Traditionally, Canadian-Jewish literature has been a tale of two ghettos: Montreal's St. Urbain area and Winnipeg's north end. More recently, Toronto has emerged as a blurred focal centre in the fiction of Matt Cohen, Anne Michaels, and Cary Fagan. Where Mordechai Richler continues to chronicle the grand narrative of Montreal in Barney's Version,
Cary Fagan works in a different, more hushed, register and on a smaller scale.
In previous fiction, Fagan has mapped Toronto's neighbourhoods and some European settings; the action of his latest, Felix Roth, is set mainly in New York, a city whose energy is captured in twenty-three, intriguingly titled chapters. With picaresque pace and the thoughtfulness of a Bildungsroman, Felix Roth charms the reader with a plot that twists and turns, and a series of minor characters who engage not only the protagonist, but the reader as well.
From beginning to end, Fagan questions his own originality: "My first view of Manhattan was from above, and no matter how often I had imagined that moment, how many novels I had read that were set in the city, I was not prepared for it." Felix's excitement is infectious, mediated by the presence of earlier novels throughout the narrative, for this is both a novelist's novel and a novel of novelists. Firstness carries through to the very last line: I "wrote the first line of the new story on the greasy bag."
On the surface, Felix travels to New York because he wants to show his short story to Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose words serve as epigraph: "We must believe in free will. We have no choice." Singer's paradoxical wit penetrates Fagan's prose. Even Felix Roth's oxymoronic name captures the bittersweet quality of the hero's encounter with the capital of the Jewish Diaspora. More happy than irate, Felix does not so much look back in anger to 1979 as look forward with optimism-felix culpa.
Like Singer, Fagan plays fast with reality and fiction. Felix's Orthodox brother, Aaron, agrees to fly to New York on Friday night, but travelling on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden. In their hotel, Felix spies a cockroach which leads him to think of Kafka and Singer's story, "A Friend of Kafka"; but these allusions lead nowhere, and merely reflect an antenna-like probing. Felix has only one copy of his manuscript, which he carries around precariously throughout his stay in Manhattan. The reader senses that there must be other copies of "The Goat Bride", for that short story gets chewed up by one of the minor characters, and eventually ends up as trash. Will the fate of the new story on the greasy bag be the same?
Although Felix is fixated by Singer, he is not blind to the excitement of the city, nor to its eccentric inhabitants. What Felix says about Singer applies to Fagan's fiction as well: "He was both an uneasy modernist and an old-fashioned storyteller." Contrasting accentless Toronto with musical Brooklyn, the self-centred, self-ironic narrator comments: "My own voice sounded to me scrubbed clean of character, as if my tongue had been run through the washing machine with extra bleach." Fortunately for Fagan, there is so much colour in this cultural capital that he needn't fear being a blank non-entity; parodic and anti-heroic Felix is a goat groom, Pan in the Big Apple.
Felix has a very busy weekend in New York. He makes love to his boss's wife. He travels uptown to Singer's apartment only to meet his Israeli niece, Hadassah Sussman, with whom he falls in love; except Hadassah turns out to be Heidi-neither Israeli nor Singer's niece. At the Gotham Book Mart, he meets Harry Winter, translator of Singer and custodian of The Mortuary of Forgotten Writers, who also reads his story. He moves from his hotel to Kemel's Bed and Breakfast, inhabited by a ménage ŕ trois who also respond to his story. Fagan devotes chapters to Felix's phone calls to his mother in Toronto. One chapter, "Zugzwang", describes his brother's expertise at chess (Aaron has invented this zany, quirky word to designate the entrapment of his opponent). With its twenty-three swerving vignettes, Felix Roth resembles a chess game through Manhattan, with Felix constantly moving only to be trapped by women and writers.
Felix plays another chess game with his literary ancestors-a zugzwang of, what Harold Bloom calls, the anxiety of influence. Felix invokes Bellow (Singer's translator), Thomas Mann (which means that Felix Krüll also forms part of Fagan's Bildungsroman tradition), Maugham's Of Human Bondage, Joseph Roth, Henry Roth, and Philip Roth. When Felix first spies Singer but is unable to approach him, he comments ironically on his own anxiety of influence: "Later that day I questioned myself as to whether I secretly wanted something awful to happen, for the Nobel laureate to stumble and fall on his face or for a taxi cab to mow him down. In other words, whether my unconscious was imposing an image of the oedipal father upon this elderly man who happened to be a great writer-whether my intense and awestruck admiration for him was tinged with the fantasy of patricide."
With Harry Winter, Felix discusses Joseph, Henry, and Philip Roth, Irving Howe, and Abraham Cahan. A master of titles, Felix invents The Apprenticeship of Felix Roth, The Rise of Felix Roth, The Adventures of Felix Roth, and What Makes Felix Run? Characters comment on Felix's short story: "It hardly feels like a story but like life itself. If anything, almost too much happens." Harry criticizes it: "It's a precocious work... Advanced for someone your age. I won't deny it... The story doesn't drag either." A fair assessment, for Felix is too advanced for his age, an offspring of Leonard Cohen (The Favourite Game) and Cynthia Ozick (The Messiah of Stockholm).
Felix tries to conclude his narrative: "And here I stood, unable to find the wisdom that would give this Bildungsroman I was living a conclusion, that would transform the hero from boy to man." With all its self-consciousness, self-reflexiveness, and self-irony, Felix Roth displays some of the wisdom for that transformation. After this Bildungsroman, we may now look forward to Fagan's more mature work, possibly a Daniel Deronda after this Felix Holt.
Michael Greenstein is Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University.