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Look Out!

Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask and Noah Baumbach’s movie Greenberg breathe new life into the figure of the shlemiel

Ari M. Brostoff
March 12, 2010

Whither the shlemiel? According to a smart and muchdiscussed New York Magazine article last May, American Jewish prosperity has all but killed off the “neurotic, depressive, abrasive, excluded” antiheroes that once animated a comedic tradition running from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen. Larry David, entertainment critic Mark Harris argued in his essay, is keeping their brand of humor on a ventilator, introducing the shlemiel and his sidekicks to “a generation to whom it’s now almost completely foreign.” What Harris did not take into account was that young Jews born to privilege, like other Americans their age, are facing the very real prospect that they will never be as affluent as their parents. Praise God for the tanking economy: At least in the hands of novelist Sam Lipsyte, old-school Jewish humor has come back.

Lipsyte’s satirical novel The Ask,released last week, concerns the transformation of Milo Burke, an overeducated, underemployed wannabe art star, into a truly down-at-the-heels schmo. When we first meet Milo, he is a man in socioeconomic limbo: In early middle age, with a wife and a young son, he has a “good shitty job” in the development office of a so-so university but still dreams of becoming a great painter; he is poorer than he was growing up but of a higher social class than his neighbors in Astoria, Queens. As a result, he has contracted an au courant malady: a case of white liberal guilt exacerbated by the dread that the privilege he loathes himself for is about to be taken away. Milo’s condition deteriorates significantly after he gets fired (for lashing out at a trustafarian art student, natch), only to be rehired on the condition that he can coax a major donation from Purdy Stuart, a former college friend and now a sleazy millionaire who needs him for a job just slightly less compromising than that of a Mafia bagman. All this is quite grim, though hilarious in Lipsyte’s telling, but there’s also a redemptive aspect to the novel that’s easy to overlook. When Milo slips down the class ladder, there is something waiting for him at the bottom: an ethnic identity that had eluded him when he was a just-average hipster. By the end of the book, he is a grade-A shlemiel.

Milo is half-Jewish—on the side that halachically counts—but he primarily identifies, at the outset of his unfortunate journey, as a wannabe art star, which in his world amounts to a demographic category. Newly fired, he spends his days wandering the streets of Astoria and, employing the classic bohemian inversion of “there goes the neighborhood,” worrying that people just like himself will move in and ruin its heartening mixed-income multiculturalism. “They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s,” he thinks on one of his walks. “The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.” Milo’s shame-faced identification as the aggressor keeps his own ethnic affinities at arm’s length. “I never said gypped, or Indian giver, or paddy wagon, or accused anyone of welshing on a bet,” he reflects wistfully on the sincerity of his own liberalism. “I never even called myself a yid with that tribal swagger I envied in others, though I had a right, or half a right, from my mother’s side.”

But once Milo has been knocked from the creative class into a milieu that includes laborers, Iraq veterans, and underworld types, other people start, in effect, calling him a yid, and—through having to contend with the slur—he becomes one. A doltish neighborhood carpenter offers him a deck-building gig and takes the opportunity to pitch him a concept for a reality show, predicting (wrongly), “You seem like the kind of college boy who may be a broke screw-up but is ultimately part of the vast conspiracy of movers and shakers who move and shake our society. Jewish, right?” Meanwhile, Purdy’s shady attorney Lee Moss (“a hardworking shark, a true Jew lawyer” of “the old breed,” Purdy calls him) immediately recognizes Milo as a landsman. “I can tell you’re a no-account putz,” Moss says, “but you and I, we’re on the same side of the fence.” Soon enough, Milo is having paranoid dreams about being insulted by an anti-Semitic Benjamin Franklin and regretting his decision not to have had his son circumcised.

What’s funny about professional shlemiels from Groucho to Woody is their insistent and absurd contrariness in the face of the obvious bounds imposed on them (“I would never join a club that would accept me as a member”). Left by his wife, the anchor of his shaky existence, Milo finally reaches the sublime heights of negation mastered by his comic predecessors. He comes to take a certain pride in his Jewishness if for no reason other than to mock those real and imagined enemies who see him simply as a yid. “Come kill me as a Jew, flog me to death in a desert quarry, bayonet me in the Pale, gas me in your Polish camp, behead me on your camcorder, I still would not believe. To me that was the true test of courage: to not submit to the faith they assume you possess and will kill you for.” It is in this quixotic spirit that Milo ends up, despite himself, what he always kind of wanted to be: an unapologetically bitter, authentically ethnic guy with no more need to worry that he is gentrifying Queens.

With The Ask, Lipsyte surely wins this month’s if not this year’s award for deftest reworking of this tragicomic, supposedly superannuated comic material, but he’s not the only one who still finds it funny. It appears in a different form in the film Greenberg—the latest from director Noah Baumbach, who at 40 is just a year younger than Lipsyte—which comes out in two weeks. Like The Ask, Greenberg is a sharply attuned comedy of social class, though in this case, the shlemiel at its center is Roger Greenberg, a middle-aged, emotionally disturbed scion of a wealthy Los Angeles family (played by Ben Stiller) who has an affair with his brother’s personal assistant (Greta Gerwig). Woody Allen fans will notice nods to Annie Hall in a moment when Stiller becomes momentarily indistinguishable from a crowd of Hasidim, and in Gerwig’s charming but genuinely awkward character who, like Annie, shyly sings at a local nightclub. But beyond these references, there is little overt Jewishness in Greenberg, save for an early scene when Roger’s Semitic looks are mentioned in jest by a fellow guest at a pool party.

“I’m not even … I’m only half,” Roger protests.

“You look full,” the guest says.

“That’s not what I usually get,” Roger says. “People think I look Italian. And since my mom is Protestant I’m actually not Jewish at all.”

The joke’s on Roger—not just in this scene, which ends with his interlocutor mimicking his expressive hand gestures—but in the entire movie, because Baumbach has given his film such an unavoidably Jewish title.This is slightly cruel, given that Roger can’t answer back, but it’s a brilliant deconstruction of the Jewish joke par excellence: Greenberg, one assumes, wouldn’t want to be in a movie that would accept his name as its title.

The shlemiel is alive and not too well, which is just the way he should be.

Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.