Officially, there is no hall of fame for unhappy families. But even the staunchest Russian novelist might be hard pressed to match the particular gift for dysfunction that the Wilcoxes, subjects of Jess Row’s sprawling metafiction “The New Earth,” display with such impressive esprit de corps across nearly 600 dense and often wildly discursive pages. Death and divorce are a given; immigration, climate change and crises of faith crowd the margins, clambering to compete with a thousand-year conflict in the Middle East. Incest eventually enters the chat, an assiduous but uninvited guest, and race hovers over it all, a quivering question mark. (The impetus for everything, naturally, is a wedding.)
It’s all richly imagined, reflexively neurotic and frequently quite dazzling. It’s also more than a single book, even one guided by a keen and careful hand, can adequately contain: a Gordian knot of domestic melodrama, global politics and high-flying philosophy told in multitudinous forms not limited to voice memos, free-verse poetry and unsent emails. A glowing cover blurb from Jonathan Lethem extols how Row, who promptly breaks the fourth wall on the ninth page, “explodes the family saga from within.” You have been warned.
In fact there’s not a little bit of Lethem in the novel’s distinctly New York setting, and in its many metaphysical wanderings beyond those walls — though Franzen may be a closer Jonathan, at least in the ways that Row (“Nobody Ever Gets Lost”) seems to go almost subcutaneous in his examination of the damage that the nuclear unit of spouses and siblings, parents and offspring can do.
“You want me to cut to the chase, but I’m not cutting to the chase,” one main character scolds a minor player early on, tellingly. “Sometimes time is not of the essence. You have to let a thought expand.” We are not bound by Row’s rules, so let us slice through: Despite their Anglicized name, the Wilcoxes are an immediately recognizable type, Upper West Side Jews long and comfortably defined by the bourgeois markers of their “lox-and-herring-and-Sunday-Times” tribe. Sandy is a lawyer poured in the mold of Gregory Peck, a rangy Midwestern gentile willfully grandfathered into the faith that his wife, Naomi, a brilliant, brittle climate scientist, was raised in but mostly rejects for herself.
Two young seekers who met at Oberlin in the early 1970s and married by graduation, the pair were once swept up in the idealism of the era: a stint in Berkeley organizing farmworkers, several years at a Zen collective in Vermont. By the time their third child arrives, though, they have fully surrendered to the yuppified ’80s; there’s a partner-track job at a respectable Jewish law firm for Sandy, a teaching post at Columbia for Naomi and an apartment at the Apthorp on 79th and Broadway, a Gilded Age monolith peppered with “shrinks, dentists, oboists and CUNY professors.” Their firstborn, Patrick (or Trick), is quickly followed by two girls, Winter and Bering; all three are raised, with Naomi’s begrudging acquiescence, on weekly synagogue and fasting at Yom Kippur.
The kids, battered bystanders in their parents’ increasingly caustic union, are not all right; flirtations with weed, piercings, “some low grade cutting and self harm” ensue. But each one eventually survives adolescence, peeling off respectively to Harvard or Yale Law or a small liberal-arts college in the Northwest. And then Bering, the baby of the family, is dead — shot through the heart at 21 by an Israel Defense Forces sniper during a protest on the West Bank.
How she got there, and the subsequent fallout from a private loss that spurs international headlines, make up at least some of what follows. But Row has so much more to unpack that “The New Earth” quickly becomes a sort of panopticon of interconnected story lines, hopscotching through time and geography. There are chapters on Naomi’s new lover — an unflappable, wide-hipped lab tech named Tilda — and her long-ago infidelity with a Zen master in Vermont, her battle for tenure and the genesis of what will become her masterwork, a best-selling piece of ecological nihilism called “The Shiva Hypothesis.”
The distracted, dutiful Sandy is generally accepted as no match for his semi-estranged wife; “a hopelessly outclassed intellect,” Patrick tells an ex-girlfriend (but not, alas, a therapist), “who’s flailed around in a failed marriage for 40 years to a real, certifiable genius, who also happens to be intolerable and borderline psychotic, who never should have had children in the first place.”
Indeed, one questions the motivations of a woman who casually relays to her brood over spare ribs and scallion pancakes that her late father was in fact a Black man. Sandy has always known, though he presumed she might spend a lifetime explaining away her kinky hair and olive skin: “Who knew that instead she would carry those facts like a suicide vest into a Chinese restaurant on Amsterdam and 69th? On Christmas Day, no less, the year’s strangest day for Jews, no less for him, a former celebrant.”
A fiercely unapologetic Naomi dismisses her own disclosure out of hand as “an asterisk.” In Row’s studied 2014 satire “Your Face in Mine,” white characters gladly volunteered for “racial reassignment surgery”; for Bering, though, the news is shattering, a core truth of her selfhood cruelly withheld.
By then she has already begun and ended a sexual relationship with her brother — a bombshell the book returns to intermittently as it bobs and weaves between other fraught narratives: Patrick’s post-collegiate spiritual quest in Nepal and monastic self-exile to Berlin; Winter’s struggles as an immigration lawyer in Trump’s circa-2018 America and the looming deportation threat against her Mexican-born fiancé; Sandy’s emotional reckonings and Naomi’s fresh romance.
Looming over them all is the novel itself, an anthropomorphized thing that serves alternately as spirit guide, secret architect and scamp — one that Row both engages with and interrogates, like a recalcitrant pet. “Suddenly, the novel wants to say. Suddenly something happened,” he writes, on the occasion of one startling revelation. “The novel opens its hand. Let me shock you, let me embarrass you. Cover your eyes, cover your mouth. Turn the music up.”
And the music here is very much turned up, a symphonic chorus that can be undeniably stimulating but also wearing. Can’t the Wilcoxes ever catch a break? Or, one wonders, do they want to? Likability might be for the lazy, but this family eschews it to an almost heroic degree: They are strident and congenitally stubborn, hamstrung by grievances and wounds they can’t or won’t close.
Even from the grave, Bering — her Hotmail drafts folder becomes a primary posthumous source for the text — remains something of a prickly enigma: a mercurial girl too scantly explored to really be known before she’s gone (though her journey allows Row to paint a deft, vivid sketch of the quagmire that is Palestine and Israel). The incest subplot feels like gilding an already rococo lily, the pure shock of it never entirely earned or explained, and Row’s heady prose occasionally tips into lit-major bombast, his paragraphs dappled with references to Barthes or Borges.
It can be delightfully tactile though, too: TV makeup is troweled on, “the consistency of hummus”; root vegetables lie in a crisper, “the warty stepchildren of the vegetable kingdom.” This is a book of warty, messy things, intractable and strange — but stumbling, maybe, toward a state of grace.
Leah Greenblatt is a freelance writer and former critic-at-large at Entertainment Weekly.
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