Rebecca Miller’s latest novel would be as well titled Jacob’s Feast as Jacob’s Folly; so voracious is the author’s appetite for detail and the narrator’s lust for experience. Born into a poor family of Jewish peddlers in eighteenth century Paris, Jacob Cerf breathes his last while contemplating the pooling rivulets of wax on an ornate, cherubim-covered candelabra. Miller’s prose similarly borders on the baroque; layer upon layer of description and incident make for an engrossing but exhausting read. Whether it be the colour of toe-nail polish, the smell of flatulence, a celebrity magazine headline or the rancid contents of a fridge, no detail is too small to be deemed excessive. The narrative literally buzzes with scenes of hunger, horror and eroticism. Where a few choice crumbs would suffice, Miller serves up a fully laden table of images and information, occasionally overestimating the capacity of the reader.
The novel’s main conceit is a framing device whereby the newly reincarnated Jacob recounts his own life story and omnisciently narrates those of two present day inhabitants of Long Island: Leslie, a volunteer fireman seeking conformity as release from childhood trauma and Masha, a frail young woman straining at the confines of her Orthodox Jewish family. Furious at the indignity of being reincarnated as a lowly fly, Jacob embraces the role of a demon and sets out to wreak havoc in the lives of Leslie and Masha. From his vantage point on the ceiling or the rim of a cup, Jacob observes the action but, even more unusually, has also the power to access the memories and direct the thoughts of Leslie and Masha, planting infidel thoughts and illicit dreams in their heads. The worthy Leslie Senzatimore (his surname being Italian for “without fear”, we are informed) assumed the role of family protector after his father’s suicide and now manages his own unruly extended family with stoic dependability until a lustful obsession for aspiring actress Masha threatens to derail him entirely. So far, so good but, so what? Page after page of minutiae about Leslie’s hippy step-son, heavy drinking in-laws and hearing-impaired child feel like background material for a screenplay in progress and contribute little of relevance to the plot.
On the plus side, Miller has a Kafka-like skill in rendering Jacob’s embodiment as an insect; tasting food through his feet, coupling vigorously with virgin female flies or voiding his bowels on the page in a series of full-stops just so… She also writes with equal assurance on the practices and prohibitions of Jacob’s Jewish quarter in Paris and Masha’s modern day frum, or observant family. What becomes less plausible, however, is the fly’s ability to time travel into the histories of the people in his own family-tree: the impoverished Jews who gained citizenship in France only to be expelled a few generations later by the Nazis and, if lucky, make their way to New York. The libertine Jacob who rose to wealth and prestige in the theatre, renouncing his faith and embracing all manner of decadent pleasures, is finally humbled by the resilience of his own descendants. Awed by the cosmic logic of the Creator of all things, Jacob hovers over his family tree, praising God exuberantly and ‘F-bombing’ Hitler at the same time. Alas, Jacob’s ecstasy will be short lived as his episode of folly comes to an end with the smack of a hand and the closing of the book. Such ironic comeuppance is not unexpected for a fly but places Jacob’s Folly firmly within a Jewish folkloric tradition where religious superstition and hubris go hand in hand.