As Ivan Goldman’s Isaac: A Modern Fable (The Permanent Press, 222 pages) nears its conclusion, one of the novel’s narrators makes a telling observation: “Whatever we think we know, we’re just guessing, like everyone else.” In context, the narrator, Ruth, is commenting on her familiarity with a slippery and sinister academician named Borges, but the line also captures the essence of the novel itself. Drawing heavily on the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, this “modern fable” serves as a telling commentary on humanity’s ongoing struggle with questions of religion and our intimations of the divine. To wit: What’s the difference between those who claim to hear the voice of God and those who are just plain crazy?
The novel centers on the romance between its two narrators, Lenny and Ruth. Complicating matters is the fact that Lenny is actually the Biblical Isaac, reports of whose death, he quickly informs us, have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, he’s managed to hang on to his life for over 200 generations without aging so much as a day—forgotten, in his words, by God and the world. But not, it turns out, by another immortal known only as “the beast.”
Early on, Goldman hints at the wit and complexity of his heroine as she reflects upon a first date gone wrong:
Excluding criminal violence there are two kinds of disaster dates. Not standard mediocre dates. Downright disasters. First, there are the interrogators who turn what’s supposed to be polite social discourse into a trip to the station house. Second, the narcissists too self-absorbed to ask any questions at all. It was clear which one I’d stumbled upon here. But then I remembered his emails, which, though not absolutely compelling, seemed to come from a decent, self-effacing soul. “I couldn’t get through Pride and Prejudice,” he wrote. “Now you confess something.” Maybe a Cyrano wrote it for him. Or maybe he was Jekyll and Hyde, and lucky me, Jekyll had the day off. Was it still possible to chase the terror out of him with kindness and forbearance and allow Dr. Jekyll to flower? Or was there no strategy to help him find his way back to the serenity he felt when his mother nursed him? Getting the hell out of there was more practical, and definitely more appealing. Meanwhile, compelled by nerves, he just kept wading deeper into his pit of self-created sludge. Why did the courtship ritual have to be so damn painful anyway? Was it really so crucial for males and females to find each other? What are we? Plumbing parts?
What makes this passage so telling is that it subtly and succinctly reveals everything we need to know about Ruth. She’s clearly a well-read individual whose penchant for literary flare is balanced by a hard-edged sense of practicality. By the same token, though her pithy sense of humor borders on sarcasm, Ruth is not such a cynic that she’s given up on the possibility of romance altogether. Yet what makes the character so compelling is that unlike many other female narrators in contemporary fiction, Ruth is willing to entertain the possibility that she doesn’t need a man to give her life meaning.
In some ways, the fantastic nature of the novel suggests a more mature, not to mention literate, version of the Twilight series. Indeed, if Ruth serves as a more willful, mature, and headstrong version of Stephanie Myer’s Bella Swan, Lenny stands out as a world-weary answer to Edward Cullen. That the novel also takes shots at ivory-tower academia and celebrity culture while dropping references to the likes of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, and Toni Morrison only adds to the fun and intellectual heft of Goldman’s narrative.
A tale of Biblical proportions playing on the fringes of magic realism, Isaac is a compelling novel about what we accept and what we deny and how we struggle to tell the difference.
–Marc Schuster, author of The Grievers, 2012