I turned to Rebecca Miller as a writer-director having interviewed her on stage for her latest film, the delicious “Maggie’s Plan.” While doing preparatory research, I discovered that she had written a historical novel about a Jewish man in 18th-century France. Jacob abandons his faith, assimilates into French culture, becomes a valet to an aristocrat intent on stripping away his Judaism, followed by an actor and libertine. And, then, of all things improbable and mysterious, Jacob, his memory intact, arrives in contemporary American as a fly on the wall. Literally, in an act of The Metamorphosis that recalls Franz Kafka. As the author of The Last Woman Standing: A Novel, which is Jewish historical fiction set in the Wild West, I was intensely curious to see what Miller did as an historical novelist. And I discovered that she was flamboyant in her choices, moving back and forth in time and weaving in a strong element of spiritual sci-fi or fantasy.
The most strange and wonderful scene – and I almost can’t believe I’m confessing this — is when the newly minted male insect Jacob discovers the sensual pleasures of sex a la fly. This is a flight of pure imagination and sensuality tinged with humor that I relished. This was not the historical novel I expected — and that was a good thing.
The journey back and forth in time, from Jacob’s assimilation into French culture to his omniscient view of the characters Masha, a devastatingly beautiful young Orthodox Jewish woman with Elizabeth Taylor eyes, and Leslie, a Long Island voluntary fireman with a rescue complex, is part romp, part psychological investigation, part theological exploration. What is it to be a Jew, a man, a fly — long before and after the Holocaust?
It’s an ambitious brew — but not a seamless one. As a writer, I found the descriptive passages often dense with adjectives — and, yet, some would call that lyrical. I wanted the story to have greater urgency but struggled to keep my attention as the contemporary characters floundered. Part of this also had to do with the author’s need to describe in depth so many characters that were not critical to the story. Some scenes fail to carry the plot forward and only reinforce what we already know about tertiary individuals. And, perhaps, in the cases of Masha and Leslie, their actions are not quite organic to the characters that Miller constructs. In contrast, Jacob — man or fly — is a canny and fascinating main character from beginning to end, his adventures and his final fate both ring true.
Miller’s radical folly takes the reader on an unexpected journey. It explores what it means to be a practicing Jew: both the restrictions of the laws to live by and the security of not floating aimlessly in a world without rules or the safety net of a large, extended family. Some individuals flourish in this environment — others, like Masha, long to be free to express themselves but then find the world even a few blocks over from their front door a foreign country, a destabilizing frontier, at times wondrous and dangerous, sometimes in the same breath.
Fascinating and adventurous as the novel is, I would have appreciated more trust in the power of the original story itself, and more rigor it excising those parts that didn’t serve the whole. When, in the concluding pages, Miller narrates the intervening family histories, the tales of Jacob’s progeny from 18th-century France to contemporary America, she could easily have slowed down so that we could have savored the trenchant information. By making the brilliant choice to tell this tale from the point of view of a semi-omniscient fly, sometimes the author hops and buzzes around too much, not knowing where to land and where to fly over.