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From Barnes & NoblePoetic License
Not long ago the critic Vivian Gornick proclaimed "the end of the novel of love." She called on novelists to recognize "a hard, simple truth we have all absorbed": namely, that romantic love lacks the transformative power traditionally ascribed to it. Romantic love, according to Gornick, does not leave us "magically changed"; for that, only self-reliance will do. The tough-minded novelist should follow the tough-minded woman and leave the novel-as-love-story, along with the whalebone corset, in the attic of history. Binnie Kirshenbaum is, like Gornick, a streetwise Jewish feminist, but she is not having any of it. Pure Poetry, Kirshenbaum's third novel, is about true love: the desire for it, and even more, the need for it. Lila Moscowitz is a tough, fast-talking, and independent woman, but in the end she wants what Juliet Capulet wanted: "Love, capital L, heart-shaped O, arrow piercing the V to drip blood over the E, the kind of love that, more often than not, makes a mess of your life."
When I sat down to talk with Kirshenbaum about her new book, she announced right off the bat: "I actually have a heroine who falls in love. Usually I have heroines who don't even try. But this time I wanted somebody not just to fall in love the way we do now, which I think is the result of too much therapy and too many self-help books, and which I think is antithetical to grand passion." Lila Moscowitz therefore falls in love -- for a time -- with old-fashioned recklessness, courting disaster like the heroine of an opera. This is a new thing for her: "Before I met Max no one had gotten the best of me. As if the best of me were something to thieve. I was like the New Yorker who claims, 'Twenty-six years in this city and I've never been mugged'.... I was known to boast, 'Thirty-one years old and I've never been in love.' As if falling in love were the same thing as falling on a patch of ice." Lila must have forgotten to knock on wood in making this boast, because once she falls, she falls hard.
The pre-Max Lila would never have slipped and fallen. Lila is a poet, a bawdy formalist who writes about wild sex in the strictest of poetic forms: For example, "The Seven Steps to Self-Gratification" is "a Sicilian septet which rhymes abababa." Lila writes formalistically about sex because she cannot abide the mess, the formlessness, of love: "I write about sex because I have no gift for writing about love." But suddenly, accidentally -- "It happened when I wasn't looking" -- Max enters her life and wrecks her rhyme scheme.
Max Schirmer is charming, intelligent, sweet, loving -- and German. Like Juliet Capulet, Lila has fallen for someone from the wrong clan, a veritable Montague. Yet at first Max's Germanness pleases Lila. For one thing, there is his cute, constant habit of malapropism: "Must we open this book of worms?" Max asks when Lila raises the Jewish Question. Lila's love for Max is also heightened by "the extra kick afforded by that which is illicit." But before long Max's Germanness becomes a kind of excuse for Lila to escape the threat of love, which happens also to be its promise: that of losing control. The sweet annihilation of passion gets mixed up in Lila's mind with the real annihilation of the Final Solution -- which is sure to be the most controversial aspect of Kirshenbaum's novel.
Lila sees the Holocaust everywhere. When she and Max quarrel, she goes out to get her hair shorn and thinks of her new do as "the Bergen-Belsen crop." When she notices Max's taste for lentils, she thinks of Hitler's vegetarianism and gets "the idea that Max ate the same foods Hitler ate. That meal for meal, their diets were identical." Indeed, when Lila coops herself up in Max's apartment she feels a bit as if she is being held, in a camp, against her will. Yet ultimately it is Lila who leaves Max. She breaks his heart. As Kirshenbaum told me, "She turns him into a sort of prison-warden to justify her walking-out." Thus does Lila's emotional cowardice disguise itself as an extra in Schindler's List.
In allowing Lila to make use of the Holocaust as a metaphor, Kirshenbaum has done something brave and unsettling and -- it has to be added -- not always in the best of taste. But she has indicated very vividly Lila's crippling fear of staying in love once she has fallen there. And she has also been bold enough to create a Jewish heroine whose intense awareness of the Holocaust discourages rather than aids self-knowledge. This is a risky move -- as risky in its seriousness as Pure Poetry is, in its other aspects, courageously comic -- but as Kirshenbaum knows, and Lila learns too late, risk is what love is all about. Sexy, witty, and brave, Pure Poetry is a novel that, dispensing with stage fright, stands up before us to tell a few jokes, show some leg, and finally bare its heart. It appears the novel of love has some life in it yet.