AFTER READING the five "fictions"
(as Cynthia Ozick calls the four stories and one novella in Levitation), and stunned by the force and originality of her narrative voices, I went back to read whatever I could find of Ozick's: a literary essay in Commentary in 1979 on "Judaism and Harold Bloom," a story collection, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971). A poet-friend provided me with a terrifying short story, "The Shawl," torn from the pages of the New Yorker and told me about another recently published story in that august magazine about a Jewish religious school which caused much consternation and protest in the New York-Jewish community.
What did I learn from all this frenzied reading? For one thing, that I have been ignorant of an important voice in American fiction, a woman whose intellect (not a customary possession of fiction writers) is so impressive that it pervades the words she chooses, the stories she elects to tell, and every careful phrase and clause in which they are conveyed. She is not-- tempted by the easy-to-hand designation -- a Jewish writer. Indeed she claims the designation is an oxymoron, a contradiction between the adjective and the noun. True, her subject-matter is often Jewish, and now and then she uses Jewish diction effectively. She is learned in Hebraic history, philosophy, and tradition, a learning which enriches her field of reference, in the way that Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction is suffused by his Hasidic training. More than all this, she possesses what one might call the Jewish sensibility to all the possibilities that enlarge fiction beyond the confines of narrow sectarianism.
To justify this largesse of praise I ought to lay out, in all their fullness, the five pieces in this new collection, if only to demonstrate Ozick's versatility, her entirely original approach to as mundane a background as a Central Park West evening party in the title story, her knowledgeable way of building character, as in the photographer in "Shots," her high and unexpected wit in "From a Refugee's Notebook." But one demonstration, of the unique quality of the novella about Ruth Puttermesser who becomes mayor of New York City through the interventionist tactics of a golem, will have to serve for all.
In an earlier story in the collection, we learned that Puttermesser is 34, a lawyer, living alone in the apartment in which she grew up in the Bronx, and no virgin. She lives, more specifically, on the grand concourse, "among other people's decaying old parents." Her discontent with the blue- blood law firm which hires her as a token woman and an almost-token Jew leads her to go to work for a city Department of Receipts and Disbursements. She hates the bureaucracy and lives upon a fantasy that she is studying Hebrew with an uncle who died before she was born. She clings to his memory because she needs an ancestor.
"She demands connection--surely a Jew must own a past. Poor Puttermesser has found herself in the world without a past. Her mother was born into the din of Madison Street and was taken up to the hullaballo of Harlem at an early age. Her father is nearly a Yankee: his father gave up peddling to captain a dry-goods store in Providence. . . . Of the world that was, there is only this single grain of memory: that once an old man, Puttermesser's mother's uncle, kept his pants up with a rope belt, was called Zindel, lived without a wife, ate frugally, knew the holy letters, died with thorny English a wilderness between his gums."
In the novella, Ruth Puttermesser's history is advanced. Now she is 46, has lost her job with the city and her lover has left: "Nothing bloomed for her." Now she understands how the city works while at the same time she dreams of "an ideal Civil Service: devotion to polity, the citizen's sweet love of the citizenry, the light rule of reason and common sense, the City as a miniature country crowded with patriots."
Suddenly something does bloom for her; a golem ("the first female golem") appears in her bed. Speechless, the golem communicates with her "mother" by notes and informs her she wishes to be called Xanthippe, cleans her house and cooks for her, and finally writes a Plan for the Resuscitation, Reformation, Reinvigoration & Redemption of the City of New York. Puttermesser, guided by her energetic and resourceful golem, runs for mayor of New York City as the candidate of the Independents for Socratic and Prophetic Idealism party, and is elected.
Ozick's description of how the city metamorphosizes into Utopia is one of the pleasures of this story. Everything fine and rhapsodic happens to the city including: "A little-known poet who specializes in terza rima is put in charge of Potter's Field. For each sad burial there, she composes a laudatory ode; even the obscure dead are not expendable or forlorn." Wondrous improvements take place: "The ex- pimps are learning computer skills" and the Welfare Department has been changed into "the Department of Day Play, and delivers colored pencils and finger paints and tambourines to nurseries clamorous as bee- loud glades, where pianos shake the floors, and story-tellers dangle toddlers in suspense from morning to late afternoon, when their parents fetch them home to supper."
The story ends wonderfully, as all Ozick's tales do, with endings that grow plausibly out of her fiction's intelligent and sensitive premises. Dreams and spells, imps and golems are mixed credibly with brilliantly realistic human predicaments, and the themes running through them are theological in the widest and most humane sense of the word. In the preface to Bloodshed Ozick observes that "story-telling, as every writer knows, is a kind of magic act. Or Eucharist, where the common bread of language assumes the form of a god." In this sense, we can look upon Ozick as a part of the royal priesthood of the art of fiction, a writer of uncommon magical gifts.