Cynthia Ozick—a distinguished novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator—has collected, in The Puttermesser Papers, two short stories and three novellas that have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Salmagundi over the past fifteen years. The story “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife” and the novella “Puttermesser and Xanthippe” have also been published in Ozick’s Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). All center on Ruth Puttermesser—her name translates as “butterknife”—as she attempts to make sense out of her life.
The first section, “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife,” relates, in a few pages, those things listed in the title. Puttermesser, in her thirties, realizes that, while others are being promoted in the law firm where she has been employed for a few years, she, a woman and a Jew, will not be promoted; she leaves, taking the position of assistant corporation counsel for the city’s Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Again the top positions are denied her, this time because of political patronage. Although her days are spent in the grayness of a bureaucracy, her evenings are enriched by her imagination. She envisions being in paradise, sitting with fudge on one side and a stack of books on the other indulging her desire to study everything from anthropology to chemistry to Roman law. In reality, she studies Hebrew with Uncle Zindel, or so the reader is led to believe until the narrator cries out, “Stop, stop! Puttermesser’s biographer, stop! Disengage, please. Though it is true biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much.” The truth (or is it?) is that her uncle died long ago; in fact, Puttermesser has never met him. Likewise, her sister is also an invention. Living by herself in the Bronx apartment of her youth, Puttermesser, her parents having retired in Florida, is lonely, and she replaces reality with fantasy. The chapter concludes with the question: “Hey! Puttermesser’s biographer! What will you do with her now?”
The answer, elect her mayor of New York City, is found in the next section, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe.” However, Puttermesser cannot accomplish this alone. The chapter opens with the end of her love affair with Morris Rappoport, occasioned because Puttermesser, now forty-six, prefers finishing Plato’s Theaetetus to making love. This is not her only loss: There is also the loss of bone around her teeth, signaling advanced periodontal disease; her Bronx apartment is destroyed by arson, resulting in the loss of childhood memorabilia; and she will soon lose her position with the Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Thinking herself indispensable because of her vast knowledge of the workings of the department, she is unprepared for her displacement by her boss’s college crony. She is demoted, with a corresponding pay cut, to Taxation. She dreams of a city where merit is the basis of appointment and promotion and where employees are educated, prepared, and diligent in their jobs.
Although Puttermesser accepts her unmarried state, she regrets the absence of children, a desire that leads to an extraordinary event: the creation of a golem. As represented in Jewish mythology, golems are voiceless, continually grow, and eventually must be destroyed. Puttermesser, using the dirt from her flower pots and performing ancient rituals, fashions a golem, a creature who, although newly formed, knows all that Puttermesser does and who will do Puttermesser’s bidding. Naming herself Xanthippe, the golem protests, in writing, when Puttermesser assigns her domestic chores, arguing that her capabilities are great. The next day, the golem, accompanying Puttermesser to Taxation, follows Puttermesser’s injunction to look busy by typing industriously. The pages that she types are later to be revealed as a plan for the “Resuscitation, Reformation, Reinvigoration & Redemption of the City of New York,” thoughts formulated by Puttermesser but recorded by Xanthippe. A memo from her former boss arrives requesting information on everything from a list of the city’s bank depositories to the procedure for stocking toilet paper in the washrooms, information deemed crucial to the functioning of his department. Puttermesser responds with a memo questioning why she was replaced. The next day, for the first time in ten years, she arrives late and is soon confronted with three additional memos: the first reprimanding her for refusing to provide information, the second for being tardy, and the third firing her.
Puttermesser is out of a job, but not for long. The golem exists for one purpose: “So that my mother should become what she was intended to become,” which is mayor of New York City. Puttermesser’s vision of “New York washed, reformed, restored,” already set forth in the document typed by Xanthippe, can now be realized. With Xanthippe’s aid, she is elected, and the period...