Friday, July 20, 2012

Medium of Mirth

Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman Channels Milton's Dual Archetypes

Allegra Goodman is her real name. As the author explains: “My parents were young and happy when I was born. My name is a cameo of my father and mother as newlyweds with their whole lives before them.” ( Allegro aptly marks the tempo of some of Goodman’s best writing: quick, lively, and bright. Passages like her snapshot of ebullient newlyweds George and Jess in The Cookbook Collector capture the spirit of Milton’s lilting “L’Allegro” – his poem about the happy man who spends a day in the country, and delights in music, laughter, and urban pleasures like the theater. Likewise in The Cookbook Collector, the author's lighthearted spirit glides above the surface of her story, unfurling passage after passage evoking youthful exuberance, the green world of nature, and communal festivity. Deeper, more thoughtful aspects of Goodman’s work, however, are like iterations of Milton’s companion piece “Il Penseroso” – a poem about a man, wise and meditative, who spends nights walking in the woods and studying in a tower. Here too, in Goodman’s most recent novel The Cookbook Collector (2010), it's as though Milton’s spirit archetype Il Penseroso surfaces in the character of Rabbi Helfgott, appears hauntingly at the peak of the existential learning curve confronting sisters Emily and Jessamine Bach, and materializes in the new found wisdom culminating the late coming-of-age of George Friedman, book collector and former Microsoft whiz kid.  

Born January 1, 1967, in Brooklyn, New York, Goodman grew up in Honolulu, the daughter of Lenn E. Goodman, Professor of Philosophy, and Madeleine Goodman, a biologist at the University of Hawaii. Goodman graduated from Punahou, an independent school founded in the 19th century by Congregationalist missionaries, in 1985, completed her undergraduate work at Harvard, and earned a doctorate in English Literature from Stanford. Goodman is married to computer scientist David Karger, and lives with her husband and their four children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cookbook Collector has been praised for its spot-on descriptions, astute social comedy, and perfect understanding of the financial crisis of 2008. By contrast, some reviewers found Goodman’s Intuition disappointing because it did not readily display Goodman’s vaunted wit. A victim of favorable expectations, Goodman’s novel about the intense world of cancer research, with its laboratory hierarchies, dependency on grants, and hungry post-docs, failed to win the audience it deserved. In fact this versatile writer produced a different type of novel in Intuition: a raw, truth-telling novel of relentless realism, which nevertheless features Goodman’s signature non-judgmental, gentle regard for even the least likeable of her characters.

I have seen her in person, speaking at a writer’s conference, and Goodman is indeed so lively that it is hard to imagine her sitting still long enough to write a novel, let alone a work of consummate craftsmanship like The Cookbook Collector. Fittingly, Goodman says she writes on the go: any time, any place, anywhere. Goodman was a National Book Award finalist for her 1998 novel, Kaaterskill Falls. She has received other awards as well, but not so many or so prestigious that we have to worry about her being ‘loaded with honors and sinking without a trace.’

What will Goodman write next? In the case of this author, that remains an open question. In an interview with Five Books in November of 2011, Goodman chose George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda to recommend as a work of Jewish fiction. Defending her choice, Goodman argues that it was Eliot’s brilliance as a writer-researcher that allowed her to author a great work of fiction about Jewish life in the 19th century – something of which she had no direct experience. “Eliot showed me that you should write about what you know but also about what you learn,” comments Goodman, avowing that she did just that in creating her scientist characters in Intuition, and the technocrats in The Cookbook Collector (Five Books/ The Browser:

Whatever she writes next, Goodman’s eighth work of (published) fiction will startle and delight, inform, inspire, and challenge.

In the meanwhile, read the following two passages by the pert mistress of metaphysical realism, and relish the way Goodman leads one of her questing technocrats in and gently out of an encounter with a female archetype that's close to divine:

 Harvard Square glowed with artificial light. Damp air misted the doors of Brattle Street Florist with its potted azaleas and glossy-leaved gardenias. Cardullo’s stocked Dutch licorice and Belgian chocolate, Bendicks mints, Walkers shortbread, Turkish delight. Every shop tempted with earrings and antiquities, evergreens and crimson KitchenAids. But the millennium’s end was not altogether jolly. The hungry still hungered, addicts scratched and stole. The season had its somber rites, exams and funerals. Hushed students filed into Houghton Library to view the manuscript of “Ode to Autumn” and puzzle at its wailful choir of loss and consolation.
  The market dipped and rose, and rose again, and some speculated that the new economy had limits. It was popular to say, even without believing, that this time might never come again, that it was late in the day. Some said the markets had already peaked, and Wall Street wizards agreed that timing was everything. Therefore, ISIS celebrated its December IPO with equal parts relief and trepidation.
  Orion noticed that where there had been banter about boats and cars, bikes and ultralights, now the talk was strictly options and derivatives, wills and trusts."   

* * *
"One night, as he and Molly walked through Harvard Square, he saw a tall figure standing on a pedestal in front of Jasmine Sola. An angel dressed in white and painted white from head to toe. Feathery wings rose up behind her and white robes draped her body down to her white feet. Orion had seen these living statues before: angels, brides, cavaliers, standing on their pedestals, never moving, scarcely breathing until passersby dropped money at their feet. Like coin-operated automatons the statues bowed or curtsied, doffed hats or winked. He had seen them all before, but he stopped in front of this one.
  “Come on,” Molly said, eager to get to their movie, but Orion couldn’t help staring at the angel with her outspread wings.
  “Sorel?” he murmured. The ghostly figure did not move. “Is that you?”
  Molly was puzzled. “Is that who…?”
  “It’s someone from work.”
  “From ISIS? Are you sure?”
  He wasn’t sure. The figure stood so still and seemed so solid, her face layered with thick white greasepaint, her figure heavy in its draperies. Maybe he was just imagining Sorel. He saw her everywhere. Then he caught a red-gold gleam, one loose hair. “It is you!” he called up to her.
  But Sorel was a Method angel who would not break character. She continued, calm, majestic, unblinking even as children tried to touch her feet, and other buskers covered Simon & Garfunkel in shop doorways. Hello, darkness my old friend…Orion allowed Molly to hurry him away.
  “That was you!” he told Sorel on Monday, as soon as she walked in.
  “That was art,” she said, sliding her guitar under her desk.
  “Admit it,” he said. “You saw me in the square.”
  “She laughed. “I admit nothing.”
  “Why do you do that? Why do you stand out there in the cold? You don’t need the money.”
  She conceded. “I give it away.”
  “Why do you stand out there so late at night?”
  “It’s personal. It’s intimate.”
  “It’s intimate to disguise yourself and stand out there in a crowd of strangers?”
  “Yes. Compared to this place.”
  He leaned against the gray wall of her cubicle. “What if some guy starts hitting on you? What do you do then?”
  A smile played on her lips. “Turn him to stone.”

–– The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman



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