To readers acquainted with Cynthia Ozick’s power to create charmingly humorous and sophisticated fictional worlds, Levitation will represent an extension of her distinctive talents. The subtitle, “Five Fictions” is a warning to the uninitiated reader who may expect a cautious regard for the coherence of facts and ordinary reality. These are purely literary documents: each story is a “construction,” a work of make-believe, spun out and guided by the intelligence, affection, and beauty of the creative mind behind these often wry and lyrical tales.
Like The Pagan Rabbit and Other Stories (1971) and Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), Ozick’s earlier collections of short fiction, Levitation is not designed around a single theme or character. With the exception of the title story, all of the pieces collected here have previously appeared in magazines or literary journals. The stories are nevertheless a unity, held in suspension by the power of dramatic voice and narrative order. In this new book, all that was best in Ozick’s previous work is intensified with charm and style.
“Levitation” returns to a persistent theme in Ozick’s writing: the nature and function of the artist. In a limited sense, this self-conscious examination of the writer draws in the highly touted concerns of metafiction—who is the writer and for whom is he writing? An eternal student of Henry James, Ozick shares his fascination with the art of fiction. Like James, she sees the writer as storyteller, the creator of worlds within worlds. “Levitation” offers no dry philosophical musings about the state of the art today. With flair and irony, Ozick portrays a pair of novelists, husband and wife, as they give a rare literary party.
The disturbance about the State of the Novel had escaped their attention. They wrote “as naturally as birds” and were devoted to accuracy, psychological realism, and earnest truthfulness, also virtue and wit. Lucy and Feingold were literary friends and lovers, “like George Elisa and George Henry Lewes.” Both agreed on a single and fundamental principle: “the importance of never writing about writers.” It was the “wrong tack, solipsism, the Forbidden Thing.” The protagonist must always be someone real, with real work-in-the-world. They were both devoted to omniscience, but they were not acute enough to see what they meant by it. Addicted to counterfeit pity and absorbed by the notion of “power,” they were attracted to the bitter side of life. They joked about their own lives: they were “secondary-level” people, living in a secondary-level house, working at a secondary-level job.
Thus, Feingold and Lucy bumped along, dreaming of the day when power and celebrity would descend upon them. Living in the Forbidden City, they were lured by circular routes to write (Lucy especially) about writers. Aware of the dangers—solipsism, narcissism, tedium, lack of appeal to the common reader—they nevertheless fell into the baited trap. They were always looking “inward,” seeking the secret which would make life luminous.
Feingold and Lucy had invited a long list of famous names to their literary party, but none of these people came. Nevertheless the apartment filled up—mounds of rainboots and closets packed tight with raincoats and fur coats: “The party washed and turned like a sluggish tub; it lapped at the walls of all the rooms.” Bravely, Lucy and Feingold pretend the party is a success, but privately and grimly, they realize “no one” came. Their heady concern for the power of this world blurs in Lucy’s mind, and with magical insight, her spirit “levitates” from the earth. Experiencing an illumination, Lucy sees dancers dancing and children playing. Everything is a miracle, and Lucy sees that she has abandoned nature. She understands her loss of the true religion of life for the oddities, pretensions, and affectations of the “literary” life. “Levitation” thus advocates acceptance of earthly reality without hopeless regrets for a more heightened, “romantic” other world—the land of vain hopes and useless dreams.
Two interrelated stories, “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife” and “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” are showcases for Ozick’s affection for a Jewish subject. The first of these stories is, as its title indicates, a fractured biography of Puttermesser, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer from the Bronx. As a young woman, she did not want to become a legend, but merely “a lawyer among lawyers.” Her teachers described her as “highly motivated” and “achievement oriented,” but her “scholastic drive” has not paid off as she hoped: she is and will always remain a Jewish girl from the Bronx. As a bright young attorney, Puttermesser is accepted into a posh law firm, but she is not advanced. She sees and understands the falsity of social gestures and the necessity of blue eyes and an aquiline nose. She does not shake her fist at the world or clutch in great anger at cultural injustice. She contentedly studies Hebrew with her great Uncle Zindel and accepts a new job in the Department of Receipts and Disbursements. An example of the muddy sub-speech on which bureaucracy relies, her new title—“Assistant Corporation Counsel”—is meaningless. Loyal to certain environments,...