Everything is connected and needs our help
In England, where I live, temperatures soared over 100 degrees last week, a record high. Fires raged across the country, roads and railroads warped in the heat, and even climatologists were stunned. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that so much contemporary fiction attempts to tackle climate change, whether it is depicted as a problem to be solved or as a problem we have failed to solve, dooming us to a post-apocalyptic (“cli-fi”) future. In the past two years alone, we’ve had Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’ novel, Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’, Jessie Greengrass’ ‘The High House’ and Alexandra Kleeman’s ‘Something New Under the Sun’, among others, emphasizing the urgency of the situation.
Brett Ashley Kaplan’s “Rare Stuff” fits into this literary conversation about our ecological crisis, but simply calling the novel eco-fiction wouldn’t do it justice. This novel contains a bit of everything, including, but not limited to, a plea for the planet: a mystery that takes readers, as well as its protagonists, from Chicago to New York to Boston to Quebec to the world deep in the ocean; Yiddish-speaking whales (also at least one shark); evil diabolical jesters and wild, furry escapes; an ode to interracial love; and connect them together, a message that we can all do better.
The novel begins with the main character, Sid, a young Jewish female photographer in an on-and-off relationship with a mixed-race Jewish man from Guadeloupe, losing his father. To launch us into the adventure that becomes the novel, Kaplan introduces Sid to a suitcase filled with clues his deceased father left behind – a single red high-heeled shoe, a pair of blue kid gloves, a photograph of a felt man, a small metal sculpture of a reclining woman, a glass paperweight, a wax paper bag and other objects.
But where will these clues lead? Will they help Sid solve the mystery of his mother’s disappearance decades earlier? Understand his father? If? Climate change?
Always keeping us on our toes, the first-person narrative shifts, allowing us to hear not just Sid’s voice, but also that of her boyfriend, Andre, an academic; his father, Aaron (we are aware of his unfinished manuscript in which the Yiddish-speaking whales reside); and his mother, Dorothy (also through his writing). There are also interviews, poems, book reviews and letters skillfully woven into this already colorful tapestry. Yet at no point is the novel confusing; on the contrary, questions posed in one section can be answered in another, and the narrative pace is quick.
The characters in “Rare Stuff” aren’t deeply developed, but each has their own rich history and collectively adds to a picture of interdependence. We get a glimpse of aristocratic Austrian Jewish life before the war, as well as crypto-Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition and resettled in the Caribbean. We meet couples who, like Sid and André, are interracial; they are the subject of Sid’s photographic project. We read about Jewish whalers in 19th century New England and about Jack Johnson, a black heavyweight champion who, in a novel within the novel, receives a happier ending than allowed. to the historical figure. We read about dark times and places: Eagle’s Nest (Hitler’s refuge), the looting of Jewish art during the Holocaust, the murder of Eric Garner (though set in another time and another venue).
Implicitly, we are asked to think about the genocide of the Jews alongside the extinction of species, and what the loss of these species might mean.
We even get to know some whales who we are told speak Yiddish since they decided to learn a human language at the turn of the 20th century, when it was a transnational language spoken by millions of people and seemed therefore a good option. Who would have known that speakers of Yiddish – and Yiddish itself – would be rare by the end of the century? Implicitly, we are asked to think about the genocide of the Jews alongside the extinction of species, and what the loss of these species might mean.
Yet these serious points are often masked by humor. “We sent messages that said things like ‘save humans’ and ‘save the planet’,” says one whale, “but then something got lost in translation and we heard reports from the surface saying that bumper stickers appeared on your cars (luckily no longer powered by whale oil) that said “save the whales”. Douglas Adams’ equally picaresque classic comic, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” As the title of the fourth novel in Adams’ series suggests – “So Long and Thanks for All the Fishes” – the dolphins were warning humans to flee a doomed planet; unfortunately, the humans misinterpreted the message, thinking the dolphins were singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Kaplan’s whales, like Adams’ dolphins, know (and act on) what humans have continually failed to truly understand: the earth is in trouble.
If you’re looking for Brett Ashley Kaplan, a literature professor for whom “Rare Stuff” is a fictional debut, you probably won’t be surprised to find that she’s written a book on Philip Roth. After all, in addition to references to many other American novelists, poets, and filmmakers (Herman Melville, Henry James, Ezra Pound, Toni Morrison, Woody Allen), we find many recurring Roth characters making cameos in Kaplan’s book. . For example, David Kepesh (of “The Dying Animal” among other Roth titles) makes an appearance here, interviewing Sid’s father, a novelist called Aaron Zimmerman, who looks a lot like Roth’s novelist Nathan Zuckerman (who himself even looks like Roth). But more importantly, Rothian’s playfulness abounds in this novel, making “Rare Stuff,” despite its dire warnings to humanity, a delight to read.
Karen EH Skinazi, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer and director of liberal arts at the University of Bristol (UK) and author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.