Difficulty of Empathy
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Every year, a new crop of young people comes to New York City to pursue the literary life, lured by the siren song of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin. In their fiction and memoirs, these New York intellectuals created a durable vision of New York as a place where the life of the mind becomes actual, where encounters with ideas and books are as personal as love affairs.That the authors of this myth are now all dead — that Partisan Review is shuttered, and the cafeterias of Broadway replaced by Starbucks — cannot diminish its attraction. Like Renaissance Florence, the Jewish-literary-intellectual New York of the 1930s has become a Platonic city, one of the places where the imagination loves to dwell.
Any reader who feels himself getting carried away by this legend — to the point of wanting to start a little magazine, say, or write a precocious, nostalgic novel — should be prescribed a dose of the fiction of Brian Morton. Mr. Morton is a New York intellectual in good standing, a former executive editor of Howe’s own magazine, Dissent. And at first glance, his novels can seem like tourist guides for highbrows, in which names such as Kazin and Roth serve the same aspirational function as brand names in a Danielle Steele novel. In “Breakable You,” Mr. Morton’s fourth book, we get a number of such glimpses: Howe having breakfast at what seems to be the Nectar coffee shop on Madison and 79th Street, or E.L.Doctorow chatting with Laurie Anderson at a party for the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
But just as a stage magician is always the fiercest skeptic of psychics and mediums, so Mr. Morton knows too much to be taken in by the myth of the New York intellectual.His characters are often writers themselves, but they tend to be failed and forgotten — like Leonard Schiller, the aging novelist in “Starting Out in the Evening” — or helplessly exploitative, like Nora in “A Window Across the River,” who describes herself as an emotional cannibal. Nor does Mr. Morton let us forget the victims sacrificed to these writers’ egos, the admirers and protégés and family members who pay the price for achievements that, sub specie aeternitatis, don’t add up to much.
If Mr. Morton were simply a satirist of a small subculture, however, his books would be far less appealing than they are. In fact, he is a deeply compassionate writer, unafraid to treat the largest themes — love, loneliness, aging, death — in an earnest, generous spirit. Mr. Morton’s prose tends to be modest and straightforward, his plots domestic with a touch of melodrama. But in an age when showy, jokey, esoterica-stuffed novels take up the press’s small attention span for serious fiction, such quieter gifts do not receive all the attention they are due.
In “Breakable You,” Mr. Morton’s strengths are once again on display.This time, his twin subjects — the comedy of literary life and the tragedy of private life — run on parallel tracks, as he tells the stories of Adam Weller, a successful, aging novelist, and his daughter Maud, a depressive graduate student. In Adam, Mr. Morton has created his most grotesque vision yet of the writer’s ego, a figure whose pure cynicism makes him seem less a human being than an allegorical villain from a morality play — he could be named Ambition. Except that Adam, now in his sixties and with his best work long behind him, has lost the idealism that elevates literary ambition above mere worldly vanity. “Adam was untroubled by the thought that the world would forget him as soon as he was gone, that his reputation would not merely grow dim but disappear,” Mr. Morton writes.”He wanted to hold on to his place in the world while he was alive, and he didn’t give a damn what happened after he was gone.”
Adam has already proved his selfishness, which amounts to a kind of philosophical creed, by deserting his wife of 30 years, the long-suffering therapist Eleanor, for Thea, a beautiful, manipulative twentysomething. It doesn’t bother Adam that Thea may be only using him for worldly advancement; he doesn’t even mind that they seldom have sex, as long as she advertises his virility by being seen with him in public. But the ultimate test of Adam’s nihilism comes when Izzy Cantor, his long-dead fellow novelist and best friend, unexpectedly intrudes into his hermetically sealed life. Izzy’s widow, Ruth, has discovered a lost manuscript, a masterpiece that might resurrect Izzy’s reputation — and, Adam immediately fears, put his own in the shade. This is a familiar plot device, with strong echoes of “Humboldt’s Gift”; but the sheer, chilling selfishness with which Adam meets the challenge puts him in a literary class by himself.
If Adam Weller is a monster because he is unable to feel any sympathy, his daughter Maud risks destroying herself by feeling too much. Her dissertation at Columbia deals with “philosophers … who wrote about how we can find a way to recognize one another, empathize with one another — Kant and Buber and Levinas,” and she is naïvely ready to apply the wisdom of the philosophers to the problems of her personal life. When she meets Samir, a withdrawn and obscurely tortured man, it makes sense that she would be drawn to him: He presents a real-life case study in the difficulty of empathy. That he is Arab-American and Maud Jewish only increases the challenge, in a way that feels a bit programmatic. (It also gives Mr. Morton an excuse to comment, in Samir’s voice, on the way pundits like Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens reacted to the attacks of September 11, 2001 — an awkward intrusion of the editorialist into the territory of the novelist.)
Even when Maud learns the reason for Samir’s grief — the death of his three-year-old daughter, which Mr. Morton describes in truly heartbreaking fashion — she is not deterred. Eventually, her emotional and sexual generosity succeeds in resurrecting Samir: “He felt himself coming alive, and it was painful. It was like a scene in a movie, where the klieg lights are thrown on one by one, illuminating more and more of the set.” This sounds like a happy ending, but it occurs just halfway through “Breakable You”; the reader, alerted by the title, knows that still more tests of human frailty and resilience are to come. Suffice it to say that, when we take leave of Maud Weller, it is Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus,”with its exhortation to simple endurance, that has become her new philosophical guide. And “Breakable You” has succeeded in demonstrating, once again, Mr. Morton’s appealing and humane gift.