The final story in Elisa Albert’s debut collection How This Night Is Different is in the form of a letter to Philip Roth from “Elisa Albert.” In it, the author — or her alter-ego, or whatever — offers to bear the aging, famously childless author a son or daughter. It’s a joke, and it isn’t. It’s hilarious either way. And for (h/t Julie Klausner) Jewish Girls who have considered suicide when Zuckerman Unbound was enuf, reading it produces the uncanny sensation of having had the top of one’s head unscrewed and one’s brain contents poured directly onto a page, which one is somehow then reading. I mean, who hasn’t thought of offering herself up as a gestational surrogate to Philip Roth? (Um.)
“I’ll just tear a page from the Roth playbook and simply turn this letter into a kind of postmodern ‘story’ (and I’ll even leave this part in to further confuse and complicate, to experiment with implication myself, the ‘Elisa Albert’ alter-ego, in all these ways you yourself are so adept with, see how it feels, how you must feel, when people assume fact is fiction and fiction fact),” she writes.
Elsewhere in the letter she alludes to her own body of work — “half a dozen years of crafting clever little ten-pagers featuring women sitting shiva for relatives who had molested them, women sucking their first uncircumcised cock (then going out for bacon cheeseburgers)” — and her limitless ambition. She spent most of a year, she tells Roth, writing a “Great American Jewish Novel” novel about the Triangle shirtwaist fire — “I was out for some Safran Foer blood, man” — only to find herself scooped, hilariously, tragically, by Alana Orenstein. Then a long relationship ended. At the end of her tether at 26, feeling “ripe… about to rot,” Albert (“Albert”) ended up writing a letter that ticks briskly through Roth’s oeuvre, shifting all the while in tone from worshipful to crass to matter-of-fact (“If you’d been born to ever-so-slightly different first-generation Jews and raised on Long Island you’d be Billy Joel, okay dude? So don’t be so goddamn hard on everyone.”) and all the while never deviating from its stated purpose: putting the offer on the table, offering up her uterine real estate to produce the scion of a genius. This is Elisa Albert in a nutshell: funny, self-aware, and genuinely fearless that she might be a lunatic, or a genius, or both.
How This Night Is Different doesn’t actually contain stories about post-uncut-BJ bacon cheeseburgers, but it does have a story about a thirtysomething harried new mom smoking pot with 13-year-olds at a Bat Mitzvah and another about a woman, home for Passover, who worries that her vividly-described yeast infection (and I mean viiiividly: “white, pasty, not altogether too heinous smelling, considering”) renders her presence at the Seder unkosher (she fears that she qualifies as leavened). The cover of the paperback features a Kiddush cup. The “inevitable debut novel” that Albert describes in that epistolary final story focuses, not on the Triangle shirtwaist girls, but on a more contemporary tragic heroine: a trust-funded, going-nowhere daddy’s girl, too strange and potheaded to properly be considered a JAP, who learns at 29 that her wholly meaningless life is about to be cut short by inoperable brain cancer. Its paperback features flowers (the heroine’s name is Dahlia).
The Book of Dahlia, published in 2008, established Albert as one of our most exciting and promising young American writers. The delicate balance of difficult emotional truth, absurdist shtick and hilarious raunch that she perfected in How This Night Is Different is on display in Dahlia, plus a deeper understanding of human nature and a more developed eye for detail. Albert delves headfirst into Dahlia’s tortured childhood and adolescence, describing heartwrenching scenes without bathos or much commentary. (”You got so fat,” teen Dahlia’s monstrous, mostly absent Israeli mom declares when she greets her at the airport, where she has arrived (late!) to halfheartedly assume custody of her daughter for a summer.) By structuring the book around the dictates of a self-helpy guide to beating cancer, Albert provides herself with many opportunities to mock the cheesy truisms that people feel forced to dispense in the face of terminal illness; she takes them, but she also finds meaning in unlikely places. Dahlia, nearing death, gains clarity on her life even as her brain literally degenerates. On being told that “there are times in life when it’s crucial to let go of anger,” Dahlia rolls her eyes: “Anger wasn’t something you could let go of. Anger held fast to you, not the other way around.” By the time the death that’s been foretold since page one finally occurs, Dahlia is such a fully real character that the reader actually grieves for her; remembering the earlier chapters feels like remembering a lost friend.
I don’t know how well Albert’s books have sold; Dahlia, I know, got some really great reviews, though it was overlooked (criminally! Appallingly!) by the Times. I do know that I find myself recommending it, to blank stares, to people who’ve certainly read the young Jewish author whose “blood” Albert declared herself to be out for in her first collection. This is the opposite of the way things ought to be.
Maybe the flowers and Kiddush cups are to blame; though these books are about Jewish women, mostly; they are not for Jewish women exclusively. (Really!!) Her latest work has been as editor of an anthology, Freud’s Blind Spot, about siblings, and it features her own work and that of Rebecca Wolff and Etgar Keret; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but it seems great. She will write more and more novels, I hope. A Rothian abundance of them would be too few.
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“The Smartest Thing She Ever Said” is a Tumblr based digital storytelling art project featuring four teams of two-one artist and one story editor-between now and the end of the year. For three weeks each, the teams were asked to interpret the phrase, “The Smartest Thing She’s Ever Said.” The current team features writer Durga Chew-Bose and photographer Katherine Finkelstein with support from project curator Alexis Hyde. ArtSheSaid.com and its artists are entirely supported by Ann Taylor in collaboration with Flavorpill.
See the story unfold HERE.