Dara Horn’s A Guide for the Perplexed is the story of Josie Ashkenazi, a software developer who has found success with a program called Genizah, which effectively stores memories. It’s a bit artsier than the normal program, with digital doors leading to the sights, sounds, and data of whatever life you are curating. She herself has created one of her daughter Tali. In addition to her husband Itamar, her chief programmer, she also employs her sister Judith, older but a bit of a lost case, having burned through numerous jobs and even more numerous relationships. There’s no way around it; though Josie finds Judith a bit of a burden but otherwise doesn’t have strong feelings, Judith burns with jealousy for Josie’s life.
So Judith convinces Josie to accept an invitation to go to Egypt and help rebuild the storied Alexandria library, this time as a digital archive. Things do not go well and she is kidnapped, and well, Judith is left with the company, the husband, and the daughter. And Josie is ransomed, but there’s a problem with that, and then another opportunity arises for the kidnappers.
But this is not the whole story. A Genizah is also a room in a Jewish house of worship where you put books and papers with the word of God on them. You can’t throw them away, so this is a way station before they are buried. About a century ago, a very important Genizah in Egypt was discovered that didn’t just have old prayer books, but pretty much anything written in Hebrew. The chronicle of Solomon Schechter (he whose name graces the name of day schools run by Conservative Jewish congregations) is also told in the pages of Dara Horn’s novel.
But wait, there’s more. Among the papers discovered are those of Moses Maimonides, the well-known Jewish philosopher. How did his writing get into this Genizah? Yes, his story is also told. And just to bring it around, while Josie is in captivity, she is in possession of Maimonides book, which of course is also entitled A Guide for the Perplexed.
So what did the In-Store Lit Group think of A Guide for the Perplexed?
We discussed how the book is a modern day retelling of Joseph and his brothers, with an updated setting and a reversal of genders, with Josie standing for Joseph and Judith being the brother Judah who sold his sibling into slavery. Joseph’s wife Tamar became Josie’s husband Itamar. Horn set herself a big challenge with one contemporary and two historical narratives, but even the contemporary story has to fit in the box of the original Biblical narrative.
So one thing most of us wound up agreeing on is the book wound up being more of an intellectual read than an emotional one. C. couldn’t help but compare it to Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, another recently released novel about a kidnapping. Having read both books, I agreed that Gay’s novel had a different kind of intensity, and certainly was more graphic in terms of the sexual violence. For a kidnapping, Josie was the subject of a beating, but there was a chasteness about the story that several of us were surprised at.
Sibling rivalry (or as C. felt it was more appropriately, “sibling discord”) is a strong theme in Horn’s novel that plays out over every set of characters. It’s most notably in Josie and Judith’s relationship, which stems back from their childhood, where Josie is clearly the chosen child in the family, an Judith at one point leaves her stranded in a pit, siding with her friends (yes, another Biblical parallel). But one attendee was frustrated that Josie seemed to learn nothing from this relationship, being oblivious to the implications. At one point Itamar tells Judith that Josie didn’t like her, but one wondered whether that was true or just acting out in a difficult moment.
G. loved the idea of siblings as folks who share a past but not a future. Several folks mentioned that they liked Josie but never could warm to Judith, so I had to chime in that G., who read the book but was not able to attend, had mentioned to me when I told her that I hoped Judith would develop some redeeming qualities “She will. She’s the hero of the story!”
After a number of folks mentioned feeling mixed about the novel, B. made a passionate ringing endorsement for the novel. She loved the exploration of memory, what it was traditionally and what it means today and in the future. J. also thought the book was interesting, and liked the dual themes of forgiving and forgetting that played out through the story.
One roadblock was that oft-recited complaint, "I didn’t like the book because I didn’t like the people." It came up a few times. I got on my usual soapbox about how we judge men and women characters by different standards and one has got to view Judith as the anti-heroine, and what’s wrong with reading about flawed characters? But C. noted that it’s not that she didn’t like them, it’s that they just didn’t seem developed enough. This led to some attendees feeling like the characters were pawns on a chess board. But other folks wondered if this was bad if the author had something interesting to say?
We returned to the subject of memory. Judith clearly had trouble remembering the past clearly, but you could say that of several of the characters. The Genizah of course would fix that, but is that a good thing? One recalls the stories of the folks Marilu Henner with eidetic memory, the ability to recall the past in unusual detail without mnemonics. You recall the good and the bad, and the bad is without the gauze. Life is hard enough as it is, right? And of course reality is subjective, isn’t it? War history is told by the winners.
O. liked the parallels to the Arabian Nights. The stories were about control, but S. followed up that while she liked the Jewish flavor and philosophy, she thought there might be too many stories. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking. but which story would you leave out? They collapse upon each other like Russian nesting dolls, don’t they?
We discussed the ending. D. liked the book but found the ending a bit neat and tidy for his tastes. The rest of the group addressed this question. Without creating a spoiler situation, could the situation have been resolved any other way? And what of the repeat of the relationships that is revealed at the very end of the story. There’s no question that the group was divided on this.
Some folks didn’t like Tali being the last voice. O. didn’t want the sibling issue to continue into the future, but C. thought that made the novel stronger, and she loved the way that Tali was losing her memories, losing her command of English, playing into another theme of the novel.
For more background, there is a short story floating around about Josie and Judith's mother called "String Theory." And here's a piece on the book in the Jewish Daily Forward. I thought it was a very good conversation, but later on, one of the folks who didn't attend told her the conversation had a lot of downtime. My memory recalled otherwise!
Our next discussion is for Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites on Monday, August 4, 7 pm. We’ll likely be meeting in Starbucks, due to Boswell’s event with Deborah Harkness in the store. I will probably be in and out, as we expect our Harkness event to be a full house.
Due to the Labor Day holiday, we’ve moved our September meeting to Monday, August 25, 7 pm. We’ll be discussing Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness. The paperback goes on sale July 29 and Van Booy is visiting the store on Tuesday, September 30.