The World to Come, By Dara Horn, Norton, 314 pp., $24.95
With the horrors of the Soviet Union receding further with the passing of every year, the task of remembering has fallen to novelists, the blood transfusionists capable of reinvigorating the past with the urgency of the present. William T. Vollmann's 2005 National Book Award-winning ''Europe Central" built its linked chain of stories about wartime and postwar Soviet life around the experiences of some of its most famous artists, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Anna Akhmatova. And now Dara Horn's second novel, ''The World to Come," erects a bridge between past and present cobbled from the stones of, among other things, Marc Chagall's and Yiddish writer Der Nister's biographies.
Scuttling back and forth between Russia and America, past and present, ''The World to Come" alternates between Benjamin Ziskind, a 30-something ne'er-do-well freshly released from an unhappy marriage and exposed, like an unbandaged wound, to the world, and his familial predecessors. Pushed by his twin sister, Sara, to attend a museum singles mixer, he spots a Chagall painting that once hung on his parents' wall and, in a fit of pique, decides to swipe it. Benjamin's grandfather Boris, living in a Soviet orphanage after his parents are murdered, paints a portrait of an unborn baby studying in a book-lined womb that brings him to the attention of his art teacher, Chagall, and Chagall's friend Der Nister. Benjamin is pursued by a museum administrator who may be romantically attracted to him, or may be laying a trap to catch the painting's thief. But is the painting real, or is it a cleverly executed fake, painted by Benjamin's mother, an author of children's books?
Horn twists her book's two strands together, the Soviet past echoing in the American present, her book an attempt at crafting a Jewish folk tale relevant for the era of the gulag and the concentration camp.
Across the distance of the 20th century, the book's characters engage in a running debate on the nature of existence and the relevance of artistic endeavor. Is it true, as one character has it, reversing Plato's parable, that ''the fake world was the one outside. The real world was the cave, a dark place of little light"? Or is it possible to ascend over the graves and tombs that litter this book, literally and metaphorically? Chagall and Der Nister represent these two poles, the former a successful painter of shtetl levitators rising above the concerns of the earthbound, an adopted Frenchman blind to the nightmarish existences of his former Soviet peers, and the latter a struggling teller of gnarled parables tormented by his beloved daughter's death. It is no accident that Der Nister's pen name is also a name for God, meaning ''the hidden one," that emphasizes his absence from human affairs. God has left the characters of ''The World" to nurse their own sorrows, with no one more representative of its unbearably tragic results than Der Nister, whose work becomes a bridge of paper linking him to heaven's timelessness, and the lost heaven on earth he had with his daughter.
Horn does not try to rationalize or explain away the atrocities her book can only hint at; it only prescribes a slight rejiggering of her book's title as a compensatory medicine. Rather than cast one's faith in a world to come, far better to trust in the world to come -- the future, as cobbled together by human hands.
Horn's book is pleasingly ambitious, crammed full of history, allegory, and spirituality, with characters looking to pick up the pieces of a shattered world any way they can. If she has bitten off more than she can chew, it is more a testament to the heartiness of her appetite than the limitations of her talent. Adopting the symbolically rich language of the Jewish folk tale, ''The World to Come" is occasionally marred by clunky exposition and description, reeking of the creative-writing exercise, and her idiosyncratic use of metaphor is sometimes infelicitous. The book's characters, too, often lack the richness necessary to bear the metaphoric burden they are asked to carry. With so much emphasis on the often-dazzling exchange of ideas, and the interplay of its ruling metaphors, the characters cannot help but suffer in comparison.
''The World to Come" is engaged in the project of linking the Soviet and American experiences, carefully seeding its plot with connections between the struggles of its two sets of characters, but the Americans' problems cannot help but feel weightless in the balance, airy difficulties of feeling as opposed to the depredations of body and spirit felt by the Russians. Horn celebrates the efforts of artists to create their own worlds, and to reflect the one they live in -- heroic tasks, no doubt. But can there be any doubt that, in the final reckoning of the Soviet Union's crimes, Lenin and Stalin's bridge of steel reigned ineluctably over Soviet artists' bridges of paper?
Like Vollmann, Horn wrestles with the notion of art's efficacy when faced with history's nightmares, but her bridge of paper, that gossamer-thin conveyor of bruised souls toward another, better place, can go only so far when faced with the stark reality of Soviet crimes. Horn is a courageous writer, but in comparison, hard-fought optimism of ''The World to Come" is little more than a weak croak in the dark.