Among the mysteries of our present cultural moment is the popularity of Toronto-based professor and writer Jordan Petersen, and the desire, fed by recent books like his 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, for easy answers and firm lines about the meaning of identity and the guiding patterns of western culture.
Ariela Freedman’s second novel, A Joy to be Hidden, offers a portrait of another time, the late ’90s, when the world of ideas was dedicated to uncertainty, to “ambiguity, ambivalence, struggle, rather than boxes of received wisdom.” The novel follows Freedman’s first, Arabic for Beginners, which won the 2018 J.I. Segal prize for fiction.
A Joy to be Hidden takes place in Manhattan, and is told by Alice Stein, a diffident and erudite graduate student who is finding her way in the heady intellectual atmosphere of NYU’s graduate student life. Jacques Derrida – a philosophical kingpin of the ’90s– comes to campus to teach. Even the introductory composition course Alice is assigned to lead has a highfalutin’ set of theoretical underpinnings: “We were not teaching the correct use of commas and semicolons … we were teaching them to understand the self … to question their habitual assumptions, their suburban certainties.”
Freedman captures this not-so-far-away time like a bug in amber, and quietly sends up the daunting oddness of graduate school culture. It “prematurely aged the students in their early twenties, like me,” Alice says, “who cultivated interests in dead philosophers and New Yorker subscriptions and early smoker’s wrinkles. Conversely, it arrested the development of students in their late thirties and forties, who wore band T-shirts and still had roommates. No one had children, it was a world without children.”
But A Joy to be Hidden is not simply a sharp academic satire. Alphabet City lurks in the background as Alice’s New York exerts its own lurid draw. A kind of second life bubbles up around her East Village tenement, her outpost in the years “before the billionaire mayor and the Disneyfication of Times Square, before the East Village was little Japan and back when Hell’s Kitchen still deserved the name for its combination of butchery and vice.”
A girl in her building, fetchingly called Persephone, seeks her out as a replacement for absent parents. And when Persephone’s parents do show themselves, they suck Alice into their own out of control lives.
Behind all this is Alice’s own family’s past, resurrected when her father’s mother dies and she must clean out her grandmother’s cluttered apartment, putting her hands on things she remembers playing with as a child.
Her grandmother’s story is a troubled one, connected with the city’s early immigrant strivers. Alice dutifully visits her grandmother in a Brooklyn hospital where she begins to tell her story, but the visit is interrupted; the grandmother dies; and Alice must uncover the past indirectly, by way of surprising discoveries and unpredictable encounters.
Among Alice’s hapless efforts is a road trip with Persephone in an inherited Cadillac, in search of a man who might hold the key to the past. Together they drive the outposts of failed Americana, a landscape as different from their own lower Manhattan streets as could be imagined: “What had happened to this place,” she wonders of one of their stopping off points, “to all the stretches of abandoned roadway and deserted downtown? They were like the billboards abandoned on the highway, bleached by the sun and torn by the wind.”
A Joy to be Hidden offers a counter-narrative to the upbeat opportunities advertised on Internet ancestry sites or through the prospect of discovery by DNA testing. Prone to seeing her world through the words of writers she admires, Alice turns to Samuel Beckett, who warned that “we cannot escape the past because the past has deformed us.”
As European and American pasts course through Alice’s experiences in late-’90s New York City, she proves to be a resolute searcher after a backstory for her own predicament in the first years of her twenties, “before the false apocalypse of Y2K and the true disaster of 9/11.”