Good on Paper, by Rachel Cantor, is an absent-minded professor of a novel: It has one foot in the real world—as real as it gets on the bourgeois-academic Upper West Side—and one in the clouds. That division between ideas and reality, literature and life, has been the engine of many comic novels, particularly Jewish ones—just think of Bellow’s Moses Herzog, who writes imaginary letters to philosophers while his marriage crumbles, or Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, whose sexual urges rebel against his carefully inculcated idealism. It’s as though Jewish tradition, with its emphasis on abstract thought, leaves Jewish intellectuals especially vulnerable to the revenges of reality. They are perpetually surprised to find that life is not the way it appears in books.
For Shira Greene, the narrator of Good on Paper, the book that leads her astray is one of the greatest: Dante’s Vita Nuova, a mixture of poetry and prose in which the Florentine poet describes his lifelong, highly spiritualized love for a woman called Beatrice. In her grad student days, Shira completed a translation of the Vita Nuova, in which she saw a reflection of life and love as they were supposed to be: “Like Dante, I was in love, with T.; Vita Nuova seemed written just for me. Dante lived for his true love’s greeting? So did I! His love was a paragon! So was mine!” But when T. turns out to be not just no paragon, but actually married to someone else, Shira’s faith in both love and poetry was “shattered”: “His libelous little book was nothing more than a reminder that I’d been abandoned not just by the love of my young life, but by every hope I’d had that the world was as Dante described—ordered, designed to manifest a greater Love.”
When we meet Shira, this great disillusionment is already past, and she has settled into a makeshift life that seems to be going nowhere. Work is a mindless temp job—“twelve thousand envelopes wanted stuffing” are the book’s first words—and family life, though superficially more rewarding, is skillfully shown by Cantor to contain more landmines than Shira herself realizes. Shira is raising her daughter, Andi, with an old friend, Ahmad, who is gay; Ahmad has abandoned his own wife and children back in Pakistan, and he loves Andi fiercely as a guilty substitute. Andi’s biological father, a man with whom Shira had a fling in India, is barely mentioned.
One of the structural problems with Good on Paper is that Shira’s previous life is overfull of events that are only referred to, never dramatized; you get the impression that Cantor could have written a novel twice as long about Shira’s past. In addition to the romantic loves gone wrong, we soon learn that the really disastrous relationship in her life was with her mother, Eleanor, who abandoned the family when Shira was a child. This trauma has never healed, and it leaves Shira deeply suspicious of all human connections. When her rabbi friend Benny tries to explain that the High Holidays are a time for forgiving, she rejects the whole idea: “I don’t see the point of ritualizing our expiation of guilt. Does fasting make our anger go away? Does saying I’m sorry make anything better? We hurt people, people hurt us—we get over it or we don’t. No matter what, we feel bad.”
This kind of direct, intellectual discussion of the novel’s own themes is typical of Good on Paper. Cantor is not the kind of writer who embodies her ideas in actions and characters, the way a well-behaved novel is supposed to do. Rather, she fills her book with literary parallels and philosophical musings. When her characters face guilt, they talk about Jewish theology, and when they endure lost love, they talk about Dante’s poetry.
Above all, they talk about translation, which becomes the unlikely focus and driver of the plot. The stasis of Shira’s existence is broken when she receives, of all things, a telegram—the story takes place in 1999, making this theoretically possible though even then a deliberate anachronism. The message is from a (fictional) poet named Romei, whose work and biography Cantor invents, with the same excessive detail that characterizes so much of the novel. Romei is a Romanian-born writer, perhaps Jewish, who moved to Italy after World War II, wrote great Italian poems, and finally won the Nobel Prize. (Cantor means us to think of figures like Paul Celan and Joseph Brodsky.)
Now, for some reason she cannot fathom, Romei is reaching out to the unknown Shira Greene, asking her to translate his major new work: a personal recasting of the Vita Nuova, with himself in the Dante role and his wife Esther filling in for Beatrice. Communicating only by fax, Romei sends her the book one section at a time, allowing Cantor to fill the novel with paraphrases of this imaginary text. She is ambivalent yet increasingly excited about this intellectual challenge, and we see her ambition begin to do battle with her domestic duties. Cantor finely captures her maternal guilt: Is she neglecting Andi to focus on her work and on her new romance with the rabbi, Benny?
“I’d made a vow when Andi was born: she’d be the center and the circumference of my life, its organizing principle and its limit. I would never abandon her, not in thought, word, or deed. I’d be everything my mother wasn’t,” Shira reflects. But by letting the burden of parenting fall on Ahmad, isn’t she replicating her own mother’s abandonment? And if so, will this allow her to understand her own mother better, and perhaps even forgive her? These intimate questions form the emotional heart of Good on Paper, which can be described as a novel about motherhood and its discontents.
Yet Good on Paper could just as legitimately be described as a story about the art and ethics of translation. As Shira reads more and more of Romei’s work, she muses about the possibility of fidelity in translation, which becomes (inevitably) a metaphor for fidelity in love. This strand of the novel gives Cantor the opportunity to expand on literary-theoretical questions in a voice that is unapologetically academic: “Indeed, the tension between Dante’s narcissistic form, concerned with the solitary writing subject and the inaccessible love object, and Esther’s interest in a mutual, embodied passion, where the beloved co-authors the text, as it were, is established early and suggests a competing poetics … ”
Good on Paper allows its registers, its tones of voice, to proliferate and clash: Cantor is by turns theoretical, therapeutic, nostalgic, colloquial, and, sometimes, irritatingly coy, as when she invents cutesy names for the Upper West Side shops Shira visits (an ice cream store called Cohn’s Cones, a bookstore called People of the Book). This presents another structural problem and contributes to the impression that the book is the work of an intelligent and interesting writer who is not exactly a novelist. Cantor strains, finally, to bring together Shira’s story and Romei’s work into a single whole, and the way she does it involves a melodramatic twist that the reader will probably see coming long before the narrator does. But then, who wouldn’t rather read a vital, flawed book like Good on Paper than the dozens of routinely competent novels that are published every month? It’s exciting to think that the author of this book could follow it up with almost anything. Rachel Cantor is a writer to watch.
To read more of Adam Kirsch’s book reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.