THE WORLD TO COME
By Dara Horn
Norton. 314 pp. $24.95
Dara Horn's debut, In the Image , was one of the best novels you never heard of in 2002. Although it didn't generate the popular acclaim won by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, it was a forerunner of their novels about precocious, grief-stricken young Jews searching for lost loved ones with the help of very old guides. Horn's lovely new novel, The World to Come , builds directly on her earlier work, but it confirms that she won't rise into the Foer-Krauss hip-o-sphere. A doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Harvard, she's more devoted to ancient mysticism than chic magical realism. The haunting melody of her work arises from Judaism's spiritual chords rather than its cultural ones, which are far more prevalent in modern fiction. Horn writes about theology and moral imperatives and the afterlife -- as though she didn't realize that such things just aren't done in sophisticated literary prose. But that daring is endearing, especially when it flows from deeply sympathetic characters, an encyclopedic grasp of 20th-century history and a spiritual sense that sees through the conventional barriers between this life and the one to come -- or the one before.
The novel opens on Benjamin Ziskind, a severely depressed, recently divorced game-show researcher who's just stolen a $1 million painting by Marc Chagall from the Museum of Hebraic Art in New Jersey. Ben is not a professional thief or an art connoisseur (in fact, he's legally blind), but in the wake of his mother's death, the collapse of his marriage and a new sense of the silliness of his job, he's "sick, sick, sick of having things taken" from him. And so, recognizing the painting as one that used to hang in his parents' living room when he was a child, he grabs it off the wall and runs.
At this point, the novel fractures into a kaleidoscopic collection of stories that sprawl across the 20th century, around the world and through a variety of literary forms. In the present, Ben huddles at home with the painting, worrying about what he should do with it. A too-cute romance with one of the museum's staffers provides a little forward momentum, but this story in the foreground is really just an excuse to spin captivating tales in the background about Ben's family members and about how the painting was created and passed from generation to generation.
Working loosely with events in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, Horn takes us back to the time Chagall spent teaching art at the Jewish Boys' Colony at Malakhovka. His colleagues were a number of brilliant Yiddish writers, almost all of whom were eventually murdered by the Soviets, and his students were traumatized orphans of the pogroms in 1919. In a particularly touching scene, Horn imagines Chagall giving a disturbed little boy one of his paintings while Pinkhas Kahanovitch, the writer known as Der Nister (the "Hidden One"), looks on, wondering what he could give. When their three paths diverge, we follow the boy and his painting through several traumatic generations. Chagall manages to leave the Soviet Union and enjoy a life of fame and fortune. The most powerful sections, meanwhile, describe the deprivation and abuse suffered by his friend Der Nister, who's tormented most of all by spirit-crushing obscurity, swallowing his envy for the increasingly famous Chagall while he scribbles his symbolist legends on any scraps of paper he can find.
Mixed into this swirling plot are Yiddish stories -- some drawn from Der Nister's work, some from other writers of the same period. Babies figure prominently in much of this folklore as Horn tries to imagine a state of existence before ours in which the unborn prepare for their lives, only to forget everything in their fall to earth. The title phrase, "the world to come," shows up repeatedly, in reference to the afterlife but also, for those not yet born, to this life. (There's enough womb/tomb imagery here to make a devoted Freudian wish that sometimes a cigar were just a cigar.) Horn rubs the concepts of death and birth until their edges fray -- all part of her effort to create a mythology in which various states of existence revolve back to each other: "The already-weres and the not-yets of our world, the mortals and the natals," she suggests, "are bound together somewhere just past where we can see, in a knot of eternal life."
Horn's vision -- captivating and startling even when not entirely coherent -- grows from stories that range across the 20th century, from the Soviet Union to Vietnam to New Jersey. All of it is meant to show that the world to come is nothing less and nothing more than the world we make, day by day, with our choices and actions. "Everything counts," Ben's mother says. "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you're just rehearsing for your life."
The final section of the book takes one last daring risk, showing us the paradise before this one, where "the beds and hammocks . . . are made out of music, chained melodies and woven symphonies and firm fanfare mattresses and ropy-netted ballads and strong percussive massages." It's fanciful and mystical and arguably inadequate to staunch the grief or blot out the horrors that Horn portrays so powerfully throughout this novel. But it's all tremendously earnest and fraught with moral weight, and somehow, miraculously, it stays aloft in the mind like a dream you can't decide was sweet or frightening. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World.