How should we suppose poor Isaac felt — son of a father all-too-willing to sacrifice him at the suggestion of some voice in his head? Christians are wont to overlook the obvious horror and absurdity of the Biblical tale. According to some (less awful) Jewish interpretations of events, it was perhaps Satan, as an agent of God, who spoke to Abraham, which would make more sense to those who imagine God to be not quite so sadistic. Either way though, what kind of man would this traumatized son become? In Isaac: A Modern Fable (Permanent, 223 pages), Ivan G. Goldman has arranged it so that Isaac, after the mishap at the altar, has been granted the gift of eternal youth. The identity of benefactor is not clear; the gift may be from Satan or from Jehovah. Isaac himself has never been able to decide, as his immortality and eternal youth often seem to him like a curse.
Goldman’s Isaac has spent a couple thousand years bouncing around from identity to identity, never amounting to much, despite his miraculous powers of longevity. He never invested in gold or land or property of any kind because he has feared being discovered and has felt compelled to keep moving. As the novel opens, Isaac finds himself living in Hollywood, of all places, working as a bodyguard, trying not to become too attached to anyone because before long his agelessness will begin to inspire suspicion.
This time, he has assumed the name “Lenny,” and he meets a woman named Ruth in a restaurant. She is there on a blind date that turns ugly, and Lenny steps in to rescue her. The narrative alternates between the perspectives of the immortal and the woman who will become his soulmate. Ruth is an academic, finishing up her PhD and teaching. While Lenny’s chapters relate his ancient history (literally) with other women, whom he was forced to leave when they got too old, Ruth tells us about her struggles as an intellectual single woman living in L.A. the superficial heart of America. The pair quickly fall in love, and just as quickly Lenny disappears, to avoid hurting poor Ruth.
Ruth’s name marks her out as Lenny/Isaac’s companion; she will pity the immortal and understand and embrace his misery. But first Ruth herself must undergo trial and temptation by Satan. Goldman cleverly decides to make Ruth into one of literature’s most pathetic creatures — after orphans and aging men in love with young cold women. Ruth is a long-suffering, hapless academic in the humanities. Goldman’s portrayal of her circumstances is as hysterical as it is accurate. Ruth, he writes, is a member of
the stumbling surplus herd of Ph.D.’s and Ph.D. candidates who weren’t science, software, or derivatives virtuosos, but hopelessly impractical humanities slugs. The hard facts of supply and demand forced us to settle for transitory jobs teaching basic courses to freshman for part-time crumbs. In L. A. we’d even been given our own nomenclature — freeway flyers — as though we were a local baseball team. We scuttle from campus to campus earning a little here and a little less there and sharing our mandatory office hours in cave-like, windowless cubbyholes. No matter how many classes we taught we could never earn half as much as the tenured full-timers safe in their palace…. We freeway outcasts frequently had more solid credentials that our putative betters behind the drawbridge, but once we became “adjunct” lecturers we could never win respectable positions from employers who’d seen us work the street.
And so it is that, Satan, in the form of a director of a think-tank in Manhattan, is able to seduce the vulnerable Ruth, recently abandoned by Lenny. Satan, who is using the name Borges, tempts her with the promise of a six-figure salary and academic celebrity. Soon Ruth has published her dissertation and has
crashed the cover of The New York Times Book Review with her Mary Shelly: Frankenstein’s First Victim. Ruth Camby very quickly became a crossover intellectual in demand, along the lines of the late William F. Buckley, except this model was a bewitching, progressive female who lacked Buckley’s grudges, tics, and sinister subterfuge. Arbiters of what was important were enthralled by her quick mind and unpretentious glamour. Paparazzi competed to capture her beguiling essence. Der Spiegel jumped in front of the pack with a cover that became an instant Pop Art poster — a head-to-toe, smiling, slender breathless Ruth pulling off her bathing cap while emerging from a pool at Columbia…. [She was] on both MTV and Charlie Rose….
The irony here is almost imperceptible because most Americans actually do dream of this kind of success and they suppose that literary academics are no different. When I got to the line “unpretentious glamour,” I realized Goldman was probably kidding, and with “paparazzi” I knew for certain. Any lingering doubts would be dispelled when Ruth is accosted by fans at Starbucks, where she goes to write, and she has to move to a different Starbucks.
Although the premise of the novel is based on supernatural events, the reader accepts that Lenny really is Isaac and really has lived thousands of years. The fantastic theme turn out to be less absurd than the idea that an academic such as Ruth might aspire to being on the cover of People.
Ah, but then again, maybe academics these days do have such dreams and are perfectly wiling to sell their souls to the devil for the pleasure of hanging out with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg–another Borges customer, probably.
In the end, the happy pair trick the devil and Ruth escapes the everlasting torture of being chained to a desk in some awful region of academic hell. Goldman’s Isaac is a clever, witty, entertaining, but it is more than that too, targeting the false gods and pathetic idols of American culture.
–V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015
[Note: Isaac: A Modern Fable was considered for the 2014 Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award]