Still catching up.
I finished Bernice Rubens’s The Elected Member on October 14, 2010.
As John Brown’s Body had me thinking I’d be reading about American abolitionists, The Elected Member made me think I’d be reading about British Parliament. Nope.
While there is a character called the “Minister,” an amphetamine-dealing patient in a mental hospital who brings a politics into the novel metaphorically, the elected member is actually a reference to the chosen people—and to the London Jews whose story this novel is. Rubens presents an old world culture, which, if not strictly orthodox, is still set apart from the 1960s London with which we might be familiar. Rubens shows us culture clash and assimilation in the novel, both of which create guilt and pain, and drive the plot in shocking directions.
The elected member is Norman Zweck, the genius son of immigrant Jews, who has become an amphetamine addict, and whose hallucinations of hordes of silverfish overtaking his surroundings and his person have debilitated him to the point that his rabbi father must commit him to a mental institution, a source of great pain and shame to himself and his family. Looking at Norman’s plight from his own, his father’s and his two sisters’ points of view, Rubens paints a portrait of a Jewish family whose dysfunction undermines their status in their own community and their efforts to succeed in the larger contemporary society beyond it.
It also, according to my friend Lucy, who is Jewish, undermines our preconceptions of Jewish life and behavior as it explores the reasons for Norman’s mental collapse and his reluctance to get clean. Central to this story is the long deceased mother who altered the ages of Norman and his sister simply to maintain and protect her son’s reputation as a prodigy, developed when he was five years old. Literally keeping her children from growing up, she later refuses to let Norman leave home, even as she banishes another daughter who marries a Christian. In the wake of her actions, if not because of them, her son’s sexuality becomes problematic, creating pain and tragedy for the whole family, though he goes on to become a successful and well-regarded lawyer.
Ultimately, it seems, the pressures of being “the elected member,” to succeed not just for himself but for his family and community destroys Norman, isolates his sisters (each in her own way), and kills his father.
Rubens clearly intends to shock her readers. I got the impression she was trying to tear off the veil, to get at the secrets of a community that prides itself on hard work and moral rectitude by putting an identifiably stereotypical Jewish mother and son at the center of a tragedy that includes incest, unresolved homosexuality, drug abuse, and mental illness. Rubens’s characters are as damaged as those in Barker’s John Brown’s Body but are also somehow more sympathetic as they realize that family and faith may not always protect them and keep them safe but may be actively damaging. The community here may cling to its identity as the chosen people, but it is not immune from the self-destructive impulses that afflict the rest of the population.
While I did enjoy the book, I found myself cringing a bit at Rubens’s use of dialect, which also seemed very stereotypical. Like something you’d hear in an old Borscht Belt routine. “You want I should draw you a picture?” That sort of thing. Even if it is accurate, it sounds like parody to these twenty-first century ears.
I’m thinking the hot button issues and the idea of the minority at home are what won this novel the prize. I probably would have gone a different way, but I’ll save that discussion for the wrap up.