Heroism necessarily involves a tragic element. Its pursuit pits one against insuperable forces for an unlikely reward. This is why it elicits respect more readily than does celebrity, which owes more to time and chance than to self-abnegating endeavour. What distinguishes celebrities from heroes is that they thrive on being engaging and entertaining. Heroism makes no such demands. A hero might with impunity be a sanctimonious bore, a self-satisfied prig who makes others feel bad about themselves. His standing among his people isn’t based on likability but achievement. A celebrity cannot afford this attitude to his public; his likability—within the confines of his discipline—is the sine qua non of his achievement. None of this shows, of course, that losers are heroic because they struggle against themselves or even that they cannot be likeable and entertaining without also being celebrities. The titular protagonist of Meiselman: The Lean Years has at the age of thirty-six had an epiphany: he’s been a pushover ever since he can remember, and he doesn’t want to be the good guy who finishes last. He is neither a hero nor a celebrity, neither likeable nor engaging though he tries valiantly to rise to each description. Alas, yeast is wanting.
The very first glimpse we get into his interiority—the opening sentence of the novel—establishes him as a man of bottled resentments acquainted with “humiliations,” a congenital “number two” to others born into natural positions of leadership (p.7-8). Having first been given to understand he is as a bowel movement—speaking figuratively—flushed into oblivion, the reader is then plunged both feet forward into the subterranean but shallow thought processes which motivate him to strive for higher status among his colleagues, greater gestures of affection from his wife, and romantic interest from strange women. Now these thought processes could of course be interesting. Nothing precludes this except for the fact that they often aren’t.
Faced with an antihero established conventions lead one to expect someone characterologically lukewarm, neither good nor bad, who wants the good but lacks the traits to take hold of it. Meiselman is an antihero who doesn’t even have the mental bandwidth to conceive of the good, let alone the behavioural repertoire to approximate it if it were spelled out for him. This is curious because he is scrupulous in the honing of his religious and moral instincts. He will not have sex with his wife without consulting his rabbi if there is a sliver of doubt about the ritual propriety of the time relative to her menstrual cycle. He will resist kosher food that might have treyf impurities from being prepared in the same oven with non-kosher food. Of course he will fail by his own standards, and will experience pangs of guilt and self-judgement; sometimes it will be the self-judgement that perversely propels him by confirming for him his self-image as a righteous man. Unable to achieve any semblance of greatness in baseball he’s dedicated to obsessively rehearsing others’ exploits. “He hasn’t won awards, but he can rattle off the batting averages, home runs, and runs-batted-in of any White Sox player from the past twenty years” (p.111). This is what it is to be Joe Six-pack. So, for all intents and purposes Meiselman doesn’t even live up to the ideal of the antihero with the relatively relaxed demands placed on the morally ambivalent also-ran.
Meiselman genuinely entertains only unintentionally and then the spectacle is usually a guilt inducing one. Like in laughing at a fat man slipping on a banana peel, there is an element of impropriety in perceiving the protagonist in his naked humanity. One doesn’t want to denigrate his attempt to get some connubial comfort when his wife is ritually unavailable, though he does so by engaging in frottage with her mattress (p.156). But it is hard to suppress a chuckle when we see the thicket of thoughts he must negotiate before he finds release: Jewish religious tradition’s preference for standing over kneeling; potential costs and benefits of confessing to Deena that he’d eaten and lied about the salmon patties she’d made for her father; the fact that after examining the discharge on her underwear Rav Fruman had ruled he should not lie with her yet; the fact that he was lusting over and insinuating himself into the life of a young pink-haired community college student he’d met at the library; and, the speculation that Deena would avenge his assorted confessions by cuckolding him with a bad boy motorcyclist patient of hers.
Perhaps he’d make a more compelling heel if he were able to conceive and enact grander villainies. As it stands the holocaust survivor senior citizen neighbour Mrs. Woolf, who takes on loud gardening projects at night disturbing his sleep, lets her dog poop on the sidewalk and offers “never a neighbourly word” (p.13) is able to frustrate him without even trying. It is in any case unclear if her neighbourly chit chat could do enough to atone for her lack of civic sense. His approach to this conflict is to mostly conserve his energy to grumble about her to Deena, as he doesn’t have enough “for a confrontation” that might resolve the situation (p.18). He does muster the courage to hide the gardening hose Mrs. Woolf has been using to create a small pool of water as a part of her plan to grow rice in her garden. But this is only after being needled by Deena who fears that the old lady might flood their lot. At his antiheroic best on learning that the deceased Mrs. Woolf was an influential agriculturalist and advisor to six presidents he capitalises on the circumstance by posturing as the grief stricken soul who first saw her in that state and informed her neglectful son who lived callously in another city. Meiselman’s near-villainy in enjoying the obituary’s mentioning that he’d done this neighbourly solid for a woman who had worked on “…sustainable agriculture…food security…land improvement…[was] a member of President Clinton’s World Food Summit delegation… [and] a proponent of the Right to Food movement” (p.263) is a delightful moment.
Deena, reading from a book Meiselman bought her for which she “had to ask only once” (p.19), describes love as helping another control their “obsessions and destructive emotions,” liberating them from “volatile and dispiriting patterns” (p.20). By this demanding definition Deena fails to love her husband; he remains emotionally and behaviourally incontinent in spite of her attempts at educating him. He believes that it is actions not emotions that need to be controlled, and perhaps this is at the heart of his chronic moral clumsiness. He fails to control his actions because he hasn’t a handle on his emotions. His understanding of what it would be to win in the game of life is surprisingly meagre given the monumental shadows his maudlin grievances cast on his picture of the world. He’d have liked to have been Ethel’s husband, or boyfriend, or at least—when they were both kids—the guy she kissed in her bathroom without involuntarily defecating and leaving him to “mop up the mess, streaking brown across the floor” (p.34). He’d have liked that if he was destined in his twenties to be reprimanded by his mother for making depraved use of a photograph under his bed that it not have turned out to be one of his grandmother in a bathing suit. He’d have liked to have been the man able to casually attract an exciting pink-haired, pierced-eyebrowed community college student with his natural charm and deep grasp of Shakespeare’s plays. He’d have liked to have been the elder brother Gershon who was preferred by Rav Fruman and earmarked to continue studying at the yeshiva instead of going on to the tumahdika school across town where all the gifted students from whom secular mainstream success is expected go. None of these wishes have been granted him. But could he counterfactually have acted so as to make it so that these events had transpired as he’d desired them? He seems to come to think not. The unwelcome gnosis contaminates his hopes for the future as well.
He may resolve to win but “[w]inning has to be practiced, worked into every action, every utterance” (p.64), and it is as impossible to practice for it as it is to anticipate every action and utterance before its due moment. Instead of trying to win big he’s content to try to woo a college kid with a show of erudition he doesn’t possess, helping her with an essay on Julius Caesar to submit as her own; and, which he has himself jerry-rigged from paraphrased bits of others’ essays. Perhaps the reader ought to already have taken the hint: Meiselman will not win even by his own lights. The problematic author Shenkenberg he has to interview at the New Niles Public Library holds the crowd in the palm of his hands, giving Meiselman a ringside view of what he will never have. Meiselman will consider wrestling the guest into rhetorical submission, embarrassing him with tough questions even as he impresses upon the audience his own sagacity and insight into the themes of the book he has barely read in half-assed attempts to locate the controversial bits. Of course when the pedal hits the metal and Shenkenberg gets the bigger laughs from the audience he backtracks: “[h]ogging the hub from the writer, he now realizes, is no longer realistic” (p.299). His longed for promotion to Ethel’s position is given instead to the angler Mitchell whom he has become accustomed to prematurely thinking of as one of the “underlings” (p.310). One laughs uneasily at the abasement of Meiselman who occupies the unhappy consciousness of being the protagonist of his story only in his own head and that of the reader who is called to voyeuristically commiserate with him.
The contentual elements of Meiselman’s world are what they are and there is no decisive aesthetic argument against their viability as subjects deserving of sustained contemplation in fiction. To this reader, however, they constitute a series of “enigmatic episodes” as Tim Parks (2016) describes the concept in The Novel: A Survival Strategy. The idea is that a novel takes a reader along on a journey by luring them with relatable or interesting characters, gripping descriptions, insightful or novel reflections of the narrator, the dramatic gravity of the plot, and the “eloquence of style” (Parks p.26). But sometimes for a reader one or more of the elements are bewildering or alienating: the characters become erratic or unbearable, descriptions rankle and aggravate, or the style is unable to overcome the unpleasantnesses of plot and dramatic composition. This has nothing to do with the features of the book at the purely objective, formal level as the phenomenon only occurs when there is mismatch between those formal contentual features and a given reader’s aesthetic responsive dispositions. That the protagonist has accidentally masturbated to a photograph of his grandmother, and every now and then deliberately does so with his boss’s photograph in her office doesn’t strike this reader as sufficiently compelling evidence of moral complexity simply because he’s also an anxious, scrupulous, religious man who tries to do the right thing when he can help it. Meiselman is an enigma because he occupies character space—a location in the book’s narrative topography—in a way that obliges the reader to attribute moral, imaginative, and practical agency to him in a degree he doesn’t deserve when compared with the cast of characters who surround him in what are ostensibly supporting roles. It is hard to see, for instance, why the canny Rav Fruman who is also as flawed as Meiselman in being conceited, opportunistic, and given to exploiting his power over subordinates doesn’t deserve the same sustained focus on his interiority. Consider Rav Fruman’s unfavourable comparison of Meiselman with his brother Gershon, his insinuation that Deena wore light-coloured underwear specifically to increase the likelihood that a stain would hasten the period of ritual separation from her husband, his dismissal of Meiselman’s complaints about the state of the yeshiva’s disrepair as shallow and unserious. There is a perfect parallelism between Rav Fruman’s and Meiselman’s antiheroic potential except for the singular fact that one of them is not a schlemiel. If Nabokov’s Lolita succeeds in making us tarry with a murderer because of his fancy prose style, Landes’ austere and relentlessly transparent prose makes one wish the protagonist will soon at least commit a murder to justify our growing antipathy.
One way to make a schlemiel protagonist more genuinely tragic is to raise the stakes beyond the purely personal. The humiliations being avenged need to be more than private ones, and the scores being settled need to be not based on a tallying of unfairly received insults to one’s dignity. Hari Kunzru attempts in his novel Red Pill to dignify a failed hero by composing a plot where the ineffectual protagonist at least enters into a logomachy of sorts with daedal villains who are plotting for nothing less than a rejection of the democratic world order and the rules based system of international relations structured by political liberalism, economic liberalism, and liberal internationalism. In that breakdown novel the protagonist ends up involuntarily therapized and cured of his revolutionary instincts on account of being unable to manage his own life. But at least he has attempted to fight forces larger than himself. In Meiselman the protagonist’s ultimate crisis, his being passed over for the role of Director of Library Services, comes with no chastening to set him on the straight and narrow path out of loserdom. He has fought himself and failed. Landes is “standing up for him, when nobody else in the world will.” This reviewer remains uncomfortably seated.