Only Begotten Daughterby James Morrow
Morrow explores the difficulties facing God's twentieth-century offspring, complete with virgin birth. Julie Katz is a New Jersey girl--the miracle child of a celibate Jewish recluse whose sperm sample, donated to an Atlantic City baby bank, spontaneously gestates.
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Only Begotten Daughter
By James Morrow
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 James Morrow
All rights reserved.
On the first day of September, 1974, a child was born to Murray Jacob Katz, a celibate Jewish recluse living across the bay from Atlantic City, New Jersey, an island metropolis then famous for its hotels, its boardwalk, its Miss America Pageant, and its seminal role in the invention of Monopoly.
The abandoned lighthouse on Brigantine Point that Murray had taken over, claiming it for his own as a hermit might claim a cave, was called Angel's Eye. It was wholly obsolete, which he preferred; as a sexually inactive bachelor living in the highly eroticized culture of late twentieth-century America, Murray felt somewhat obsolete himself. During its heyday, the kerosene-fueled lamp of Angel's Eye had escorted over ten thousand vessels safely past Brigantine Shoals. But now Murray's lighthouse was fired up only when he felt like it, while the business of preventing shipwreck passed to the United States Coast Guard's new electric beacon on Absecon Island.
Murray knew all about Angel's Eye, its glory and also its shame. He knew of the stormy July night in 1866 when the kerosene ran out, so that the British brig William Rose, bearing a cargo of tea and fireworks from China, had smashed to pieces on the rocks. He knew of the foggy March morning in 1897 when the main wick disintegrated, with dire consequences for Lucy II, a private pleasure yacht owned by the Philadelphia ball-bearing tycoon Alexander Strickland. On the anniversaries of these disasters, Murray always enacted a commemoration, climbing the tower stairs and, at the precise moment when William Rose or Lucy II had pulled within view of Angel's Eye, lighting the lamp. He was a devout believer in the second chance. To the man who asked, "What's the point of closing the barn door after the horse has been stolen?" Murray would answer, "The point is that the door is now closed."
At the time of his child's conception, Murray's sex life revolved exclusively around a combination sperm bank and research center known as the Preservation Institute. Its scientists were doing a longitudinal study: how do a man's reproductive cells change as he ages? Murray, broke, signed up without hesitation. Every month, he drove to this famous foundation, housed in three stories of weatherworn brick overlooking Great Egg Bay, where the receptionist, Mrs. Kriebel, would issue him a sterilized herring jar and escort him upstairs to a room papered with Playboy centerfolds and pornographic letters mailed to Penthouse by its own staff.
Not only did the Preservation Institute harvest and scrutinize the seed of ordinary citizens, it also froze that of Nobel Prize laureates, making their heritable traits available for home experiments in eugenics. As it happened, thousands of women had been waiting for this product to come on the market. Nobel sperm was cheap, reliable, and simple to use. After acquiring a turkey baster, you injected yourself with the rare fluid—the crème de la crème, as it were—and nine months later out burst a genius. The laureates received nothing for their donations beyond the satisfaction of upgrading the human gene pool. Murray Katz— retail clerk, involuntary celibate, Newark Community College dropout—received thirty dollars a shot.
And then one afternoon a message arrived—a telegram, for like most hermits, Murray had no phone.
YOUR LAST DONATION CONTAMINATED. STOP. COME IMMEDIATELY. STOP.
Contaminated. The word, so obviously a euphemism for diseased, made a cold puddle in his bowels. Cancer, no doubt. His semen was riddled with malignant cells, STOP: indeed, STOP: you're dead. He got behind the wheel of his decrepit Saab and headed over Brigantine Bridge into Atlantic City.
When Murray Jacob Katz was ten years old, he'd begun wondering whether he was permitted to believe in heaven, as were his various Christian friends. Jews believed so many impressive and dramatic things, it seemed only logical to regard death as less permanent than one might conclude from, say, coming across a stone-stiff cat in a Newark sewer. "Pop, do we have heaven?" he'd asked on the day he discovered the cat. "You want to know a Jew's idea of heaven?" his father had replied, looking up from his Maimonides. "It's an endless succession of long winter nights on which we get paid a fair wage to sit in a warm room and read all the books ever written." Phil Katz was an intense, shriveled man with a defective aorta; in a month his heart would seize up like an overburdened automobile engine. "Not just the famous ones, no, every book, the stuff nobody gets around to reading, forgotten plays, novels by people you never heard of. However, I profoundly doubt such a place exists."
Decades later, after Pop was dead and Murray's life had been relocated to Atlantic City, he began transforming his immediate environment, making it characteristic of heaven. The whole glorious span of Dewey's decimal system soon filled the lighthouse, book after book spiraling up the tower walls like threads of DNA, delivering intellectual matter to Murray's mammalian cortex and wondrous smells to the reptilian regions below—the gluey tang of a library discard, the crisp plebeian aroma of a yard-sale paperback, the pungent mustiness of a thrift-store encyclopedia. When the place became too crowded, Murray simply built an addition, a kind of circular cottage surrounding the lighthouse much as three hundred noisy, enraged, and well-dressed Christians were now surrounding the Preservation Institute.
Three hundred, no exaggeration, brandishing placards and chanting "It's a sin!" Even the seaward side was covered; a flotilla of yachts lay at anchor just offshore, protest banners fluttering from their masts: PROCREATION IS SACRED ... SATAN WAS A TEST-TUBE BABY ... A GOOD PARENT IS A MARRIED PARENT. Murray crossed the sandy lawn using the cautious, inoffensive gait any prudent Jew might adopt under the circumstances, AND THE LORD STRUCK DOWN ONAN, declared the placard of a gaunt old gentleman with the tight, reverent carriage of a praying mantis, GOD LOVES LESBIANS, GOD HATES LESBIANISM, proclaimed a large-eared adolescent who could have starred in the life of Franz Kafka. Murray studied his goal, a ring of sawhorse-shaped barricades manned by a dozen security guards anxiously stroking their semiautomatic rifles. Protestors pawed Murray's coat. "Please keep your sperm," urged a pale, toothsome woman whose placard read, ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION = ETERNAL DAMNATION.
As Murray passed the barricades, a hand emerged from the mob and trapped his shoulder. He turned. A leather patch masked the protester's right eye. To fight God's battles, God had equipped him with massive arms, a body like a Stonehenge megalith, and a riveting glint in his good eye. "So what will your spilled seed get you, brother? Thirty dollars? You're being underpaid. Judas got silver. Resist. Resist."
"As a matter of fact, my last donation wasn't acceptable," said Murray. "I think I'm out of a job."
"Tell those people in there it's wrong—a sin. Will you do that? We're not here to condemn them. We're all sinners. I'm a sinner." With a sudden flourish the protester flipped back his eyepatch. "When a man takes out his own eye, that's a sin."
Murray shuddered. What had he expected, a glass orb, a fused lid? Certainly not this open pit, dark and jagged like the sickness he imagined gnawing at his gonads. "A sin." He wrested free. "I'll tell them."
"God bless you, brother," muttered the man with the hole in his head.
Shivering with apprehension, Murray entered the Institute and crossed the glossy marble floor, moving past a great clock-face with hands like harpoons, past spherical lamps poised on wrought-iron stands, at last reaching Mrs. Kriebel's desk.
"I'll tell Dr. Frostig you're here," she said curtly, arranging her collection jars in a tidy grid. She was a stylish woman, decorated with clothes and cosmetics whose names Murray didn't know.
"Have they decided what's wrong with me?"
"Wrong with you?"
"With my donation."
"Not my department." Mrs. Kriebel pointed across the lobby to a sharply angled woman with a vivid, hawkish face. "You can wait with Five Twenty-eight over there."
The lobby suggested the parlor of a first-class bordello. Abloom with ferns, Greek vases anchored the four corners of a sumptuous Persian rug. On the upholstered walls, set within gold frames, oil portraits of deceased Nobel-winning donors glowered at the mere mortals who surveyed them. Well, well, thought Murray, perusing the faces, we're going to have Keynesian economics in the next century whether we want it or not. And a new generation of astrophysicists writing bad science fiction.
Glancing away from a dead secretary of state, Five Twenty-eight offered Murray an ardent smile. Black turtleneck jersey, straight raven hair, scruffy brown bomber jacket, eye shadow the iridescent green of Absecon Inlet: she looked like a fifties beatnik, mysteriously transplanted to the age of sperm banks. "I don't care whether I get a girl or a boy," she said abruptly. "Makes no difference. Everybody thinks dykes hate boys. Not true."
Murray surveyed the lesbian's offbeat prettiness, her spidery frame. "Was it hard picking the father?"
"Don't remind me." Together they ambled to the next portrait, a Swedish brain surgeon. "For the longest time I was into the idea of either a painter or a flute player. The arts are my big love, you see, but with science you've got a more reliable income, so in the end I settled on a marine biologist—a black man, they tell me, one of their own staff. Mathematicians were in the picture for a while, but then they ran out. Actually, there was one. A Capricorn. No way. Let me guess—you look like a Jewish novelist, if you don't mind my saying so. I considered having one of those, but then I started reading their stuff, and it seemed kind of dirty to me, and I decided I didn't want that kind of karma in the house. You a novelist?"
"Matter of fact, I have been working on a book. Nonfiction, though."
"What's it called?"
"Hermeneutics of the Ordinary." Upon turning forty, Murray had resolved not only to collect obscure and profound books, but to write one as well. Within six months he had three hundred pages of ragged manuscript and a great title.
"What of the ordinary?"
"Hermeneutics. Interpretation." Through his employment at Atlantic City Photorama, where he collected exposed film and doled out prints and slides, Murray had discovered that snapshots afford unique access to the human psyche. A lawyer photographs his teenage daughter: why the provocative low angle? A stock broker photographs his house: why does he stand so far away, why this hunger for context? Snapshots were an undeciphered language, and Murray was determined to crack the code; his book would be the Rosetta stone of home photography, the Talmud of the Instamatic. "It's about my experiences serving Photorama customers."
"Oh, yeah—I've seen that place," said the lesbian. "Tell me, is it true people are always shooting each other screwing?"
"A few of our clients do that, yes."
"That confirms my suspicions."
"It gets even stranger. We have this real estate agent who does nothing but animals who've been ... well, squashed."
"Squirrels, skunks, groundhogs, cats. Roll after roll."
"So you can really get into human nature by seeing what everyone brings to Photorama? I'd never thought of that. Heavy."
Murray smiled. His book might have a readership after all. "I also run that lighthouse on Brigantine Point."
"Lighthouse? You really run a lighthouse?"
"Uh-huh. We don't light it much anymore."
"Could I let the baby see it sometime? Sounds educational."
"Sure. I'm Murray Katz." He extended his hand.
"Georgina Sparks." She gave him a jaunty handshake. "Tell me honestly, do I strike you as insane? It's insane to try raising a kid alone, everybody says, especially if you're a dyke. I was living with my lover and, matter of fact, we split up over the whole idea. I'm real big on babies. Laurie thinks they're grotesque."
"You're not insane." She was insane, he thought. "Isn't 'dyke' an offensive word?"
"If you said it, Murray Katz"—Georgina grinned slyly—"I'd kick your teeth in."
A rhythmic clacking intruded, Mrs. Kriebel's heels striking marble. She held out an insulated test tube with the numerals 247 etched on its shaft.
"Oh, wow!" Georgina seized the tube, pressing it against her chest. "Know what this is, Mur? It's my baby!"
Mrs. Kriebel smiled. "Congratulations."
"Maybe I should've held out for a mathematician." Georgina eyed the tube with mock suspicion. "Little Pisces mathematician tooling around the apartment, chewing on her calculator? Cute, huh?"
The elevator door opened to reveal a pudgy man in a lab coat. He motioned Murray over with quick, urgent gestures, as if he'd just found a pair of desirable seats at the movies. "You made the right choice," Murray told Georgina as he started away.
"You really think so?"
"Marine biology's a fine career," he called after the mother-to-be and stepped into the elevator.
"I'll bring the baby around," she called back.
The door thumped closed. The elevator ascended, gravity grabbing at the Big Mac in Murray's stomach.
"What we've essentially got here," said Gabriel Frostig, medical director of the Preservation Institute, "is an egg identification problem."
"Chicken egg?" said Murray. A bell rang. Second floor.
"Human egg. Ovum." Dr. Frostig guided Murray into a cramped and dingy lab packed with technological bric-a-brac. "We're hoping you'll tell us where it came from."
Dominating the dissection table, chortling merrily like a machine for making some particularly loose and messy variety of candy, was the most peculiar contraption Murray had ever seen. At its heart lay a bell jar, the glass so pure and gleaming that tapping it would, Murray imagined, produce not a simple bong but a fugue. A battery-powered pump, a rubber bellows, and three glass bottles sat on a wooden platform, encircling the jar like gifts spread around some gentile's Christmas tree. "What's that?"
"Your most recent donation."
One bottle was empty, the second contained what looked like blood, the third a fluid suggesting milk. "And you're keeping it in a, er ...?"
"An ectogenesis machine."
Murray peered through the glass. A large wet slab of protoplasm—it looked like a flounder wearing a silk scarf—filled the jar. Clear plastic tubes flowed into the soft flesh from all directions. "A what?"
"Artificial uterus," Frostig explained, "prototype stage. We weren't planning to gestate any human embryos for at least five years. It's been strictly a mouse and frog operation around here. But when Karnstein spotted your blastocyte, we said to ourselves, all right ..." The doctor squinted and grimaced, as if examining an ominous biopsy drawn from his own body. "Besides, we thought maybe you expected us to let it die, so you could go running to the newspapers—am I right?—telling 'em how we like to butcher embryos." He jabbed his index finger contemptuously toward the front lawn. "You one of those Revelationists, Mr. Katz?"
"No. Jewish." Murray cocked an ear to the protesters' chants, a sound like enraged surf. "And I've never run to a newspaper in my life."
"Damn lunatics—they should go back to the Middle Ages where they belong."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute, are you saying there's a baby growing in that thing?"
Frostig nodded. "Inside that uterine tissue."
Murray pressed closer. The glass widened his face, making his already considerable jaw look like a sugar bowl.
"No, don't go looking," said the doctor. "We're talking about a cell cluster no bigger than a pinhead."
"My cell cluster?"
"Yours and somebody else's. You didn't by any chance introduce an ovum into your sample?"
"How could I do that? I'm no biologist. I don't even know very many women."
"A dead end. We figured as much." Frostig opened the top drawer of his filing cabinet, grabbing a stack of printed forms, carbon paper sandwiched between them like slices of black cheese. "In any event, we need your signature on this embryo release. We weren't born yesterday—we know people form weird attachments in this world. Last weekend I spent about twenty hours convincing a surrogate mother to hand a newborn over to its parents."
A baby, thought Murray as he took the embryo release. Someone had given him a baby. He'd feared it was cancer, and instead it was a baby. "If I sign, does that mean I—?"
"Forfeit all claims to the cluster. Not that you have any. Far as the law's concerned, it's just another sperm donation." Frostig pulled a fountain pen from his coat as if unsheathing a dagger. "But that egg's a real wild card—inverse parthenogenesis, we're calling it at the moment. On the whole it never happens. So for the protection of all concerned ..."
"Inverse partheno ... what?" An unprecedented situation, Murray thought, and what accompanied it seemed equally unprecedented, a strange amalgam of confusion, fear, and the treacly warmth he reflexively felt around puppies.
Excerpted from Only Begotten Daughter by James Morrow. Copyright © 1990 James Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Morrow was born in Philadelphia in 1947. Besides writing, he plays with Lionel electric trains and collects videocassettes of vulgar biblical spectacles.
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But I can't tell. I can get three other ebooks for the cost and the sample is too short to hook me. I might reconsider after reading the hr sample in store but I need more before I buy an $11 ebook.
James Morrow seems to almost casually invite his readers to question their beliefs in antique religions while simultaniously encouraging people not to jump on the modern day bandwagon of idiotically bashing them. He finds wisdome where others see nothing. His characters are touching and memorable. His ideas are the stuff of pure epiphany and most importantly his stories are engaging, fun and enlightening.
this is one of the books that has changed my life (others including Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand). when i think about rereading it, i remember the disturbing aspects of the book and am hesitant to put myself through that again, but i would be a poorer man for not having read it the first time. while being disturbing, it's also quite funny and has provoked me to think thoughts that have become cornerstones of my personal belief system. what better thing could any book do?
Morrow adds an outstanding twist to views and assumptions on faith delivered with an almost self-mocking ironic narrative. This has the same tongue-in-cheek story telling as Catch 22 and Adam's Hitchhiker Series. A unique slant to the 'why am I here?' debate. Imagingative and makes you think.