Michael Chabon, Dara Horn, Nicole Krauss, Shalom Auslander, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Rosen, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis have engaged in an end run around Roth and Bellow, taking comfort in their grandparents, both literally and metaphorically--choosing to render unto Caesar what is rightfully Caesar’s. This batch of Jewish writers have found an alternative canon, a new set of influences, and a shared sensibility and subject matter that unites them in their collective, if unconscious, opposition to their stiflingly brilliant fathers.
Borrowing heavily from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, these young Jewish writers take from magical realism its sense of a mystically attuned world, one where the impossible becomes everyday, and where history is invested with paranormal qualities. Lost books, crumbling photographs, paintings, and tombstones all possess mystical properties and represent a past that has crumbled into dust.
Writers like Horn and Krauss are not only Jewish by birth, but find the inspiration for their work in Judaism and Jewish history. Books like Chabon’s new “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Krauss’ “The History of Love,” and Rosen’s “Joy Comes in the Morning” take their inspiration from Judaism (as opposed to the rebellion against religion) to an extent unimaginable to Roth or Bellow. “Joy Comes in the Morning,” about a female rabbi in contemporary New York, and Auslander’s debut story collection “Beware of God,” much of which centers around the stunted lives of the ultra-Orthodox in New York’s suburbs, require a deep familiarity with Jewish practice and tradition, not to mention Hebrew and Yiddish.
While never denying their heritage, both Roth and Bellow sought to take the particular essences of their Judaism and render it collective and American--rarely, and sparingly, acknowledging religion or the European past. Roth is obsessed with the past, no doubt, but only his own Newark past---staunchly American and entirely disconnected from the older Jewish past in Europe. The famous opening sentence of Bellow’s “Adventures of Augie March”-- “I am an American, Chicago born”-- is as notable in this regard for what it does not include as for what it does. Bellow is not a Jew, not an outsider, but purely an American. Their successors have chosen to unlink that chain, and render Judaism mysterious once more. For some, this comes via a distinctly un-Bellovian (or Rothian, for that matter) emphasis on the religious matter of Judaism; for others it is a return to Europe and the lost essence of the European Jewish past.
As for the younger writers, their formative influence is undoubtedly that of Holocaust education. Born after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, writers like Horn and Krauss are children of the teaching of the Holocaust, taught from the earliest ages of the horror of 6 million dead, and duly informed of its unimaginable particulars. The Holocaust informs their work as it never could for their elders, forged too close to the Holocaust’s fire to engage with it in their fiction. The centrality of the Holocaust goes hand in hand with a fierce nostalgia for what was destroyed by the Nazis, and a concomitant romanticization of the European Jewish life that it erased. The grandchildren of European immigrants and Holocaust survivors find inspiration, of a literary and moral kind, in their grandparents’ struggles. Magical realism’s sense of the world made strange is empowered by the presence of the Holocaust as a barrier forbidding access to the past. The Holocaust renders pre-World War II Jewish history as quasi-imaginary, a wonderland of innocence--something it obviously was not. But its stark presence athwart the 20th century makes magic, which, for the better and for the worse, seem to be a regular part of Jewish life and something reflected in these books.