Judging by Esther Schor’s review at the New Republic, Joseph Skibell’s 600-page novel is impossible to summarize, even in 2,000 words. Schor’s blurb goes like this: “It’s a high-energy, wild performance, as ample as its protagonist’s appetites; the postmodern Jewish novel as mash-up of genres: Yiddish folktale, sentimental education, Freudian case history, erotic confession, utopian parable, all wrapped up in an ‘alternative history’ of Jewish emancipation…” The longer take involves Jakob Sammelsohn, the book’s fictional protagonist; Freud, and a patient of his named Emma Eckstein; the inventor of Esperanto; a notable Polish rabbi killed by the Nazis; and at least one dybbuk, or demonic spiritual possession.
For Schor, it’s a big success, “extraordinary,” “masterful,” etc. James Renovitch, in the Austin Chronicle, says, “A Curable Romantic shifts gears from mystery to history to something approximating Dante’s Paradiso with few snags in the author’s skilled yarn-spinning.” And Publishers Weekly calls the novel “a magnetic collection of personalities,” and writes, “In the figure of Sammelsohn, we see the timid makings of the modern psychoanalytic man.”
Dissent comes from Donna Rifkind in the Barnes & Noble Review, who comes to praise and bury Skibell: “[His] confluence of big ideas and lofty personalities is admirably gutsy. So are his generously dispatched love scenes, in which he propels his eager young narrator into the arms of several delightful fräuleins. But while ambition in a novel is always praiseworthy, it’s never more important than execution [. . .] In general, the clanking machinery of historical fact is a disruption here rather than an enhancement. [. . .] The demonic possession scenes are flat-out ridiculous, lacking any of the supernatural authority that distinguished [Skibell’s] A Blessing on the Moon. Instead of bringing the reader closer to this brave new era, in which brain science is just beginning to clash with religious belief, their clichéd wailing and flailing takes the reader’s attention away.”
A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell
Algonquin, 608 pp., $25.95