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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

How Potok's The Chosen fails on points but wins the match

Published 59 years ago and set in the late 1940s (i.e., about 70 years ago), Chaim  Potok's debut novel, The Chosen, feels like a novel from 100 years ago - maybe 200. The central story concerns two young men - we follow them from teenage years through college graduation - and their difficult friendship; their both Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, so the playing out of their rivalries and family animosity - the narrator, Reuven, is from a somewhat emancipated household, his father is an intellectual who becomes an active Zionist after the war; Reuven's friend, Danny, is the son of a Hasidic rabbi, very strict and old world, opposed to Zionism because he and his sect believe only the Messiah, not a secular authority, can create a Jewish homeland. Well, talk about narcissism of small differences! To 99 percent of readers, it will be hard to see what drives these two guys apart: we're not talking about two people of different race or religion. Yet somehow this novel works - we really do care about these two kids and about the decisions they will have to make about their future. Will Danny's father bully him into becoming a Hasidic rabbi and community leader? Essentially, this is what today we call a "bromance," and almost to a ridiculous extent. These two guys go through high school and college together, without a mention of girls, dating, sex (well, there's a mention - the narrator at one point notes that Danny's sister is pretty, and Danny assures him that her marriage partner has been selected already, as has his own - and that's the end of it). Potok wins us over through his very earnestness. There's not a moment of humor, every point he makes is belabored, the characters are constantly talking about their tiredness and weariness, the novel is filled with arcane discussion about philosophy and the history of Judaism (it starts with softball game, but Potok never again picks up the theme of sports or or any other interest), and there are in essence only 4 characters, the two boys and their fathers (women play no role; the few friends introduced in the opening section vanish from the scene) - and yet, and yet - we also believe these 4 characters - they don't seem like "characters in a book," in part, perhaps, because they're so unlikely as characters in a book. Once in a while, like a totally clumsy but relentless tennis player, a book fails on points of style but somehow manages to win the match.

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