Detail of the cover of "Long Island Compromise" by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. (Random House)
Detail of the cover of "Long Island Compromise" by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. (Random House)

Must Jews be defined by trauma? New novel offers a surprising answer

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Surely, here in 2024, decades after the Holocaust and pogroms of Eastern Europe, American Jews are no longer defined by trauma and neuroticism. The epigenetic inheritance must wear off eventually — right?

For a time, Jewish literature, film and TV was dominated by the likes of Philip Roth and Woody Allen and even Larry David, all of whom depicted a Jewishness that was high-strung and nebbish. Their work focused on the fallout of traumatized immigrants to the U.S. and, later, their children, trying to assimilate, struggling to balance the broad cheer of America with their own, Old Country anxieties. 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” immediately drew comparisons to Roth, for the sex obsession of Toby, the novel’s titular lead, and for the rapid pace of her prose. But where “Fleishman” was acclaimed for its perspective-flipping narration, its slow reframing of its hero into an antihero, its upending of the divorce novel’s tropes, her new novel, “Long Island Compromise,” goes back to (Jewish) basics: visceral, all-consuming, generational anxiety.

The novel follows the younger generation of Jews in the Fletcher family, heirs to the wealth of a Long Island styrofoam factory started by their grandfather who, yes, survived the Holocaust. 

The trauma of the Fletchers, however, is less born of the Holocaust than of the kidnapping of their father, Carl, who is taken from his own Long Island mansion’s driveway in the opening flashback scenes of the book and held captive for days in, as it turns out, the basement of his own factory. (The kidnapping is loosely based on the real-life kidnapping of Jack Teich, a family friend of Brodesser-Akner.)

This is not a book about a kidnapping, though. It’s about the aftermath: the trauma of that one week, decades ago, echoing through the adult lives of Carl’s three children, Nathan, Beamer and Jenny. Nathan, terrified of risk, lives as boring and controlled a life as possible. Beamer, the middle child, has turned to drugs and sex. And Jenny, who was in utero for the kidnapping, sleepwalks through her life — literally falling asleep any time things get too stressful.

Brodesser-Akner’s writing surges along with a propulsive, instinctive anxiety. Maybe it’s Beamer trying to pitch a screenplay while on a confusing cocktail of speed and Ambien or Jenny sleeping through her classes every time she wonders if a graduate degree is really the answer to her life’s quandaries. Regardless, the defining emotion of each character, each scenario, each page is fear, manifested in all its different forms: fear of disaster, fear of failure, fear of becoming your family and fear of leaving them behind.

“Long Island Compromise” is full of very Jewish details: there is family drama over Beamer’s gentile wife naming their children Liesel and Wolfgang (a shanda), there are detailed b’nei mitzvah, there are nose jobs, there’s the Yiddish rhythm that colors each of Brodesser-Akner’s sentences (“I hope you have what to wear”). Each Fletcher feels like a recognizable modern Jewish-American archetype: the Long Island lawyer, the Hollywood bigwig, the union organizer-cum-intellectual. But it’s the constant undercurrent of anxiety that makes the novel feel so very Jewish.

The fact that Jewish anxiety is a well-trodden topic doesn’t make it any less engrossing to read about. Brodesser-Akner’s writing is propulsive, and the same attention to detail that made her a renowned profile-writer at GQ and The New York Times is paid to each of her characters, each of whom feels like an entire world unto themselves. She has the reader living inside Beamer’s racing thoughts, and then again inside the safety and routine Nathan finds in endless legal paperwork. Brodesser-Akner’s exploration of Jenny’s hatred toward her own wealth and privilege, even as she could have never done the social justice work she believes is morally superior without her trust fund, is as empathetic as it is a biting social commentary.

But there’s an extent to which it feels like we’ve been here before. 

Roth and Allen and the rest of their ilk present Jewishness as neuroticism, an obsession with sex or a fixation with intellectualism. And each Fletcher child is neatly assigned one of these conditions. Nathan is the neurotic, taking out every kind of insurance policy he’s ever heard of, just in case. Beamer is obsessed with the goyisheness of his blonde, Protestant wife — she’s named Noelle for G-d’s sake, but he also visits every imaginable type of sex worker. Jenny intellectualizes her distaste for her own family in terms of the politics of capitalism. 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. (Random House)

There has to be more to say about it all. There has to be something else to being Jewish.

And there is. Our relationship to trauma changes over the generations. And the Fletcher kids have a secret about their trauma: They love it. 

Nathan was a terrified neurotic child before his father was ever kidnapped — and when something bad actually happened, he felt relieved and safe. Everyone around him was suddenly seeing life the way he always had: as something terrifying. Finally, he didn’t have to warn them how dangerous the world is: “When he was faced with what was absolutely incontrovertible emergency — one that no one could argue with — this is when the world finally started making sense to him,” Nathan remembers of the kidnapping.

Beamer, meanwhile, seeks kidnapping in all his pursuit of pleasure. He hires dominatrixes to act as though they’re robbing him, takes drugs that knock him out so that he can feel helpless.

And Jenny, well, she hates her family, their wealth, their fears — and the kidnapping is what allows her to differentiate herself from the other wealthy mavens of her upbringing. She gets to be deep. She gets to be special.

Brodesser-Akner is at her best at the end of the book, pulling the threads together to critique the ways in which trauma is, at least a little bit, fetishized: an excuse for bad behavior, an enviable claim to fame. 

It’s a point that gets at the heart of the American Jewish experience today. In a world of identity politics, of the elevation of lived experience, having a special minority identity is its own form of power. It’s a way to be unique, to be less complicit in the crimes of America. After all, we’re Jews — there’s still antisemitism. The Holocaust wasn’t that long ago. In the past, anxious Jews sought desperately to repress their trauma; today, Jewish or not, modern wisdom says to give it space to breathe. To talk about it endlessly. The body keeps score and so forth, so why not embrace it? 

“How can you get over anything if it all is just constantly happening?” wonders Carl, the kidnapped patriarch, in his later years. “Post-trauma. Anyone who named it that didn’t really understand it. There is no post. There’s only trauma. Over and over. Time moves on but you stay there forever.”

But don’t we all have our own forms of trauma — is anxiety really so Jewish anymore? The Fletchers are Jewish, sure, but unlike the previous generations of American Jews, anxious about achieving the American Dream, the Fletchers already have it. Even their trauma isn’t particularly Jewish; anyone could be kidnapped.

Assimilation, it turns out, doesn’t protect against trauma. Nothing does. The question is: What next?

“Long Island Compromise” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Random House, 442 pages). The author will discuss the book with Elizabeth Weil at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera.

Mira Fox
Mira Fox

Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.