A Bug’s Life 2.0
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2012, $26.00, pp.337
Jacob’s Folly is the fantastically original story of three people whose lives intersect and echo across time. What does a wily Jewish peddler in 18th-century Paris have to do with two contemporary Long Islanders, one a heroic firefighter devoted to his family, the other a beguiling teenage girl who runs away from her ultra-Orthodox home and traditions to pursue an acting career? As the novel begins, Jacob, who died in Paris in 1773, comes to consciousness, wondering if he has been transformed into an angel: “I reveled at having been chosen, against all odds, to be part of the heavenly host. I yearned to admire myself—or better, to be admired. I knew I must be very beautiful. I flapped my wings, spreading them wide, banking, making a slow round…”
Uncertain at first about his new physical form and about the mystifyingly illuminated and motorized world over which he hovers, Jacob soon discovers himself to have been reincarnated as a fly on 21st-century Long Island. The delightfully audacious narrative strategy of Jacob’s Folly—telling the story from the point of view of the proverbial “fly on the wall,” that unseen yet omniscient witness to all sorts of human events throughout history—takes the reader on a wild flight from first page to last, as Jacob controls the story, nipping in and out of the consciousness of his characters, darting from past to present, from Paris to Patchogue, with all the capriciousness of a self-serving insect.
Rebecca Miller, the author of the story collection Personal Velocity (2001) and a previous novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2008), is a writer whose graceful and original language makes the challenge of Jacob’s Folly a rewarding one. Her literary sensibility is vast and deep, starting with a hat-tip to “Stately plump Buck Mulligan” in Joyce’s famous first line of Ulysses in Jacob’s first glimpse of the Long Island firefighter whose life will soon be altered by Jacob’s malign manipulations: “Reliable, true Leslie Senzatimore stood on his square of new-mown grass at the cusp of dawn, planted his feet apart, leaned back, and aimed a glistening arc of piss straight over the fading moon.”
Leslie (a name said to mean “without fear” in Italian) will soon not only have his thoughts and feelings overheard and recounted by Jacob, but he will also start to feel and act under Jacob’s subtle power to inhabit everyone’s thoughts, which means he can delve into their memories to tell their life stories even as he compels them to feel and act according to his desires. Nobody but the reader has a clue about the meddlesome role of this omniscient, busybody narrator.
Leslie and his wife Deirdre have a deaf five-year-old son, Stevie, whose soundless life is a source of sorrow. (The tragic deaf boy H. W. in the 2007 film There Will Be Blood, which starred Miller’s husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, comes to mind.) Stevie is just one of many intriguing characters in the past and in the present who are introduced but never fully developed as Jacob’s picaresque tale unfurls.
Jacob the fly follows Leslie when he visits a hospitalized survivor of a fire, and there, traveling in the frightening “secret room that plummeted” (an elevator, which, like cars, cell phones and a variety of other exotic modern conveniences that Jacob characterizes in Shakespearean terms on first encounter), he finds himself observing beautiful, young, frum Masha Edelman, who has been hospitalized with a metaphoric illness, a cardiac inflammation that flares throughout the story while she gazes at a “luminous box clamped to the ceiling.”
As the present-day story develops—Leslie and Masha soon meet, and each starts to break away from quotidian existence, thanks to Jacob’s manipulative trespassing in their thoughts and dreams—Jacob simultaneously tells the complex story of his past life in 18th-century Paris. A peddler in the streets who lived a narrow existence bound by the restrictions imposed on Jews, Jacob abandoned his problematic wife and his heavy box of wares to assume another identity and live as a non-Jew. His episodic, colorful adventures may start out as seemingly impatient and abrupt interruptions from past to present or from present to past, but Miller is such a good writer that she succeeds in drawing the reader into this palimpsest of a narrative. Soon enough, the shifts are less jarring and the accumulation of echoing detail in each story line starts to accrete, enhancing and enlarging each reality as Jacob recounts the multi-layered story.
Masha’s budding acting career and flight from her Orthodox traditions is echoed by Leslie’s theatrical success as a comic actor called “Le Naif,” and they undergo parallel rebellions against observant living, dressing and eating, as each struggles to abandon lifelong habits surrounding prayer and ritual. Jacob’s headlong departure from his Jewish life comes about when he is offered training as a servant for a decadent count, who, it turns out, has wagered that he can turn a Jew into a cultured Parisian gentleman in a matter of months. Jacob’s pragmatic complicity in helping his master win the bet, without much of a backward glance at the life he has given up, is a stark example of Jacob’s amorality.
One of his greatest frustrations at discovering he is a fly is that he cannot fulfill his erotic obsession with Masha—though there are torrid sexual encounters with willing female flies. Masha’s flight from her family cloister is ignited by Jacob’s influence on her feelings and dreams, though it isn’t quite clear why he so badly wants her to go out into the world, and later on, why he wants to put her and Leslie on a collision course. Living her new life as an actress, wearing pants and makeup, Masha impulsively orders a cheeseburger in a restaurant for the first time. Jacob tells us, “She had never combined meat and dairy before in her life. She tasted the salty meat and cheese on the back of her tongue. It was delicious. I watched proudly as she ate up her guilt, consumed it like a little heart. That was the moment she knew she really wasn’t going home.”
Two pages later, back in the 18th century, Jacob describes his own experience of abandoning kosher ritual as he is served “thick slices of salami” at a picnic: “It was the first pork I had ever had. It tasted salty and fat. I completed the sacrilege by chewing on a hunk of cheese forthwith.”
Why has Jacob been reincarnated in this time and place? Does he have some special connection to Masha? What exactly did God have in mind for all of them? What is fate, and what is free will? And what are the consequences of the machinations of a tiny gadfly nobody notices? The abrupt yet satisfying conclusion of Jacob’s Folly is surprising and inevitable.
Katharine Weber is the author of five novels and a memoir. She is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.