Defining the slippery category of literary fiction is arguably a fool’s errand, not only because every so often someone (most recently, and most tediously, Lee Siegel) eagerly declares it dead, but because there’s inevitable disagreement over precisely which duties a novel must perform in order to qualify. Nevertheless, as that famous line about pornography goes, I know it when I see it, and Wherever You Go, the new Israel-set novel by Joan Leegant, is most certainly not it. The reason I bother to emphasize this is that the novel, her debut, carries the trappings of literary-ness so overtly: it’s published in a tastefully designed hardcover (featuring a photograph of a woman’s slender figure ascending some stone steps in Jerusalem’s Old City); it boasts a hyperbolic blurb by author and critic Jonathan Wilson, who references Chekhov and draws a comparison with Philip Roth; the story, promises the jacket copy, encompasses the Very Important Themes of religious extremism and Middle East politics; there are epigraphs from the Bible and Shakespeare; Leegant, the bio reveals, won awards including the PEN New England for her first book (a collection of short stories), used to teach writing at Harvard and, should you require further convincing, gives thanks for residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo in her opening acknowledgments. So you can imagine my disappointment when Wherever You Go, which follows the ultimately entwined fates of three soul-searching American Jews in Israel, turned out to have about as much psychological depth, moral complexity and political nuance as an episode of 24.
The action begins promisingly enough. Yona Stern, an arty thirty-year-old New Yorker, arrives in Israel for a reunion with her long-estranged older sister, Dena, who’s part of the radical settler movement and lives beyond the Green Line, near Hebron. Leegant displays considerable gifts when it comes to evoking Yona’s impressions of the country, the smells and sights, attitudes and atmosphere, and the reader is keen to discover why she and Dena haven’t spoken for ten years. It quickly emerges that when Yona was twenty, the sisters moved to Israel together, Yona to attend college, and Dena and her boyfriend David to get jobs. Despite the fact that the sisters had never gotten along—“the age difference took care of that”—and that Dena and David were unaccountably living in “a remote desert town,” Yona would regularly travel the two hours from Jerusalem to spend time with them, resulting in David falling for her. There’s some hastily-sketched out backstory involving a dead mother and a distant father, but basically, Yona shtupped the older sister’s boyfriend, and the ensuing guilt means that a decade later, she’s an aimless masochist exclusively interested in married men. Even Leegant seems to fear this is a rather unconvincing psychological trajectory, or so I assume by her decision to literally spell it out for us; after dumping a heartbroken David, Yona returned to the US and embarked upon an affair with an NYU professor: “Needing to numb herself against the possibility of any legitimate entanglements, terrified of whom she might next destroy, she was glad to take on the role of professor’s worshipful nymph. And so the pattern began, a bad girl making sure she never got more that what she deserved.” Paging Barbara DeAngelis!
Needless to say, the betrayal was the deciding factor in Dena’s life, too: within weeks she’d married a zealous pioneer of a collection of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, thus becoming a brutal extremist with a heart of ice and a penchant for jolly declarations like “you can’t fathom my belief in the sanctity of the land and the supreme importance of its redemption.” Leegant’s central philosophical purpose is to expose as dangerous and misguided Zena’s cause—the right-wing Zionist dedication to possessing “the Whole Land, from the Jordan River to the sea—Samaria, Judea, all of it”—which is apparent from the get-go when all of the settler characters are one-dimensionally unhinged and/or monstrous. But the point will be hammered home explicitly when the plot—whose skillful construction is one of the novel’s few impressive elements, and whose unfolding eventually connects Yona with the two other American transplants, their stories told in alternating chapters—reaches its bloody climax.
Leegant’s second main character, thirty-six-year-old Mark Greenglass, like Yona arrives in the story via less-than-perfect parenting and youthful romantic mishaps. An Orthodox scholar who teaches the Talmud in Jerusalem seminaries, he grew up in a secular New York City household, became a massive junkie—possibly because his father was a bit distant?—then when his junkie girlfriend, Regina, gave him some books about the Holocaust (as one does), he was struck by an epiphany that may be authentically felt by many, but is still wincingly clichéd in a literary context: “All those deaths, just because they were Jews. Suddenly he wanted to be a Jew. A real Jew.” Now, however, back in New York to teach a course at a yeshiva, he is—inexplicably to himself and to us but not, naturally, to the demands of the plot, which will bring him back to Jerusalem and into the lives of Yona and Zena—suffering a crisis of faith: “Something inside was dying, a fire that had blazed in him for twelve years.”
The third member of Leegant’s trio is Aaron Blinder, a college age New Yorker who has wound up in a hard-core nationalist camp in the West Bank via less-than-perfect parenting and youthful—oh, you get the picture. The camp is run by a bloodthirsty maniac named Naftali Shroeder, an associate of Dena’s husband and a cartoon villain who regards American Jews as “parasites” and “sycophants,” but whose spell Aaron easily falls under thanks to the emotional scars inflicted by his father’s disapproval. As if the story and characters weren’t already buckling under the weight of Leegant’s ideological framework, she makes Aaron’s father, Emanuel Blinder, a bestselling author of Holocaust novels, books enthusiastically consumed by the reading public but regarded by critics as exploitative concentration camp-porn. Without giving away the third act’s twists and turns, which are, as I say, very deftly co-ordinated, the conclusion sees Emanuel Blinder’s career used as a diplomatic bargaining tool between the US and Israeli authorities when his son is arrested for terrorism. In one of the most hilariously unrealistic scenes I’ve ever read in a so-called serious novel, it is agreed that Blinder will never again write about Jews or the Holocaust, so as not to inflame the radicalist tendencies in our impressionable youth. The creepy implications of such censorship are ignored, which is unsurprising in a novel so blithely unaware of its own shortcomings.
By the final pages, everything else is tied up with a neat little bow, and there’s a healthy serving of redemption and a bright future beckoning for those religiously and politically moderate enough to deserve it. Yona has gotten together with a nice secular—and single!—boy who we immediately know is Mr. Right, because he so obligingly speechifies Leegant’s political manifesto: “We have to find a way to move on. Both sides do. They have to stop filling their kids’ heads with nonsense about returning to fairy-tale places inside Israel that don’t exist anymore, that were destroyed during independence, and we have to stop letting the settlers call all the shots and grab the Palestinians’ land.” It’s hard to decide what’s most irksome about Wherever You Go: the broad-strokes didacticism of such passages, the triteness of the characters’ spiritual and emotional evolution, or that when books like this are passed off as important and highbrow, Lee Siegel or whoever gets to sound the death knell for the relevance of serious fiction.