Daniel Pearl, a Novel
Joshua Henkin’s seductive The World Without You transforms recent headlines into intimate family drama
There’s nothing like a novel set in the recent past to remind you of how quickly things change. In 2005, if a novelist had published a book that hinged on the murder of a Jewish American journalist by Islamic terrorists in Iraq, it would have been read as a political novel, a war novel, a post-9/11 novel—and, of course, a roman a clef about Daniel Pearl, who died in 2002 in Pakistan. Seven years later, Joshua Henkin has published just such a book in The World Without You, which is set in 2005 on the anniversary of the murder of Leo Frankel, whose story closely mirrors Pearl’s. The story takes place entirely on the Fourth of July weekend—an invitation to reflect on the state of the nation if ever there was one.
Yet the passage of time has made it possible for Henkin to turn this headline-news premise into a book that is quiet, inward-turning, and largely apolitical. Leo Frankel’s death is alluded to but never actually described; the particular reasons for his murder matter less than the void it has left in the lives of his family: That void, not Iraq or terrorism or anti-Semitism, is Henkin’s real subject. It has brought Leo’s parents, the long and happily married David and Marilyn, to the brink of divorce; it has deepened the divisions among his three sisters, Clarissa, Lily, and Noelle; and it has left his widow, Thisbe, with the terrifying freedom to start a new life.
The World Without You follows these characters as they gather in the Frankels’ summer house in Lenox, Mass., for the unveiling of Leo’s grave. Henkin proceeds by means of dialogues and meditations, with hardly a set-piece or dramatic eruption to be found. Even the memorial service, which promises to be the climax of the weekend and the novel, and around which so many emotions are swirling, is spared the fate of becoming a denouement or a symbol. Instead, it is just another one of the evenly narrated events of the weekend, where nothing especially dramatic happens. Instead, there is the typical small change of a summer weekend in the Berkshires: a bicycle ride, a swim in the lake, a drive into town, a game of tennis.
In every respect, The World Without You marks an advance on Henkin’s previous book, Matrimony, which came out in 2007. Matrimony, as its title suggests, had an even narrower focus than the new book: It told the story of a couple, Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn, from their meeting in college through their 15th reunion. In fact, Julian and Mia never wholly escape the gravitational field of college. Each chapter of the book is titled after a college town where they spend a phase of their lives, from the fictional Northington, Mass.—a thinly veiled Williamstown or Amherst—through Ann Arbor, where Mia goes to graduate school, and Iowa City, where Julian attends the Writers’ Workshop.
Novels about would-be writers and permanent grad students are plentiful, and naturally enough they tend to be comedies. But Matrimony is not that kind of book, and the spectacle of Julian’s stasis, the extreme slow-motion of his growing up, produces instead a kind of uncomfortable pity in the reader. The World Without You builds on the strengths of Matrimony while avoiding its claustrophobia. The social class Henkin writes about remains the same—these are all upper-middle-class professionals, who went to Yale or Princeton and have jobs like public-interest lawyer, doctor, and celebrity chef. The town of Lenox, which Henkin describes with such up-to-date detail—the streets, the restaurants, the shops—that the book could practically serve as a travel guide, is a moneyed enclave in a world in turmoil. The distance from Lenox to Baghdad is so immense that what happens to Leo cannot really be admitted into the novel, or into the Frankels’ lives: If Leo’s throat was cut on videotape by Jew-hating fanatics, the way Daniel Pearl’s was, we don’t hear about it.
Whatever can be said against such a protected milieu in political or economic terms, there is much to be said for it in literary terms. For literary character to develop and deepen, it helps to be able to recollect emotion in tranquility, and tranquility is one thing the Berkshires offer in abundance. Deepening, in fact, is the characteristic movement of Henkin’s fiction, in The World Without You no less than in Matrimony. On the spectrum of American Jewish novelists at work today, he is closest to the conventional realism of Allegra Goodman—a style that can look rather sedate next to more formally and thematically adventurous contemporaries like Jonathan Safran Foer and Joshua Cohen. He does not hurry his characters forward with events because he is more interested in the slowly ramifying details of their inner lives.
For Marilyn and David, the fallout from Leo’s death has accentuated the differences in their personalities. Marilyn clings to her anger, while David, a benign, nondescript figure, tries to make the best of things: Retired, he takes a cooking class at the 92nd Street Y and starts to study opera librettos. When, eight months after Leo’s death, they are asked how many children they have, Marilyn answers “four” and David says “three”—which tells us everything we need to know about their styles of grieving and facing the future. Inconsolable, Marilyn has channeled her grief into the writing of furious op-eds against the Iraq War and President Bush: “President Bush called him a martyr in the war to rid the world of evil. He invited [the] family to the White House. Publicly, her mother refused to go. She wouldn’t allow her son to be used that way, to become an instrument in the service of the war.”
But if Marilyn is meant to be an echo of Cindy Sheehan, it is only a faint one, because Henkin does not take her activism wholly seriously or show us much of what it entails. It matters in the novel only as a symptom of loss. The writing is so even-toned, its compass so reminiscent of Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory,” as to seem like a statement by Henkin about the nature of the novel. The province of fiction, he suggests, is not what happens in the world but what happens in the family, that miniature world in which all our primal experiences take place.
Franz Werfel’s classic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the Armenian Genocide, gets a new translation