First Person Plural

Unpopular take:

Art can be deliberately flawed, without obvious indicators that this noticeably-damning artifice is a part of the work’s firmament. Whenever you dislike a certain component in a piece of art, do you ask yourself: what if the offending particle is intentional? Is there a possible interpretation that would make it so?

The latest example:

Has anyone else started The Netanyahus since it won the Pulitzer last week? Anyone else finding the writing a tad…overwritten/overwrought/flowery/ornate? Rather than labeling author Joshua Cohen a pedant, what if this purportedly-critical response is by design? For any book in the first person, readers are liable to mistake the writing as being the voice of the novelist. But the deployed “I” is not his pronoun; it belongs to the narrator. Who, in this case, is a historian; he first introduces himself to us as such, a sign that he believes it’s an important identifying feature not only of his existence, but for the pages to come as well.

And how familiar are you with the words of academia? Heck, have you ever heard a scholar speak? Guess what: they sound like our orator! The Netanyahus revels in writing as character, but not the character of the writing to be judged; instead, the writing is a lens into the main character. Its perceived imperfections are actually his imperfections, not the book’s.

And for a story interested in the relationship between our understanding of history and the nature of how history is recorded, this literary floridity is a factor in the thematic landscape. How does this textual opulence — a mainstay of historians — alter our conception of what’s documented, based on the nature of how it’s documented? Also, lest we forget: The Netanyahus is fiction, imagination masquerading behind dry language that customarily — and, at least herein, erroneously — denotes scholastic authority.

Actually, that’s not the full title. The complete version is The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. An account! History! Also, this subtitle seems like a self-satirical mockery of the semantical verbosity of monograph nomenclature.

More generally, a book named The Netanyahus establishes different expectations than one with the subtitle An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. The writing’s density points more to the top title, whereas how we view it — quasi-derisively, maybe purposefully so! — feels more at home with the subtitle’s tone.

To me, the idea is clear: there’s more going on here than meets “The Netanyahus” eye — for the title, AND for the writing. The face value of both doesn’t even begin to tell us the tale, even though they’re our primary windows into the tale…as is the case for historians and history, too.

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