By Ben Schrank
The hero of Consent is Mike Zabusky, a graduate student writing a thesis on the Golem, a creature out of Jewish folklore. At a party hosted by his academic supervisor he meets and falls in love with a harried young professional woman named Katherine. Unfortunately, their relationship founders under the emotional pressure brought on by the suicide of Mike’s father.
In other words, Consent is, on the face of things, a novel about relationships. In particular, it is a novel about failed relationships, and the failure to achieve any kind of real intimacy. Its dominant note is frustration. Mike is the epitome of the lonely, rootless urban male (parents divorced, no wife or kids, he even lives in a hotel!). As a scholar he is faced by a kind of academic writer’s block that the corrupt midwife to his studies, Professor Weingarden, is unable to release. His father kills himself out of romantic frustration, breaking an attic full of furniture before succumbing to a broken heart. Even his affair with Katherine is a frustrating game of cat-and-mouse, with a lot of attention paid to taking off and putting on clothes.
Schrank’s fascination with clothes is partly just a tic of style. He rarely lets one of his characters appear without telling us what they are wearing. When Mike goes to visit Katherine’s family he meets a father wearing “green work pants and tan boots, a clean blue oxford shirt,” and a brother dressed in “very pale blue jeans and white shirt with wood buttons . . . soft white Reeboks and clean white cotton socks.” Mike often notices these things where others don’t:
We stand on my father’s porch and look at the overgrown grass. I wear shorts and flip-flops, and a red Izod shirt I found in a closet. He’s got on black jeans and long-sleeved plaid shirt. I tell him it’s too hot for clothes like that and he looks down at what he’s wearing, in surprise.
There is a practical point to all of this – clothes do make the man – but there might also be something else going on. Clothes are a kind of body armour, frustrating intimacy with their layers. Mike is always pulling things up or down or to one side to get at Katherine. In one of the novel’s sub-plots the wife of a close friend has an affair with someone wearing an animal costume. You may be able to have sex with someone dressed up in a fox suit, but it certainly won’t be very intimate.
Enter the Golem, impervious to these affairs of the heart. But the Golem is more than just a metaphorical clay condom. In effect, the Golem is a living shield, legendary protector of the Jewish community. Which brings us to what I think Consent is really about, and another digression.
The Golem isn’t really an offensive weapon so much as a defence against persecution. In the one Golem story Schrank recounts in some detail, the monster clears the name of a money-lender named Polnicheck falsely accused of making matzo with the blood of a dead Christian baby. As things turn out, it was all the plot of an evil Christian count who owed Polnicheck a lot of money he didn’t want to pay back.
The story is the essence of what has come to be understood by the misnomer “Jewish guilt.” The important thing to understand about Jewish guilt is that it isn’t guilt at all. It is not Original Sin, but the paranoia of the innocent. In my review of Michael Hoffman’s The Empty Café I had occasion to remark on how several of the stories dealt with characters accepting the blame for crimes they knew they didn’t commit. A father confesses to a murder committed by his son; a professor admits to sexually assaulting a young girl who we know made the whole story up. Hoffman’s stories show Jewish guilt in its pathological state. In its more common form it is ironic: the nightmare of Kafka’s Joseph K. awaiting his trial, or Mike Zabusky innocently sitting on the back step with a young lady:
Outside we sit on some concrete steps. There’s a grass parking lot here, with an old Toyota parked off to the left that must belong to her. The woods begin about twenty yards from us, and I settle into the idea that sooner or later an angry boyfriend will emerge from the woods, tire iron in hand. We’ll watch him sniff glue, or pop some speed, and then he’ll come up and beat me because I’m hanging out with his girlfriend, Lizzy. I’ll put my hands up when he attacks, but I won’t be able to stop him.
This is an almost archetypal moment when it comes to Jewish guilt, and one can already see the Golem stomping out of the woods, hard on the heels of the glue-sniffing redneck, ready to defend Mike’s innocence.
This radical innocence has wider implications. It explains why, for example, Mike’s attempt to understand his father’s suicide proceeds like a murder investigation. Did a business partner ruin him? Or was his heart broken by a former lover? In either case, Mike assumes his father’s innocence. Sure he was an angry man, but suicide was something done to him. If only he could have defended himself from the terrible disease of intimacy, kept his clothes on, been able to conjure a Golem.
Consent is a complex, ambiguous and indirect book. It has an intellectual texture that is easy to miss given the brevity that is the soul of its presentation. The plot seems never to have been intended to cohere or even take on any kind of final shape. In a move that is typical of the novel’s indirection, all of the main characters simply wander off-stage. It’s a consistent vision of experience, but likely to frustrate readers seeking some kind of consummation. For a novel of passion, the Mike I think we’re left with is the scholar, not the lover.
Review first published online May 8, 2002.