Brooklyn, NY, doesn’t lack for intellectual writers that can put together a densely layered, heady, urban story about densely layered, heady, urban characters. Even in that crowd, though, Rachel Cantor (A Highly Unlikely Scenario) stands out not merely for her sense of humor but for the lightness and zest she brings to even the most serious proceedings.
Cantor’s second novel, Good On Paper, is about the limits of language to explain the messiness of human beings. It is also, more concretely, about a disappointed, middle-aged perma-temp named Shira; Shira’s daughter, Andi; and Shira’s gay friend and Andi’s putative father, Ahmad. The three of them live together on the Upper West Side, across the street from Shira’s potential love interest, Benny, a rabbi and a bookseller—who may know more about Shira’s blighted past than he lets on.
In many ways, Shira is stunted, even trapped: her father, who raised her by himself, is dead; her mother has been MIA for decades; her literary ambitions are moribund; and her half-hearted attempts at a replacement career are as destined to fail as her occasional forays into romance.
While she’s stymied, she is also content. She has her bright, curious daughter, the product of a botched relationship with a man in India. She has Ahmad, an old friend who has botched his own relationships with his ex-wife and four sons in Pakistan, and who loves Andi as deeply and well as any father could. Perhaps most importantly, she has a spacious apartment, courtesy of Ahmad’s position as a university professor. She may feel some existential angst, but day to day, there’s no immediate pressure to change.
Indeed, she wonders whether change is even possible.
Then a celebrated Romanian-Italian poet, Romei, gets in touch with a prestigious translation assignment. He will pay her well! Perhaps she will get famous! Certainly she can quit her unsatisfying temp jobs and buy her daughter an ice cream.
As it turns out, Romei’s pages challenge everything Shira knows, and thinks she knows, about what she wants, who she is, and where she comes from. Although at first Romei seems like the mysterious figure at the center of his Dante-inspired allegory, Shira soon learns that the real mystery goes far deeper.
Good On Paper is a story about what happens when our expectations get upended and our lives along with them. Thrumming with the kind of conversations graduate school students might have at 3 a.m., it’s religious, poetical, and allusive, but never abstract. Cantor doesn’t lose touch with her characters’ humanity, or with their bodies, either. “Translation requires, and generates, a rare kind of intimacy,” Shira muses at one point. “Like sex done right.” Novel writing works the same way. And however arcane, even Kabbalistic, the ideas under discussion—including the Biblical Song of Songs and Dante’s Inferno—Cantor keeps us intimately aware of her characters as people. No one forgets to eat in this book: Shira and her daughter run mainly on sugar bombs and baked goods. One character learns she has begun to go through menopause. Others go to bed together, or try to. Some sicken. One dies. Some climb into trees, and some fall out of them, fracturing bones.
We are all mortal animals, Cantor seems to say, breakable and selfish and flawed, even as we carry around these incredible minds, capable of forging connections and conceiving of verse. We only have so much time and we spend so much of it misunderstanding and hurting each other. Fidelity isn’t possible. “The translated one is always betrayed,” says Shira. And, later, “She who translates is both translator and traitor.” Yet translation is her vocation, even her identity. Just as she struggles with what being a good mother, and perhaps a good daughter, requires, she attempts to reconcile herself to her impossible task: to be successful and, at the same time, to be kind.
Can we learn to forgive each other for our unforgivable sins, whether or not we manage to request that forgiveness, whether or not we deserve it? Can we give ourselves an incentive to change? Can a Romanian poet write something in Italian that, once transposed into English, will change not merely lives but hearts, and bring back together several sets of people long separated by pain? He will try. As Cantor makes clear in this exuberant, ultimately optimistic novel, all any of us can do is try.