Book Review of Jacob's Folly: A Novel

Arts & Books

Book Review of Jacob's Folly: A Novel

Stewart Kampel
Jacob's Folly: A Novel by Rebecca Miller.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp. $26)

The characters and the story could hardly be more unconventional: Jacob, a poor Jewish peddler living in 18th-century Paris, decides to leave his impossible wife and his Orthodox faith to become a clown. He achieves a modicum of fame as Le Naif, accepts an offer to train as a servant for a libertine nobleman, becomes a cultured gentleman and dies—only to wake up in modern times having been transmogrified into a common housefly (calling Kafka?) who flits in and out of the consciousness of other people. And that’s only one character.

Here are two more key players, who live in contemporary, suburban Long Island: Masha, a 21-year-old woman reared in a strict Orthodox Jewish family, smitten by the theater bug. She secretly takes acting lessons where she meets Leslie, an upstanding pillar of goodness, a well-meaning volunteer fireman who copes with his father’s suicide and his young son’s deafness. His boat-building business succumbs to the recession, forcing him to work in boat repair, and he is influenced by that fly on the wall, who insinuates himself into his psyche.

What’s happening here? Rebecca Miller’s Jacob’s Folly is a swarming, mysterious tale of assimilation and alienation, religion, cultural identity and philosophy, laced with humor, sex and religion, among other things. Somehow, improbably, most of it works and makes for a compelling and thought-provoking tale. With great storytelling skill, Miller, who had little grounding in religion (her father was the great Jewish playwright Arthur Miller), has researched Jewish life of 300 years ago in Paris as well as Orthodoxy today, and given us a cogent, audacious narrative of intersecting lives and the unfurling of fates across three centuries. (Read Stewart Kampel's Q&A with Miller here.)

In Jacob’s Folly, Miller challenges the reader to examine the vicissitudes of free will as the main characters set off, centuries apart, on parallel paths of adventures and decide to escape from habits of prayer and ritual that dominated their forefathers’ lives for centuries.

Jacob died in 1773 after conniving with his raunchy master who wagered that he could train a common Jew, Pygmalion-like, to be a sophisticate. When he becomes conscious in the 21st century, Jacob wonders if he is an angel. Not exactly. He sets off as a controlling fly on a series of wild flights in which he influences and subverts the actions of the other characters. Jacob lusts after Masha but can only sublimate his desires by engaging in torrid sex with willing female flies. Tant pis (too bad), as they say in France.

Once the formerly frum Masha leaves her family, she knows she can never return to that close-knit, controlling environment. And when she tastes a cheeseburger for the first time, and finds it to her liking, she knows her life will move in a totally different direction.

Jacob is angry about his life as a fly (who wouldn’t be?) and decides to get back at God by turning good people into bad. And do-gooder Leslie comes under the mischievous Jacob’s influence. As a fly on the observation post, Jacob is only mimicking what writers do: eavesdrop on characters and comment on their real or invented worlds.

It is no coincidence that the story starts during the Enlightenment when society underwent sweeping changes, faith challenged superstition and philosophy contested reason. By combining history and historical fiction with contemporary life, Miller has succeeded in holding our interest and raises serious questions, partly by the comings and goings of the plot, partly by the unpredictable and imaginative story but mostly by her literary skill.

This book raises serious questions about assimilation, then and now, in graceful and original prose.

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