October 2013

Hannah Sheldon-Dean

fiction

A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram combined have nothing on Genizah. Invented by the beautiful, preternaturally gifted software engineer Josie Ashkenazi, Genizah is designed to record and catalogue every moment of its users' lives. From photographs and videos to correspondence and personal records, Genizah captures it all and scans it for relevant data -- from the smile on a photographic subject's face to the exact location the image was captured. Then, the application archives all of this digital detritus according to the preferences and categories that it learns from its users, and presents it as a series of virtual rooms that one might visit, a museum devoted to each user and his or her curated past. This glorious fantasy app is the backbone of Dara Horn's new novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, and of its exploration of the messy issues of memory, history, and future promise.

Josie's success has brought her fame and fortune, much to the chagrin of her forever-sidelined older sister, Judith. Josie has it all, including a brilliant husband and an adorable daughter, while Judith continually struggles to hold down a job or a boyfriend. When Josie is invited to work as a consultant at a prestigious Egyptian library, Judith insists that Josie go; when Josie is kidnapped during her trip, Judith has only the slightest reservations about slipping right into the domestic bliss that her sister left behind.

Meanwhile -- or rather, back in the late nineteenth century -- a Cambridge professor named Solomon Schechter is tipped off to the historical goldmine that turns out to be the Cairo Genizah: a hidden room within a medieval synagogue that holds both religious treasures and an endless trove of discarded artifacts from the daily lives of those who lived hundreds of years earlier. There in Egypt, Schechter becomes preoccupied with the life and works of the Jewish scholar and philosopher Maimonides, who will become renowned for his meditations on divine omniscience and free will. Josie, it so happens, is also pondering Maimonides's famous Guide for the Perplexed during her imprisonment, and Horn interweaves her reflections with Schechter's. What does it mean, they both wonder, to record and catalogue the past? And how can these acts of remembering affect the future?

Horn's novel -- which is loosely based on the biblical story of Joseph -- is one of immense intellectual ambition, and yet it pulls off the impressive feat of maintaining a fast pace and vivid imagery without sacrificing the nuances of its existential explorations. It's an insightful look at a web of subjects ranging from medieval Jewish scholarship to present-day Egyptian politics, but it's also a tightly woven and suspenseful story. For the most part, characters and settings are drawn with quick, clear strokes; of Josie, for example, Horn writes that the awe the Genizah software inspires reminds her of "showing her mother a teacher's glowing comments on her schoolwork, the gold star next to her name. She still aspired to gold stars." The disorganized stacks of paper in a room in the Egyptian library seem "as though the paper had decided to reconstitute itself back into trees." With such fresh and incisive descriptions, Horn keeps the text light and accessible even as it addresses weighty matters. Modern readers will also relate readily to the invasive nature of technology in Josie and Judith's world; when missing her family, Josie also feels a "shameful mourning for her phone" and the neatly ordered world it once gave her.

This novel does, however, have its flaws. One is a matter of structure. With Schechter's chapters appearing unpredictably within Josie's narrative, it can be difficult for either section to maintain momentum, and toggling back and forth between the two can be tedious. A long section late in the book focusing on the life of Maimonides himself compounds that problem; it reinforces many of the book's central themes, but doesn't do much else. The unwavering persistence with which the author brings the story back to those themes also feels unnecessary and a bit heavy-handed. Characters' dreams are replete with too-convenient imagery; the narration dwells seemingly endlessly on images of burial and delving into the earth; sometimes, characters even say things as blatantly pedantic as, "The past will become a bottomless pit. In that kind of archive, one can find anything one wishes to find."

Perhaps the book's greatest weakness, though, is the character of Josie's sister Judith, who seems to think and feel only what is most effective for furthering the book's main ideas. At first, she comes off as bizarrely diabolical; later on, she transforms into a repentant martyr for what seem like fairly flimsy reasons. Because so much of the plot hinges on Judith's choices, the opacity of her character is a disappointment.

All of that said, this novel's main purpose is seems to be to examine the existential dilemmas that its characters face, and in that respect, it succeeds wonderfully. Josie and Schechter continually struggle to divine the differences between what words and data say and what they truly mean, and Horn refrains from offering any easy answers. Josie is prone to an insurmountable "wave of accuracy," a need to catalogue every bit of her human experience into the proper patterns, but she comes to realize the destructive side of that desire: "That the act of reliving the past could consume the future, that regret regularly ate people alive." For his part, the great thinker Maimonides reflects that "no one had ever taught him stories -- or as he thought of them, nonsense," and yet, another character views what might seem like as story as instead a "fundamental life-enabling fact." So, which is it? Is converting the data of the past into tidy narratives an act of destruction, or of survival? The book ends on an ambiguous note, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions, armed with a colorful array of evidence and perspectives. And that invitation to reflection -- that insistence that considering these questions is a matter of life and death -- makes this novel as culturally significant as it is entertaining.

A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393064896
352 pages