An Ab­sur­dist Romp Through A ‘Chateau’

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Ju­lia M. Klein


By Paul Gold­berg

Pi­cador, 384 pages, $26

As the Age of Trump dawns, fic­tional Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter Wil­liam M. Katzene­len­bo­gen finds him­self broke and out of a job.

In his prime, the Rus­sian Amer­i­can Katzene­len­bo­gen – heck, let’s join novelist Paul Gold­berg in call­ing him Bill – was an ace sci­ence in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter, with the awards to prove it. For the past few years, though, he’s been ex­iled to the sub­urbs and func­tion­ing on au­topi­lot. To the news­pa­per, ea­ger to ex­change this 52-year-old veteran for “three low-paid, tech-savvy youths,” that amounts to grounds for fir­ing.

The far-fetched charge is in­sub­or­di­na­tion. The one count in the in­dict­ment: Bill has fallen asleep dur­ing a board of su­per­vi­sors’ meet­ing. But he seems not to have the will or en­ergy to fight for his job. The fir­ing is “the big­gest be­trayal in a life rife with them,” Gold­berg writes, and it dis­gorges Bill into “the vast king­dom of use­less­ness.”

Gold­berg’s de­but novel, “The Yid” (2016), was a mor­dant comic fan­ta­sia about Soviet so­ci­ety. Set in 1953, in the midst of an anti-Semitic Stal­in­ist purge, it mocked the worst ex­cesses of the regime and its ap­pa­ratchiks. Its hero was a Yid­dish ac­tor and one­time sol­dier who, along with a mot­ley group of ac­com­plices, dared to fight back. The book was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Jewish Book Award for De­but Fic­tion and the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Lit­er­a­ture.

In “The Château,” Gold­berg’s ex­u­ber­ant and wildly plot­ted sec­ond novel, be­ing job­less leaves Bill free to jour­ney to South Florida to in­ves­ti­gate the death of his old Duke Univer­sity room­mate, the cos­metic sur­geon Zbignew Wron­ski. Known as the “Butt God of Mi­ami Beach,” for his area of spe­cial­iza­tion, Wron­ski ei­ther jumped, fell or was pushed from a bal­cony. Maybe Bill can coax a book out of the case.

Ab­sent em­ploy­ment, though, he has no ex­pense ac­count. The ob­vi­ous, if painful, so­lu­tion is to call on his long-es­tranged fa­ther, Mel­sor Yakovle­vich

Katzene­len­bo­gen (the sur­name means “cat’s el­bow” in Ger­man), for a place to crash.

Theirs is a de­cid­edly un­sen­ti­men­tal re­union. Mel­sor is a for­mer Soviet

re­fusenik, a dis­si­dent poet whose an­ces­try is part Ar­me­nian, part Rus­sian, part Jewish. In the Soviet Union, Bill ad­mired his fa­ther’s courage. But the ad­just­ment to Amer­ica has been dif­fi­cult for Mel­sor, who’s strug­gled to find work.

When Bill’s mother de­vel­oped breast can­cer, Mel­sor botched the han­dling of her med­i­cal care, pre­cip­i­tat­ing her death. He later stood trial for Medi­care fraud, just barely es­cap­ing con­vic­tion. He has since be­come an ar­dent Trump sup­porter. Now, in fly­ers plas­tered around the build­ing, he pledges to make his condo build­ing – the epony­mous Château – great again.

But Mel­sor’s English re­mains fal­ter­ing. So he’s happy to en­list the son who ap­pears on his doorstep as a trans­la­tor and ally in a fiercely far­ci­cal fight over the fate of the build­ing and the cor­rupt condo board that con­trols it.

Hi­jinks and dis­as­ter en­sue, much of it purely ab­sur­dist. But there’s also some pointed satire of 21st cen­tury Amer­ica, with its propen­sity for dis­hon­esty and greed. Trump seems to epit­o­mize these trends to Bill, and to Gold­berg, who kicks off each sec­tion of the novel with an epi­graph from Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” Bill’s fa­ther has a dif­fer­ent view. “[I]f you read him with an open mind,” Mel­sor says, “he is like Al­bert Ca­mus.”

That’s funny. But Gold­berg also wor­ries, quite se­ri­ously, about “a con­ver­gence be­tween East and West,” with “[a]uthor­i­tar­ian strong­men…suc­ceed­ing where pro­le­tar­i­ans had failed.” The United States, he sug­gests, may be “catch­ing up” to Putin’s Rus­sia.

There are fewer corpses in “The Château” than there were in “The Yid,” but it be­trays a sim­i­lar taste for mul­ti­lin­gual may­hem, with pas­sages in both Ger­man and Rus­sian. Many of its char­ac­ters are Rus­sian im­mi­grants, like Gold­berg him­self, at war with other Jews just a gen­er­a­tion or two fur­ther re­moved from the Old Coun­try. Gold­berg, some­times through Bill, duly trans­lates. Or per­haps mis­trans­lates – it’s im­pos­si­ble for the av­er­age reader to know.

Cer­tainly, there are cul­tural col­li­sions and misun­der­stand­ings aplenty, which Bill – born Ilya – tries to nav­i­gate. Can he help it if a pros­ti­tute mis­takes him for another Ilya and prof­fers her ser­vices be­fore he has time to ob­ject? Or that, when he feigns ig­no­rance of Rus­sian, condo res­i­dents con­clude that he must be an FBI agent in­ves­ti­gat­ing the condo board’s var­i­ous scams?

Bill him­self is a sym­pa­thetic pro­tag­o­nist, though hardly a per­fect one. “Bill’s life was clean, mea­sured, mostly,” Gold­berg writes. “He didn’t mis­p­re­sent him­self to sources, hardly ever slept with them, didn’t fal­sify, didn’t pla­gia­rize, ever.”

There is a jum­ble of plot threads in “The Château,” not all of them sat­is­fac­to­rily re­solved. In the midst of his chaotic tran­si­tion, Bill is rekin­dling a ro­mance with a much-younger for­mer col­league, Gwen, her­self fired from the Post many years ear­lier for fab­ri­ca­tions. Mean­while, his not-quite-ex-wife keeps tex­ting him for the funds to pay off a lawyer and fi­nal­ize their di­vorce. Then there’s the back­story of the dead sur­geon, whose demise may stem from un­ortho­dox sex­ual predilec­tions.

Like the dis­in­te­grat­ing condo build­ing, “The Château” keeps threat­en­ing to col­lapse into to­tal ab­sur­dity. In the end, though, it of­fers two take­aways for the early Age of Trump: a cau­tion about the in­sid­i­ously per­sis­tent lure of cor­rup­tion and a vote for the courage to leap into the un­known.

Ju­lia M. Klein, the For­ward’s con­tribut­ing book critic, was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle’s Nona Balakian Ci­ta­tion for Ex­cel­lence in Re­view­ing. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @ Ju­li­aMKlein


MAK­ING SATIRE GREAT AGAIN? Paul Gold­berg de­liv­ers an ab­sur­dist romp that of­fers pointed com­men­tary on the Trump era.

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