An acclaimed short-story writer has created a miraculous first novel about an American family on the verge of a breakdown–and an epiphany.
In the summer of 2000, Israel teeters between total war and total peace. Similarly on edge, Helen Michaelson, a respectable suburban housewife from Michigan, has brought her ailing husband and rebellious college-age son, Jeremy, to Jerusalem. She hopes the journey will inspire Jeremy to reconnect with his faith and find meaning in his life . . . or at least get rid of his nose ring.
It’s not that Helen is concerned about Jeremy’s sexual orientation (after all, her other son is gay as well). It’s merely the matter of the overdose (“Just like Liza!” Jeremy had told her), the green hair, and what looks like a safety pin stuck through his face. After therapy, unconditional love, and tough love . . . why not try Israel?
Yet in seductive and dangerous surroundings, with the rumbling of violence and change in the air, in a part of the world where “there are no modern times,” mother and son become new, old, and surprising versions of themselves.
Funny, erotic, searingly insightful, and profoundly moving, Faith for Beginners is a stunning debut novel from a vibrant new voice in fiction.
Aaron Hamburger is the author of the short-story collection The View from Stalin’s Head, for which he was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was awarded a fellowship from the Edward F. Albee… More about Aaron Hamburger
Paperback | $19.00
Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks Nov 14, 2006| 360 Pages| 5-3/16 x 8| ISBN 9780812973204
“Aaron Hamburger takes a deceptively simple situation–an American family visiting Israel–and spins a rich, complex, often profound comedy about religion, sex, politics, and love. He has an excellent eye and ear for the absurd, but more important, genuine sympathy for the hopes and confusions all people share under our cartoon surfaces. And nobody has written a better mother and son.” –Christopher Bram, author of Lives of the Circus Animals and Gods and Monsters
“Aaron Hamburger elucidates a truth about the search for faith: that the journey forward is seldom blissful. In Faith for Beginners, Hamburger peoples a volatile political setting with a handful of characters pursuing transcendence–through culture, through mortality, through the spirit, through the flesh. For Hamburger’s seekers, what transpires is risky, chaotic, and surprisingly tender. For his readers, exhilarating.” –Dave King, author of The Ha-Ha
From the Hardcover edition.
A Conversation with Aaron Hamburger Francine Prose is the author of A Changed Man, Blue Angel, and The Lives of the Muses.
FRANCINE PROSE:What attracts you to the theme of cross-cultural divides?
AARON HAMBURGER: Growing up, I often felt like an outsider and an observer, so that when I first traveled outside the United States, it was a welcome surprise to be in a situation where I was supposed to feel that way. I also found that when I came back from traveling abroad, I had a new appreciation for the unique qualities of place in the seemingly boring, placid suburb where I’d grown up. I think these clashes of culture are great opportunities for revealing character and for instigating growth and change, essential qualities for fiction.
FP:Why do you refer to the main character as Mrs. Michaelson and not Helen?
AH: To suggest the importance of formality and good manners, which are Mrs. Michaelson’s guiding principles. She believes that if everyone would just behave and say “please” and “thank you,” we’d have a better world. Of course, she’s right. If everyone obeyed the rules, we wouldn’t have terrorism, drug abuse, or murder, or other unpleasantness. Her problem is she can’t comprehend why it is that so many people choose not to say “please” and “thank you,” or choose to engage in behavior that’s harmful to themselves or to others. Another reason was that I enjoy the elegance of formality in fiction. I love that there are certain characters we think of only as “Mr. Darcy” or “Madame Bovary.” “Fitzwilliam” and “Emma” just don’t have the same ring to them.
FP: Who were some of your influences in writing the novel?
AH: I always have to laugh a little when people ask how autobiographical my work is because when I write I’m much more conscious of books I’ve read than of people I’ve known. This book is my love letter to upper-middle-class literary heroines like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, and E. M. Forster’s Mrs. Wilcox, Miss Schlegel, and Mrs. Moore. I value their common sense and goodwill as well as their earnest desires for everyone to play fairly with one another. That impulse seems all the more noble to me because most people don’t want to play fair. They’d rather get the upper hand than play fair, and these middle-class women have benefited from their husbands’ investment in the class system. But instead of just enjoying their good fortune, the women above try to, within certain bounds, rectify injustice. With Mrs. Bridge, it’s more of an internal struggle, yet all the women grapple seriously with morals and ethics, and in their own limited ways try to build a better world.
FP: Each chapter begins with a small anecdote or legend about Israel. Why did you use that device?
AH: Because for me, a fundamental part of visiting Israel is the difference between the dream of Israel and the reality of the place once you’re standing there. I’d grown up with images of the Middle East that were inspired by the hokey illustrations in children’s bibles and by Charlton Heston movies. Somehow I imagined that in Israel, life would be more meaningful and inspired, that there I’d be surrounded by idealistic pioneers and shepherds who’d invite me to break bread with them under palm trees and sing hymns. But modern Israel feels strikingly ahistorical. In contrast to Europe, for example, it’s much more like America, with the usual fast food shops, ads for blue jeans, and pop music playing full blast everywhere you go. It can be disappointing if you’re expecting religious inspiration at first glance. So for me, the anecdotes juxtaposed with the text were a way to give the reader the experience of disjunction between the fantasy and reality of Israel. Also, as the book goes on, the anecdotes get increasingly dark and even violent, which I hope gives a sense to the reader of the darker turn the plot takes as well.
FP: How did you get into the heads of the different characters? Were any easier to write than others?
AH: I tried to invest each character with some aspect of myself that I could use as a way into them, so that no character ended up being simply a villain or an object of scorn. I also tried to think about people I’ve met, not only in Israel but also in New York, especially the immigrants from the Middle East and their attitudes about life. I suppose everyone will think that the young man is me and the parents are my parents, and nothing I can say will dissuade them. But what actually is autobiographical in the book is the father’s illness. My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was in college and has been living with it for more than ten years now. It’s a terrible burden for him to suffer, though thankfully he’s been in relatively good health lately. Still, the shock of seeing my father with a potentially mortal illness has been difficult for me as his child to accept, especially because he has been such a forceful presence in our family. Also, it’s hard watching him try to manage the discomforts of his disease as he gets older. In writing this book, I wanted to explore how one deals with the idea of one’s parents’ mortality, and then by extension, one’s own mortality. My father was also responsible for how I shaped the character of Mr. Michaelson in a different way. When I was a very young writer, I used to write a lot of things directly inspired by my family. My father would read my work and complain, “You always make me the villain. Just once can’t you make me look good?” Of course I can’t tailor my fiction to suit every reader’s feelings, but my father did tap into something there. We’re not used to reading about gentle fathers in fiction. The gruff, old dad-knows-best model, both as an object of veneration and of scorn, is much more comforting. But in this book, it’s the mother, Mrs. Michaelson, who drives this family, economically as well as spiritually.
FP: Have you gotten any surprising responses to the book so far? AH: I’m always pleasantly surprised by the various reactions to my work. I thought everyone would fall in love with Mrs. Michaelson, but a surprising number of readers really like Jeremy more. So far, the most surprising and telling reaction for me has been to the cover. I showed it to a Palestinian friend of mine, who said, “I guess it’s alright if you want to appeal to a certain sector of the population.” I asked her what was wrong with it, and she said, “Why does the book held by the young man floating in the Dead Sea say ‘Israel’ instead of ‘Palestine’?” At that point, I hadn’t even noticed what the book’s title said because the lettering was so small, but it was the first thing that stood out to her. I think that gives an idea of how much tension there is about this subject matter.
FP: Your first book was set in Prague, this one was set in Jerusalem, and now you’re working on a novel set in Berlin. Do you ever think you’ll write something set in the United States?
AH: I think every book I write is set in the United States, in the sense that the U.S. dominates the world in a way no other country has in a very long time, not only with our military might but also with our culture, our way of life, our ideas, our way of doing business. And with the Internet, our influence only increases. This year I’m living abroad again, and I’ve noticed how different the experience is from how it used to be. I read the New York Times online, just as I used to at home. I can email all my friends, every day if I want to, and send digital pictures home seconds after they’re taken. I go outside and buy Diet Coke and eat sushi or Pringles and hear Madonna’s songs playing in cafes. The advertising is filled with English words. The TVs and theaters are filled with American movies. So, I think it’s getting harder and harder to get away from the United States, even if you want to, and in a way, you can actually see the U.S. a bit more clearly from a distance.