Thursday, April 24, 2014

Monsters, anonymous: Helene Wecker's The Golemn and the Jinni

Must we be who we are?

We like to think we make choices all through our lives, but mostly we make the same choice over and over again. So many of our inclinations are baked into us from before we can remember, and we either surrender to our nature or struggle against it our whole lives. In Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni this dilemma faces not only the eponymous monster protagonists, but the Jewish and Syrian immigrants of turn-of-the-century New York they find themselves among. 

Chava, a golem, was made to be the obedient and faithful wife of a European Jewish man named Rotfeld. But Rotfeld died less than a day after bringing her to life on a boat to America, so she soon finds herself alone in the Jewish community on the Lower East Side. Her nature is to serve and obey, and without a master she is assaulted by the needs and wants of everyone around her. She is only saved when the kindly rabbi Avram Meyer recognizes what she is and brings her home.

Ahmad, a Jinni, springs from a lamp when it is repaired by the tinsmith Boutros Arbeely in the now-vanished Little Syria in the West Village. After more than a millennium of imprisonment under circumstances he can't recall he finds himself in a weakened state, bound by an iron band around his wrist to an unknown master. This goes against his nature, which is to drift in freedom above the desert, with no allegiance to anyone. 

Every monster in a book is at least partially a metaphor for something else. Godzilla was partially the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Lestat was partially a gay man in the time of AIDS. Chava and Ahmad are partially newcomers to America, dropped in a bustling city that is only a little bit stranger to them than to the thousands of other immigrants around them. Among other things, this book is a well-researched portrait of its time and place, reason enough to enjoy it. 

But every monster should also be a monster, something other than human, and Chava and Ahmad are. Even their names are simply conventions to allow them to relate to the humans around them; neither being feels especially attached to this central identifying aspect of the human experience. It is a challenge particular to the author of speculative fiction to create a being that is not human but nevertheless possessed of will and desire and needs that engage the reader and drive the plot. And this is Wecker's real strength.

The golem and the jinni have desires and needs, but they are not people's desires. Neither, however, are they stereotypical straightjackets, for each questions and struggles against their urges, just as all the other characters struggle with their own. They each have superhuman strengths and weaknesses, and they fight not to be confined by them. Most of all they live in danger of their inhuman natures being revealed.

Ahmad, a being of fire, can melt metal at a touch, quite a useful skill to the the tinsmith Arbeely. But he has an artistic temperament and struggles against the boredom of day-to-day craftsmanship. His free spirit constantly leads him to put himself in danger of being discovered as an inhuman being, for example when he seduces an uptown socialite.

Chava, a being of clay, has no such urges. She has a boundless work ethic and endurance and puts it to work as a baker and a seamstress. She has to resist the urge to work all night, which would reveal her own superhuman nature. Her drive is to serve and obey anyone, and she instinctively knows what everyone wants. Worse, she has the potential to go into a killing golem rage which would be catastrophic given her superhuman strength.

As the book progresses Ahmad and Chava find their stories intertwined with each others and many other people, among them a demon-possessed doctor, a passionate social worker who has rejected the faith of his rabbi father, a mysterious rabbi-magician and a mute orphan. In addition to being a portrait of its time and place the book engages us in the life of each of its characters, while also plotting them tightly into a fast-moving adventure which unfolds with mysterious secrets about the past of each monster.

The balance that keeps the book alive is that neither of the monsters is entirely bound by their nature, but nor do they entirely escape it. And in that way they are human after all.

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