Book Club: The Golem and the Jinni

I am really, really into the Golem. When people go to Prague, I always get a Golem of Prague postcard.  I did some serious squealing when there was a hitman on Sherock called The Golem. I have little golem figurines, a matchbox with the golem on it…you get the idea. So when I had a blind date with a book over my birthday weekend in Asheville, it felt like kismet.

Mine is on the left. His is on the right-- another favorite, Devil in the White City.
Mine is on the left. His is on the right– another favorite, Devil in the White City.

The Golem and the Jinni is the debut novel by Helene Wecker, and I don’t even really know where to begin with it. If you came of age in the 90s or have a soft spot for Disney movies, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “genies” so I’m not going to explain that to you. I gave you a link to the Wiki page for golems, but briefly, they’re Jewish folk monsters made from clay that are basically clay slaves that can become ungovernable and are quite strong. This book tells the story of one of each of these things that end up in New York around the turn of the century and become unlikely friends. Trying to “pass” as human is tricky for them both, what with having superpowers and all. The Golem is conservative, quiet, and careful; the Jinni is impulsive, quick to anger, and less willing to integrate himself into polite society. Neither needs sleep nor food, and they meet one night in the streets of Manhattan, each instantly recognizing the other as Other.

Oddly, Washington Square Park doesn't really figure into this book at all.
Oddly, Washington Square Park doesn’t really figure into this book at all, but Central Park does…not really sure why this is the cover.

The research that had to have gone into this book must be staggering. There are so many novel-to-me turns of phrases, tiny details, and minor moments that are like a muted wallpaper in the background of the house that is this book. So many little jewels glinted at me from the text, the spoils of hours and hours and hours buried in some obscure archive or another. As a person obsessed by my research, I understand intimately how thrilling those finds can be, and I was excited that she was so forthcoming with them chapter in and chapter out. As an author, Wecker seemed really comfortable in the Jewish tenement life of 1899. The characters moved freely in and out of the story in an insular immigrant community that felt very round and dynamic. I’m not sure if she’s MOT or not– information about her on the intertrons was scant– but she was less facile when talking about the Maronite Christian community called Little Syria. There’s a vast amount of background on the Jinni’s genesis on the outskirts of the Bedouin communities of the Sahara, and it’s pretty hard to parse for most of the novel. Even in New York, the Jinni goes to a wedding, has some love affairs, hangs out with street bums, and makes a real fancy tin roof and subsequently some jewelry. There’s considerably less back story for the Golem, and that functions more practically. It’s more linear, and involves less explaining. She gets made in Eastern Europe by a corrupt kabbalist, comes to life on the boat to America, and gets a job in a bakery. I’m not sure if her story is less exciting to tell for Wecker, or if she feels like its less alien to her typical reader, but simply put, it has fewer detours. She breezed through a lot of details that might be confusing for someone who doesn’t have much background in Ashkenazi culture. Everything comes together neatly in the end and suddenly you understand why things came in this order and with these details (ugh, I can’t tell you), but wow, it takes 500 pages to get there.

The narrative pacing in The Golem in the Jinni is something like driving in suburban traffic. Sometimes, you’re hitting all the lights and moving really fast, but then sometimes you get behind a school bus or a mail truck and you’re idling in front of an IHOP for fifteen minutes getting really frustrated. After wrapping this up, I’m not sure if the cruising is worth all the honking and background noise. I’m glad I read it– I relish any opportunity to fantasize about the possibility of supernatural beings walking among us undetected– but I can’t say I’d put it on my must-read list for the year. It’s a little too intricate for a vacation read, but not quite engrossing enough to warrant taking the afternoon off from responsibilities.

Anyone else read this book? I haven’t met anyone who has even heard it. Furthermore, do you have extra golem literature I could be reading?

Next up is  this, in solidarity with my new home’s inane college reading list  policing, which is suddenly up for debate in the state legislature!

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