“The Family Markowitz”
Allegra Goodman started her career as a writer very young: as a 21-years-old Harvard senior, she published her first collection of short stories, Total Immersion. It took her only eight years to publish her first novel – The Family Markowitz, in 1996. The Family Markowitz, which I will look at in some detail in this essay, appeared in the New Yorker (a weekly American Magazine) and was highly praised. This novel was acclaimed as a fiction winner: the First Annual Salon Book Award and Book of the year in the United States of America. The Family Markowitz, considered a Jewish masterpiece, is a funny collection of interlocked stories about three generations of a Jewish American family. In this way, she is a narrator in the classic Jewish tradition. Although, Goodman rises up from other great writers as Cynthia Ozick, Rebecca Goldstein, Daphne Merkin or Isaak Bashevis (other remarkable Jewish writers) in the way she uses the words in her writing, there is no evident innovation. In her stories, the author skips through no flaming literary circle and uses no post-modern narrative writing. To a certain extent, she succeeds in using the traditional form of writing, which is the pure direct form of describing the happenings.
As we will see, The Family Markowitz deals with the life of characters that seems to the reader very real. I mean, these stories that she presents us, although are fiction, could perfectly be the narration of real persons.
“The Family Markowitz”
Goodman is usually considered a Jewish American writer, but from her texts one perceives that she does not stick to a Jewish literary tradition. It becomes obvious, for example, in the choice of her novel’s title, which remembers very much a novel’s title – The Family Moskat – of another Nobel Prize-winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Her technique also follows other writers as for example Philip Roth, who suggests a typical ironic humour, something which is used by Goodman when she lavishly skews her fictional family. Even though, knowing that her writing style is not new, the situations described are very refreshing and amazingly original. In her writings, one finds a predictable reflection of relationships and their changes, phenomena that occur in every typical, or even atypical, family. More or less similarly to Roth, who has chronicled the lives of the second generation of American Jews who released themselves from the Old World’s obsessions and fears of their immigrant parents, Allegra Goodman focused herself also on the third generation. The characters of this third (as well as the first and second) generation have either controversial fight with themselves or with others. The “fights” have many times a lot to do with two opposed positions: their old religion roots and the new unorthodox American style.
In both Roth and Goodman there is a conflict between generations, but a clear difference between them must be pointed out. While in Roth the parents were worried about their children’s who are drifting away from Jewish faith, in The Family Markowitz the parents do not share the same problem. It is quite the opposite. In Goodman, we have “liberal” parents, who have problems with her oldest daughter (Miriam), who is, in their point of view, too much linked with her religion roots, at least more than they (her parents) are. For example, Ed Markowitz (Miriam’s father), who is a terrorism expert, says that his daughter “has burst out of their household with its pleasant suburban Judaism and become a little refusenik” (page 241). Miriam studies at medical school and in one of her visits home she brings paper plates and this upset Ed. For Miriam her parents are not conscientious enough in keeping kosher (pages 184-185). Miriam is also the only character who finds her way back to the old-world religious orthodoxy life.
Expectations are also undermined throughout the whole book. Rose Markowitz, the matriarch widow of the Family, is interviewed by a PhD student, Alma, who praises her as a courageous refugee. Instead of being the extolled survivor, Rose, who is addicted to Percodan, would quickly forget her old memories. At the Passover Seder, while family members discuss about the proper interpretation of the ritual narrative, the grandson’s Methodist girlfriend Amy proves the most respectful attendee by quoting the four questions of the Passover festivity (page194).
Goodman emphasizes the ironies of life in the Jewish contemporary Diaspora by placing her characters in strange situations. For example, Rose was born in Germany, raised up by a foster family in England and moved to Venice Beach. Henry, her older son, becomes Anglophile and lives among antiques think in Oxford with his non-Jewish wife Susan McPhearson. Her other son Ed, an “expertise in the Middle East” (page193) who tends to side with the “P.L.O. or the Arab League” (page 84), gets trapped at a Catholic retreat centre in rural Minnesota, which is described in detail on the Mosquito chapter. Rose’s grandchildren are scattered among a variety of elite colleges. After knowing the characters, the way they feel, thing and act, the reader wonders about what could be strong enough to bind all these individuals. Even among the same generation, the Goodman’s characters are very different, dissimilar, from each other. Nevertheless, the family Markowitz is destined, if not always, united.
If the reader follows carefully this family through the three generations, he/she will find that Goodman allowed them to pose questions about the “real” meaning of what family is about. Another issue to have in mind is that Goodman explains, in a funny way, the religious ties which exist in the centre of comprehensive cultural change. One example would be the head of the family, Rose Markowitz. She refuses to attend on Henry’s wedding, because he was marrying a non-Jewish woman named Susan McPhearson. However, her reaction is not worse or better than the reaction of her son Ed, who also was against the way of marriage that her daughter Miriam was planning to have with an Orthodox man named Jonathan. Just as Rose argues with Henry about the Protestant minister who celebrated the wedding, Ed is disappointed by Miriam’s choice of a mixed-sex dancing at her wedding. To balance these situations, Allegra Goodman investigates the endurance of identity, listening, as one character said, to “the thundering of history”.