17 August 2008

If Norman Finkelstein...

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

If Norman G. Finkelstein, the author of the groundbreaking book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, had written a novel instead of his well-researched historical analysis ... then Tova Reich’s My Holocaust: A Novel might well have been the result. It was with the clarity of Finkelstein kicking around in the back of my head that I made my way through Reich’s strangely compelling and highly entertaining novel. That said, although I have never met Finkelstein, I doubt he would have been able to nail the absurdity of holocaust worship with Reich’s comic timing.

At the center of Reich’s story are the Messers, père et fils: Maurice, the holocaust survivor and founder of the consulting firm Holocaust Connections, Inc., and his son Norman, the company’s president and a leader in the so-called Second Generation movement. Over the course of a couple of years, Reich moves us through Maurice and Norman’s striver approach to tapping the power of the holocaust (“Make Your Cause a Holocaust” is Norman’s branding line for their business), to their rise to the pinnacle of the American Jewish Suffering establishment through their involvement with the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, to their slight fall from grace as the Third Generation of “survivors” takes over, literally. Reich’s book once again reveals that there’s no business like Shoah business, if any reader managed to escape such knowledge previously.

Much of what works well about this novel is the way in which Reich characterizes and caricatures the cynical exploitation of the Jewish holocaust for self-aggrandizing purposes – all in the name of the Jewish people, of course. She then folds in the expansion of the holocaust to the devotees of other genocides, from Armenia to Cambodia to Rwanda, to say nothing of the “ferret holocaust, the mad cow holocaust ... the Confederate Flag holocaust, the Falun Gong holocaust ... and so on and so forth across a topography populated by seeming crackpots and cranks – each and every one of these lowercase holocaust [that] without exception had to be shunned in the short run for the sake of the ultimate legitimization and triumph” of the One, True, Holy, Jewish Holocaust®. Reich even includes the folks I termed “The New Survivors” in an essay a few years ago, a group that has not, by comparison, been as successful as their American Jewish counterparts. Just about the only joke not present in this story is the one I just made about trademarking the holocaust itself. The book also includes (briefly) perspectives from Poles, Israelis, Palestinians, and others on the over-promotion of Jewish suffering, as well as the way in which the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp has become a kind of theme park memorial. A series of scenes in which a group of Israeli teenagers make a bit of a hash of the camp is simultaneously shocking, funny, and very much to the point.

I enjoyed My Holocaust, strange as it is, but in the interests of a thorough review, I want to register two specific criticisms. The first concerns the last fifty pages or so: the stream-of-consciousness style and interwoven changes of character perspective, that worked effectively for most of the book, starts to fall apart as the chaotic action climaxes. Like a plane in a nosedive, albeit one with a qualified pilot, Reich manages to pull the story and the reader back into level flight at the very end. I suspect that the concluding sections are supposed to feel like a vigorous race to a dramatic climax, but instead it felt a little more frenetic than controlled, and thus harder to follow.

The second point is more a question than a criticism: will any reader not well-versed in the obsessions of American Jewish culture over the last four or five decades “get” this story, even for the work of fiction it is? I am not concerned that (as with Finkelstein) Reich has opened herself up to attack by the vigorous, intolerant stream of American Judaism that supports holocaust worship; that already happened, even before the book was finished. Nor do I think this book is “bad for the Jews,” to borrow the classic formulation; the American Jewish communities’ twin obsessions with Israel and the holocaust needs as much airing out as they can get. But if one great strength of fiction can be that it takes the narrow interests of an author and makes them more universally appealing, well, I am not sure this is an area in which My Holocaust succeeds.

The only way to know for sure is for you to read it for yourself.


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