On the wings of a fly: Novel—about Jewish experience, reincarnation, psychic powers—flits and soars

Jacob’s Folly

Elaine K. Alexander, Special to The Jewish Light

As the wife of oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis and daughter of Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer playwright, Rebecca Miller has illustrious connections. But Miller has also earned her stripes independently as painter, actress, film director, screenwriter and author. Most recently she has published “Jacob’s Folly” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 371 pp., Hardcover: $26, Kindle: $11.04), a comic novel narrated by a venturesome Jew who lived and died young in late 18th century France and who has been reincarnated—as a fly.

Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” about a traveling salesman, who unaccountably transforms into a man-sized bug, comes to mind. But aside from entomology, the two works have little in common. Kafka’s 1915 work is a cuttingly, satirical novella about bourgeois values. Miller’s work approaches 400 pages and flits between effervescent historical fiction (portraying Jews over 200 years ago in French society) and magical realism (meaning some fantastical element operates in an otherwise realistic setting). In the book’s final pages, the fly has a grandiose, spiritual epiphany and the book itself unexpectedly transforms—into the exuberant saga of one Jewish family.

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“I…found myself quickening, gaining form, weight, and, finally, consciousness…[T]here was a tearing— a continuous…universe-sized…ripping…I now know this was the fabric of time.” So the story begins in the words of Jacob Cerf, the Orthodox-Jewish-peddler-turned-actor, at the instant he crosses over to present day Long Island. But Jacob’s euphoria soon turns to despair, when a mirror insists, he has not come back as a winged angel, but rather as a winged fly with “persimmon” eyes and a long, hairy tongue.

Miller has created her insect with audacious humor, as when Jacob describes his attraction to a petite female. “Her smell was delicious— a cocktail of candy, orange juice, and excrement that filled me with straightforward lust.”

And also this fly has psychic powers. He can inhabit the mind of other characters in the present and also divine their sometimes poignant pasts. The most prominent of these personalities are (1) Leslie, a scrupulous volunteer fireman who supports a motley household of dependents and (2) Masha, a ravishing 21-year old with darkly, purple eyes who has been bitten by the acting bug. Of course, for her Orthodox Jewish family, an acting career is out of the question.

The author has hinted, it is “Jacob’s folly,” for the fly to believe he can influence the people to whose lives he has become an intimate spectator. Still a large part of the book’s dramatic tension comes from the fly’s efforts to subliminally sabotage Leslie’s moral rectitude and Masha’s piety.

Miller has logged five years of labor for “Jacob’s Folly,” three of them on research. During that time the author investigated the Parisian, pre-Revolutionary, Jewish community of some 500 persons, through the document trail left by a contemporaneous, police inspector who closely monitored them. Additionally, Miller read the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (her literary idol) and Jewish folk tales about demons and gilgul neshamot, literally, “cycle of souls,” meaning reincarnation. In her car, she listened to the entire Hebrew Bible. And finally, the author made an intimate study of an Orthodox Jewish family in Far Rockaway, N.Y.

A journey back to Miller’s Jewish roots was an unpredicted departure; Miller had a Catholic upbringing. But apparently, it didn’t stick. The author confided to Vanity Fair, “I stopped thinking of myself as a Christian somewhere at the end of college…I couldn’t reconcile the idea of one religion’s stories being right over the other stories.”

Since then, her recent novel suggests, Miller seems to have grown even less accepting of Christianity’s central story. The narrator conveys the opinion of an Enlightenment Age, French count that the “worst of [Jewish] crimes is mothering Christianity…the religion of slaves.” (That sly, satirical swipe—blaming the Jews for the deficiencies of Christian theology—has, so far, not earned general attention.)

“Jacob’s Folly” acknowledges the role of destiny—as when, one is born into the Orthodox Jewish community, but also advocates for free will—as when, someone is driven to find acceptance elsewhere. It is a muscular, philosophical novel, but not a talk-y, philosophizing novel. The several narrative worlds bridged by the fly are realized with savory but spare detail, credible characters and dialogue—and right to the very end—colorful and surprising turns of plot.