the new earth
By Jess Row
Ecco: 592 pages, $33
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In Jess Row’s magnificent novel “the new earth”, this week, Winter Wilcox stands out as the most level-headed of her family. A brilliant group, however, they are falling apart, and bringing them back together has become Winter’s task, as well as the main tension of this 600-page novel. However, Winter is also in crisis.
For starters, she’s an immigration lawyer under the chill of early Trumps, a chill that pervades the current action of the novel, limited to a few turbulent months in 2018. Winter’s relationships with Wilcox, as well as any friends that we know of, they are all MAGA. coconuts: multicultural coastal elites. They are also at odds with the history that shaped them, picking up scabs from decades ago. (The title itself is from the 18th century, from the slave trade.) Family memories range from the stillness of Alaskan winters to the heat and terror of the West Bank under the intifada. Here and now, we are in New York or New England, the Wilcox territories, at a time when Winter must fight tooth and nail for immigrants.
One of them, after all, is her fiancé, the father of her unborn child. Zeno is Mexican, solidly employed and deeply in love. Winter is healthy, and they have “enough money.” But then there is the family. Their divisions run so deep, if only exacerbated by their intelligence and successes, that even the marriage of a daughter and a baby on the way might not unite them.
The worst divisions date back 15 years to the murder of the youngest, Winter’s sister Bering. Poetic and precocious, at the age of 21 the girl joined a Palestinian protest and was killed by an Israeli sniper. Her older brother, Patrick, retired for years to Buddhist monasticism and still lives abroad, mired in his coding and largely out of touch. Mother Naomi and father Sandy, despite impressive careers and “enough money,” have proven terribly, hurtfully wrong for each other. These days they live apart, between festering sores a private Jewish question: Sandy was converted by Naomi, but her real father, still barely recognized, was black.
In short, Row has no end of material. Better yet, he’s shrewd enough to link the family breakdown to his country’s failures, his systems dependent, as Winter puts it, on a workforce “analogous, yes, to slavery.”
A line like that might sound academic (actually, it’s critical race theory), but nothing in “The New Earth” is devoid of what Zeno calls “human disorder.” The drama opens with Sandy’s grimly serious suicide attempt, and Naomi not only has a father she’s long kept silent about, but also a new secret: a loving woman. Children have their own woes, as does the husband-to-be, all shared in a polyphony of severed tongues. Often these appear in different formats or fonts. Zeno’s father records long voice memos filled with regret; Patrick makes tortured confessions in chat rooms. The most heart-wrenching cry can be heard on the first few pages, with Bering’s final email, sent as he was preparing to face Israeli weapons:
When my life’s journey has come to an end,
… that the peaceful and wrathful Buddhas
send the power of your compassion
and clear away the darkness of ignorance.
Deities of many kinds cast their shadows everywhere. Naomi and Sandy may be superficial Jews, but their 1970s commune was a Buddhist retreat. Patrick took the vows of a monk, Bering wished blessings on the world, and Winter’s work is a righteous calling. To choose an image from the Old Testament, this family fights with the Angel. Some pages from Naomi’s perspective even mimic Scripture: “1:16 Come, sea, and swallow up the earth, I prayed to the Lord.”
That sentence calls for something else that haunts this text: namely, destruction. Oblivion has always been a spiritual quest option, offering release from the torments of tribe and identity, not to mention the ugly business of America First. As much as “New Earth” embraces the new birth, as much as it is about love, the death wish offers a suspenseful counterpoint. The father’s near-headbutt from a Manhattan balcony is just the first case, and each suicidal impulse reveals connections to figures like Reagan or Netanyahu, in a “political archaeology” that situates our entire way of life on that high ledge.
The thing that keeps Sandy from jumping turns out to be one of Row’s most inventive and delicate plot devices. Archeology and mysticism never prevent him from giving surprises, including a lot of humor. The handling of black relatives particularly impressed me, more subtle than in Row’s first novel, “Your Face in Mine,” more harrowing than in “White Flights,” his essays on race and literature. The reading experience never flags, though it could have with a little less background, less proof that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Tolstoy’s line also takes us back to the novels themselves, another theme here. The traumas of “The New Earth” repeatedly provoke related intrusions into the narratives themselves in long prose: bold forays into metafiction. Such writing has become passé, considered a faded branch of postmodernism, but when Row mentions his art form, he heightens the drama.
For example, as Winter runs her errands and worries about her pregnancy: “She’s moving, the novel is moving. It’s relentless.” The text becomes part of the predicament she finds herself in, relentless like a xenophobic president or the baby in her womb. Likewise, after Winter and her mother make plans to meet, both women approach their lovers: “At the same moment, because a novel can do this, Naomi turns to Tilda and says: ‘I need you. there for moral support. ‘”
Ultimately, “The New Earth” is all about the resurrection. If Row isn’t pulling a jumper back to safety, he’s reasserting the value of fiction over fiction, or finding fresh ground for the American family novel. The Wilcoxes suffer as many contemporary crises as Jonathan Franzen’s Lamberts, but they prove to be more engaging and moving. The panorama that comes to life around you feels like a masterpiece for our fractured time.
Domini’s latest book is the memoir “The Archeology of a Good Ragu”.