A Guide for the Perplexed

Dara Horn’s latest novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, is philosophically ambitious and structurally complex. In this it resembles her three previous novels — In the Image, The World to Come, and All Other Nights — books that have won Horn an impressive list of awards and that moved the editors of Granta to select her as one of its Best Young American Novelists in 2007. The new book divides its attentions between three distinct but conceptually linked plotlines. The main plot, which takes place in the present day, concerns Josephine (Josie) Ashkenazi, a highly successful software designer who has become famous by creating a program called Genizah, which allows users to record and organize events in their lives. Brought to Egypt to serve as a digital consultant at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Josie experiences, as Americans tend to, a certain degree of culture shock. But a far greater shock comes just before she is supposed to leave, when Josie is kidnapped by unknown assailants and thrust into a dirty cell.

The identity of her captors remains a mystery for most of the book (though after some time Josie develops suspicions). What is clear is that they are highly dangerous, particularly after they realize that she failed to buy the standard insurance before making her trip, so that they stand no chance of collecting a hefty ransom for their efforts. Meanwhile, back home, Josie’s sister Judith insinuates herself into the household Josie has been absented from, coming to serve not only as a substitute mother for Josie’s daughter, Tali, but as a substitute wife for Josie’s husband, Itamar.

The remaining strands take place in the past and are based on real historical events. One retells the story of Solomon Schecter, a Jewish scholar at Cambridge who traveled to Egypt to retrieve a massive trove of historical documents from the Cairo Geniza, possibly the most important source of information about medieval Judaic culture in existence. The salvaged documents included a letter written by Moses Maimonides — author of the famous medieval philosophical tract from which Horn’s novel takes its title — in which he laments the death by drowning of his brother David; and the third (and least-developed) plot in Horn’s novel takes Maimonides himself as its central character.

Josie, as it happens, is in possession of a copy of A Guide for the Perplexed when she is kidnapped. Throughout her imprisonment she consults it, not only as a way of trying to make sense of her predicament, but as a way of staying sane. Maimonides’ book is largely concerned with questions of free will and of the problem of evil, the very questions that come to dominate Josie’s existence during her ordeal: How did I get here? Could I somehow have avoided this? Why should the universe subject undeserving human beings to such abject misery?

This is far from the only detail that connects the three plotlines. There is, most obviously, the word genizah itself (it denotes a storage place for documents — particularly those that mentioned God and could therefore not permissibly be disposed of — in a synagogue). There is the fact that Josie’s kidnapper’s son, who was murdered by the Egyptian police, was named Musa, which also happens to have been one of the names of Maimonides. There is the fact that Josie, like Joseph in the Bible, was once thrown into a pit by an envious sibling, and went on to suffer a period of captivity in Egypt. And there is a good deal more of this nature.

The thematic entwining of the book’s various narrative strands is intended, one gathers, to form a meditation on mortality, on the ways in which human beings survive in what survives them — in particular, the stories that they and other people tell about them — and the ways in which death defeats any human attempt to conquer it or to leave behind anything meaningful. These themes are most apparent in the passages about Solomon Schechter’s excavation of the Cairo Geniza:

Schechter was too deeply immersed with the dead. For that is how he saw the books and papers he collected now: as dead people, buried in the genizah the way that bodies are buried in a cemetery, until, miraculously, the act of reading brought them back to life. He mourned each time he found a paper he could not read, and had to fight the urge to read every paper he touched. It was like watching dry bones come back to life, the reanimation of a world. He felt, as he worked, an all-powerful arrogance, a sudden and stupendous triumph over time and death.

This thought is repeated elsewhere. When Josie describes Genizah to her captors, for instance, she says, “When you have enough material to work with, you can almost build an entire person out of this. It’s like bringing someone back to life.” It’s an interesting idea, though Horn is perhaps somewhat too insistent on making it explicit; attentive readers would surely have picked up on it for themselves.

At times, the book’s secondary plotlines — those centered on actual historical figures, Schechter and Maimonides — feel as if they their sole purpose is to reinforce and illustrate the book’s themes, and thus to add meaning and depth to the entirely invented chronicle of Josie and her captors. But that tale is not entirely satisfying either. Part of the problem is that none of the book’s characters, not even Josie, feel fleshed out or fully imagined. (This lack of detail extends to other aspects of the book as well. In particular, I found myself wanting a more richly detailed picture of Egypt, of Josie and Itamar’s house, and of the book’s other physical settings.) Whether wholly concocted from the fabric of imagination or based on historical figures, the novel’s characters often behave less like human beings than like mechanisms with the sole purpose of illustrating, and sometimes articulating, the themes the author is trying to get across. Tali, Josie’s daughter, is particularly unconvincing: Horn’s tends to use her as a mouthpiece for provocative ideas, and the result is that a good deal of Tali’s dialogue rings false, as in the scene where she explains to Judith why she does not like to read:

I hate reading. Because the letters are big liars … You try to read them, and you think you’re right, but then it turns out you’re wrong, because they lied. They have an E in them, or a G or an H or  a W or a K, and then when you try to read them, it turns out those letters are just faking and they don’t actually make a different noise from their real one, or they don’t even make any noise at all. There are supposed to be rules about how they sound, but that’s a lie too, because the letters hardly ever follow them. It’s all just a big lie.

At another point in the book, Tali presents Judith with a riddle: “What’s the same about an acorn, a tissue, and a penny?” Tali’s answer is “nothing.” As she explains: “The ingredients don’t make sense! Only the INVISIBLE part makes sense!” There are moments, while reading Horn’s novel, that the reader gains an intuition of the profound and beautiful book that might have been woven from the materials Horn draws on, a sense of how these elements might have been united and transformed into something greater and more profound than the sum of its parts, if only the magical part — the invisible part that would unite and make sense of the book’s ingredients — had been successfully invoked. There was, perhaps, a fine, moving, and memorable book waiting to happen here. But A Guide for the Perplexed, for all its ambition, feels more like a pile of dry bones — one that the act of reading is unlikely to bring to life.