The New House
by David Leo Rice
Whiskey Tit 406 pp.
Reviewed by Avner Landes
Why is the artist frustrated? The artist might be frustrated because the finished creation—or product—fails to match what the artist envisioned during the process of creation. But can the words on the page or the colors on the canvas or the objects picked from the junk yard to be used for a mobile or collage ever perfectly capture what are essentially thoughts, ideas, or images in the mind? Mustn’t artists who suffer from such frustrations accept, at some point, that art can never be more than an approximation of what is in their heads? If not, they might end up like the father in David Leo Rice’s challenging yet exhilarating novel, The New House, who allows this frustration, this perceived failure of reproduction, to prevent him from ever completing his grand project of discovering The New Jerusalem.
This failure to discover The New Jerusalem, a new reality he believes will be created through art, is not his to bear alone. Accompanying him on this quest, which takes them through the American interior, is his wife, and child, the pre-adolescent Jakob, the book’s protagonist. The family roams and dwells alone, guided by the precepts of Visionary Judaism—a strand of Judaism that views itself as a middle ground between Dogmatic Judaism, whose adherents tie their identity to the practice of laws and traditions, and Neurotic, or City, Judaism, whose adherents are fully assimilated into their places of exile and view Judaism through a purely cultural lens.
Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Baruch Spinoza, Kafka, Chagall are some of the “ur-ancestors” or theological forbearers of these Visionary Jews. They exemplify the idea that one must always be engaged in the question of what it means to be a Jew, so they refrain from both accepting dogmas, and from doing away with them altogether. Finality, of any kind, is seen as sacrilege. They aim to be constantly engaged in the process of discovery. In keeping with this spirit of rejecting a stable religious existence, these Visionary Jews are not part of an active spiritual community, or any community for that matter. They live a solitary existence, completely divorced from Gentile and Jewish society, existing in an internal state of exile.
Central to the book is the concept of “The New Jerusalem” an ideal achieved through the constant act of creation that will bring the messiah, not -unlike – the way that certain traditional Jews—Dogmatic Jews—believe that the hastening of the coming of the messiah is dependent on the fulfillment of the commandments. The book gets its title from the family’s practice of moving in the middle of the night and rebuilding their house and its surroundings at each new stop, or at least this is how it’s explained to Jakob, who is deep in a dream when these moves occur. And in each house the father toils away on an undefined art project that we understand will never be completed, thereby pushing off the realization of The New Jerusalem.
But Jakob’s domineering, abusive, and dogmatic father violently governs this process of creating The New Jerusalem, making no allowance for the artistic ambitions of the other two members of the family. It’s this control of his wife’s and son’s art-making that becomes the fundamental conflict in the novel, when Jakob begins to create his own art and grapples with the practical question of what it means for a work of art to be finished.
Jakob’s burgeoning interest in art lands him a job at the Town Museum, a development that enrages his father when he runs into his son on a visit to the museum to procure art supplies. Later on that evening, Jakob’s mother, who is responsible for the homeschooling of the child, delivers an “Emergency Lesson” to remind Jakob of the calamitous end he should expect if he were ever to become part of the Art World:
“A cabal of disguised officials is dispatched from the Art World as soon as a person of extraordinary gifts makes that fact publicly known, their sole aim being to smother and absorb that person, to suck and dry them out until they are nothing but a husk…Souls perish in that pit every day, Jakob, and you have, despite all we’ve done to raise you as a Visionary Jew in a proud tradition of Visionary Jews, begun the profoundly dangerous descent into a place from which there is no rescue. Not by us, not by anybody. Hell is real, Jakob, but its doors open not through any of the silly, minor transgressions, such as lying or masturbation, that children are usually taught to fear. But rather through the major, irrevocable transgression of ambition.”
She goes on to recount how Jakob’s father was nearly lost to the Art World a,nd how, “Heroically, he fought his way out of the City, where the Art World is strongest, and back into the country…where his life as a father and his life as a prophet began in tandem…” Jakob’s father’s escape from the Art World and a life in the City, which is “choked with greed and bad faith, thickened by the fumes that honest souls give off they die,” is what launched him into the movement of Visionary Judaism, of which he is a self-declared prophet. The desire to never return to the Art World also explains his hesitancy to ever complete his current project.
Jakob will soon discover, on his own, that his mother does not share her husband’s sentiments and has worldly ambitions for the art she creates on her own under the cover of night. His development as an artist accelerates when he falls under the sway of Wilhelm Wieland, a reclusive German, described by the Town Museum’s director as “the greatest artist who ever lived,” and who may or may not be Jakob’s grandfather and who may or may not have, at one time, murdered children and used their body parts for his mobiles and collages, and who may or may not have…. The questions of what is real and what is not, not only about Wieland but about the other characters and much of what else happens, accumulate as the book progresses and a multiverse unfolds, one that continually reshapes the reader’s understanding of everything that came prior.
The constantly shifting perceptions of what is happening, and the way the book constantly challenges the reader with complex ideas about art and reality, should not suggest that this is a confusing read. The writing is clear, straightforward, and beautiful, and the menacing tone that hangs over the narrative propels the reader through suspenseful and unsettling scenes, full of sensational and lush imagery.
What’s remarkable about this novel is how it takes the reader into a process of literary and creative interpretation. It’s the type of work that inspires readers, even after finishing the book, to embark on a path of endlessly shaping and reshaping their understanding of what they’ve just experienced, and is one of its many strengths. This process feels integral to the book, as each interpretation is an authentic version of the story, its own complete creation. It aptly mimics Jakob’s realization that a work of art should eventually transition to a finished state rather than remain a mere approximation, a failure, a source of frustration.
It’s this insight that liberates Jakob from his father. He, as an artist, accepts that the creator of art produces a previously inaccessible reality, one that once existed only deep inside himself. The job of the artist is to identify it as something pure, rather than something that must adhere to an unattainable ideal. Jakob’s father is not wrong to see the value of being immersed in the process, but he fails to see that the means must have an end. The artist must find the space between ceaseless reshaping and unabashed commoditization, or as Jakob reminds himself, “An artist has to be able to dwell in the Wilderness…but he also has to be able to come back home. That’s the line—the only line—between art and madness.”
Avner Landes is the author of Meiselman: The Lean Years (Tortoise Books).