The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

Regular readers will know that I am always interested in interesting fictional explorations or faith or reworking of famous stories.  So I was very much interested to see how Joshua Max Feldman did both in his The Book of Jonah:

The-Book-of-JonahThe modern-day Jonah at the center of Joshua Max Feldman’s brilliantly conceived retelling of the book of Jonah is a young Manhattan lawyer named Jonah Jacobstein. He’s a lucky man: healthy and handsome, with two beautiful women ready to spend the rest of their lives with him and an enormously successful career that gets more promising by the minute. He’s celebrating a deal that will surely make him partner when a bizarre, unexpected biblical vision at a party changes everything. Hard as he tries to forget what he saw, this disturbing sign is only the first of many Jonah will witness, and before long his life is unrecognizable. Though this perhaps divine intervention will be responsible for more than one irreversible loss in Jonah’s life, it will also cross his path with that of Judith Bulbrook, an intense, breathtakingly intelligent woman who’s no stranger to loss herself. As this funny and bold novel moves to Amsterdam and then Las Vegas, Feldman examines the way we live now while asking an age-old question: How do you know if you’re chosen?

A sort of modern retelling of the story of Jonah as an exploration of faith and calling? Yes, please.

Quick take: an interesting (I use that word entirely too much but I am too tired at the moment to find a suitable replacement) and entertaining story.  The two main characters are well done and I liked how the alternating sections set up their eventual connection. One’s familiarity with New York City and/or growing up in an elite family with the assumption of success and recognition will play a role in how the setting affects you (whether it seems strange and exotic or knowing and familiar). Not sure about the ending though.

Longer take: As many reviewers have noted, I think the first half of the book is stronger than the second. I liked the way Feldman set up Jonah and his surroundings.  And I liked the way the visions intruded into his life and began to wreck chaos upon them.  I even liked the initial Judith sections, Both as a change of pace and as a way to build some suspense and tension as you knew they would eventually meet.

The irony for me was that the meeting in Amsterdam seemed like the high point of the book and the remainder couldn’t quite carry the story to a satisfying conclusion. Judith lost whatever depth she had developed and Jonah felt flat as well. It just didn’t have the energy once Jonah headed to Las Vegas.  I also thought Judith’s boss was something of a silly stock character that felt disjointed in comparison to others and the story leading up to that point.

Lastly, I didn’t find anything particularly compelling or thought-provoking in the climax and resolution of the story. After all of that work and narration I didn’t feel like I was left with much insight or wisdom (other than having visions is unsettling and following your calling can be hard).

I also felt rather unable to capture my thoughts about the book all that well.  There were, however, a number of very good reviews at Goodreads. Here are some snippets that caught my eye:

This is a feeling I can relate to:

On the positive side, this book is wonderfully and elegantly crafted. The author is obviously erudite and can really cobble together some wonderful sentences and has a flair for imagery. The style is very fluid and readable and despite being a VERY long 350+ pages, once you get into the rhythm of the text it speeds along quite nicely. I was able to choke it down in 8-10 hours. It’s also very neatly segmented into sections of 20 pages or so if the verbal finery gets to be too much for you then you can put it down and come back later. It has a very literary feel to it; it’s not at all a fluffy novel.

To the negative side of the novel, the narrative seems to hint at many grand story lines but never seems to decide to finish any of them. On one hand it’s an allegory about right and wrong… but only weakly. On another hand it’s a vast story arc bringing characters together in quirky and unexpected ways… but only sorta. I feel about this book the way I feel about this review I’m writing. I want to say something more powerful. I have plenty of words and I keep typing and typing and typing but it just never happens. The threads never come together. That’s exactly how I feel about the book… Just left a bit dangling.

I also liked Jordan’s take:

In terms of first impressions, he quickly proves himself to be an able – indeed, exuberant! – writer. Feldman revels in language and characterization. His concept is bold, almost recklessly so, and he barrels forward without even a hint of doubt. Such energy carries the reader forward on a magic carpet of excitement. Yet the power of language can only propel that carpet so far; Feldman’s high concept goal of offering a loose modern retelling of the Jonah story sags as the book enters its middle section. At times interesting and engaging, each reader will judge how this novel’s strengths balance against its occasional reliance on the stockiest of stock characters, a tendency to lurch into melodrama, and the author’s apparent decision late in the game to simply abandon his concept as he rushes into the novel’s end.

Stuart offers a unique analogy:

Good debut comedic novels almost always follow pick up bar strategy: make an engaging great first impression. If the novel kind of falls apart at the end (and it usually does in debut novels), that’s no great sin; you’ve had more than enough amusement by the halfway mark to make the reading worthwhile. The Book of Jonah is an engaging debut novel that doesn’t follow pick up bar strategy. Its first 100 or so pages are rather slow and fairly predictable. But then the plot kicks in, the characters start to be interesting, and the reader (me) starts to feel good about being patient. Maybe this strategy would work in pick up bars, too, who knows. I’ve been married for 35 years and am, thankfully, out of practice.

Do read the full reviews linked above as they really do give you some great thoughts and impressions of the novel. I love it when people post quality reviews like this on Goodreads, great to see how others reacted to a book like this.

All in all, I was impressed with Feldman’s imagination and fearlessness in tackling a work like this. And the first half of the novel showed great promise. I am just not sure he quite pulled it off in the end. I agree with another reviewer, I read somewhere, that wondered if the author didn’t get carried away trying to hit his plot points and “messaging” rather than just letting the story take it things where they wanted to go.

Adam Kirsch’s perceptive review in The Atlantic sums it up nicely:

The Book of Jonah loses some of its focus and control in its second half, and the resolution feels more tidy and sentimental than the novel that has gone before it. But Feldman’s ability to channel the absurdity and the challenge of the original Book of Jonah makes his novel an entertaining and thought-provoking debut.

The satire, evocative descriptions and, yes, absurdity of the first half of the story are worth reading even if the ending feels a bit flat.  I look forward to seeing what Feldman tackles next.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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