Upon the recommendation of Tor.com, I read Dana Horn’s A Guide for the Perplexed, a modern retelling of Genesis’ Joseph story, here with two Ashkenazi sisters Josephine and Judith, of when he is thrown into a pit/sold into slavery and thought dead. It is intertwined with stories of Moses Maimonides, the author of the eponymous Jewish theological classic, and the discovery of the Cairo genizah (a massive “graveyard” repository of Jewish literature) in the early years of the twentieth century. It delves into social media, human connectivity, theodicy, archives, post-Arab Spring Cairo, and family relations.
I thought the book was fine. I’m pleased it brings Maimonides to a broader audience. I’ve embarrassingly never have read AGFTP, but Horn offers the definitive translation (Scholmo Pines’) in her genizah-sized acknowledgements. This novel was disjointed in an unimpressive way, attempting to weave four stories into one and succeeding unevenly. It seemed that the two earlier stories were merely to provide context for the most contemporary series of events. I wanted more from Maimonides and his brother and Jewish theology applied to the travails of life. There were bon mots throughout and a bit of Jewish theology and ethics, but it didn’t go very deep. There’s the expected folding and similarities of characters and such, but it felt basic. Perhaps, because things felt so clear and given on a plate. It was an empty meal.
It took a long time to finish the book. Judith not only is insufferable, but written insufferably to the point that it seems purposeful. Josephine and Judith’s contrasting characteristics are constantly reaffirmed to the point of tedium. The historical characters are fine and the most meat of the novel, I found. Maybe, because they’re providing the theological and bibliographic grounds for all of the story and that is what I naturally gravitate toward. I wanted Josephine to be more than a genius, yet cold captive coder. I wanted Judith to be more than the apocryphal and Envious Sibling.
But perhaps this is because of the source material of Genesis. Joseph is the beloved son, whose brother hate him. The characters, Reuben included, are not fleshed out. The greater narrative is the point, though the story of dreamer Joseph is endearing, to the point of Broadway (and church youth group) musical. Some points of the Genesis story are to explain theodicy, demonstrate the importance of Jacob’s offspring, and to get the Israelites to Egypt. But I wish Horn’s characters were not so one-sided, like Joseph’s brothers and his fellow prisoners. They almost seem foils in their single focus. Josephine’s husband is almost useless and is used as such, a mere member of Potiphar’s family.
Only near the very end did I become seriously interested in what was going to happen next. And only because of important, yet marginal characters and their personalities does it not seem like Horn pulls a deus ex machina. Perhaps, I’m not the intended audience. I don’t know for whom this book is written. In the end, the book is perplexing. There is a reader’s guide on the publisher’s website, but I don’t think that’s the guide I’m looking for.