Temim Fruchter’s debut novel “City of Laughter” introduces concepts of radical queerness into folkloric, intergenerational Jewish histories. Despite its promising concept, the story, from narrative to syntax, feels unoriginal and flat.
The novel’s protagonist, 32-year-old Shiva Margolin — who shares racial, sexual, academic and aesthetic identifiers with Fruchter herself — is propelled by an excessively described emotional intensity that never translates into readers’ experiences.
Following her father’s death and an unexpected breakup with her first girlfriend, Shiva finds herself entranced by her matrilineal history. Or rather, she becomes obsessed with that history — in an early, energetic scene, she argues with her newly widowed mother due to the mother’s refusal to share details of their ancestry.
Unfortunately, the intensity of Shiva’s passion is contradicted by dialogue that falls consistently flat. “We’re grieving,” her mother says to her in the midst of this argument, as if to a larger audience. “And you’ve always had a pretty wild imagination, and I know you’re hoping our family has some sexy secret hidden history … Sometimes, when something is closed, you’re not meant to open it.”
Littered with cliché, this conversation — a microcosmic example of the intergenerational communications this narrative offers — is meant to heighten the stakes and awaken in readers a desire for hidden knowledge. Instead, Fruchter’s sentences disarm her narrative setup: her comparisons are clunky, her syntax unrealistic.
Fruchter-through-Shiva returns ad nauseam to a heightened register, narrating large swaths of time and profound emotional responses with rough, broad strokes. Explaining Shiva’s mother’s response to her own superstitious upbringing, Fruchter writes: “Mostly, she understood to sleep with the windows shut, to not investigate anything too deeply, and to listen for the kinds of warnings she knew to heed. Beyond that, nothing was certain.” Yet, certainty pervades the tone of these sentences in a totalizing voice. In this passage — like so many others — one can’t help but be reminded of the instructional proverb ‘show, don’t tell.’
The chapters of this novel skip back and forth through the youthful experiences of generations of Shiva’s family. Least banal and most pleasant are those situated furthest in the past — particularly the two stories about the historical shtetl of Ropshitz, which (literally) bookend the novel.
These chapters tell of the citizens’ inability to control their laughter, lending the book its title. “He lay there on the ground, sky crowding with eager stars and a fine dust that resembled baking flour, sounds coming from his chest that felt so new, he almost didn’t recognize them as laughter,” Fruchter writes beautifully in the prologue. But this theme never returns or echoes.
Neither do those of the additional historical narratives. The letters from the voiceless great-grandmother Mara are imaginative, grandmother Syl’s fascination with birds is whimsical and mother Hannah’s obsession with death intriguing. Unfortunately, these topics don’t recur past their introductions. In the distant past, the novel’s fabulist structure and tone have more space to shine.
On the other hand, the chapters set in the modern day are characterized by inexplicable events. Though Shiva seems to live in a recognizable modern-day New York, her experiences emerge as if they were mythic, like a folktale, written without abstraction and imbued with a purposefully fantastical logic. She sets her heart on a trip to Poland and is granted a ticket despite a lack of credentials; she craves to learn about her grandmother, and all original barriers to doing so cave for no apparent reason. Her queerness is somehow described exclusively through cliché — there is no nuance to her desire or her realization of it. The ends tie too neatly; they are not ends at all, but random stopping points.
Ultimately, this novel oscillates between excessive intensity and a lack of meaningful developments. It tantalizingly hints at anticipation but fails to construct genuine build-up, resulting in resolutions that inadequately address the preceding suspense. Despite the promising convergence of queer and Jewish narratives, this book misses the mark.
Liliana Greyf is a senior staff writer covering College Hill, Fox Point and the Jewelry District, and Brown's relationship with Providence. She is a sophomore studying Literary Arts and a proponent of most pickled vegetables.