 2012 story about a journalist who is kidnapped and murdered while covering a U.S. operation in the Middle East ineluctably evokes the real-life figure. Henkin’s press material refers to the premature death of his own cousin from Hodgkin’s disease as the impetus for the novel’s plot rather than the Pearl tragedy. In more recent interviews, Henkin concedes that Pearl’s death “was in the air” when he began the novel, as were the deaths of other journalists. He does not elaborate further, only adding that writing about a murdered journalist in the Middle East, rather than someone killed in a car accident, struck him as more interesting.
Henkin has achieved something uncommon with “The World Without You”: a 21st-century novel that deals with contemporary politics in a sensitive and dignified way without being cynical, bombastic or melodramatic. Moreover, it is an old-fashioned story about the love, happiness, tension and anger that can inform family relationships. Its backdrop is current, but its focus − the bonds and rifts that make family life meaningful − is timeless.
Shana Rosenblatt Mauer is a doctoral student and instructor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in the field of contemporary Jewish literature.