Thursday, December 24, 2009

You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr

You or Someone Like You introduces its two main characters in a scene in which movie executive Howard Rosenbaum is leaving his wife Anne. The book then goes back a year, to a point at which Anne's life changes considerably. Despite having a doctorate in English literature, she has until then been a housewife who tended to her garden, raised her son, and went to events with her prominent husband. A scene at a dinner party illustrates how Howard sucked up all the attention in the room (he even sucked up a teaching job at UCLA that Anne had originally applied for). But at that same dinner party, a producer asks Anne to make her a reading list. The reading list develops into a reading group (Anne is adamant that it is not a book club) and then a series of specialized reading groups for directors, writers, producers, etc. As the popularity of the groups feeds Anne's ego, her confidence grows and she is asked to read scripts, make recommendations about books worthy of becoming films, and even become a producer.

While we read the literary analysis Anne provides to her groups, we also learn the back story of Anne and Howard's apparently happy marriage. Howard was raised as an observant Jew in Brooklyn; Anne grew up all over the world, wherever her British father's diplomatic career took the family. Although Howard's parents disapproved of Anne, they married, moved to Los Angeles, had a son Sam, and apparently left all thoughts of religion behind them. Much of their parenting and their own relationship seems to take place through reading and/or quoting literary works. Through Anne's recollections, we also learn that she sees herself as an elitist but not a snob (the distinction to my mind is misplaced, as she appears to be both).

At any rate, as we read about Anne's emerging career, it seems likely that the shift of power between Anne and Howard will be the cause of the rift portrayed in the opening scene. But no! The cause of the rift--and the subject of the second half of the book, which borders on being a screed--is Howard's sudden decision to return to the practice of Judaism and thus to reject his gentile wife and son. The precipitating event is Sam's experience on a spring-break trip to Israel, where he is expelled from a yeshiva for being "unclean" (because his mother is not Jewish, he is not Jewish under Jewish law). For me as a parent (who is neither Jewish nor religious but does know something about diverse families), Howard's response to this event is completely unbelievable. However, it gives Chandler Burr (who, according to an "Author's Note," had a similar experience as a young man) the opportunity, through Anne, to rail against an Orthodox definition of Jewishness that is exclusionary and based on racial categories (and the hypocrisy regarding anti-Semitism that he perceives as inherent in this definition). Because Howard is no longer speaking to her, Anne makes her points through her reading groups and through a speech on why people hate literature; evidently in Hollywood no remark goes without multiple repetitions.

The human tendency to divide people into "us" and "them" is a persistent problem worthy of discussion. I'm not persuaded by Burr's analysis, in part because he does not deal with power differentials, which I believe are critical to understanding group identity. Still, Burr could have written a thought-provoking article posing the same questions and explicating how literature casts light on the subject. Unfortunately, framing the questions in novelistic form doesn't add much to the discussion. The book's two halves feel like they belong in different novels (or perhaps a novel and a nonfiction work), and the characters' responses to life events don't seem real. One example in addition to Howard's response to Sam's experience in Israel: would you take your recently out teenage son and drop him off at the home of a gay writer you met once for three hours (when you witnessed an accident in which the writer hit a gardener with his car), so your son could learn about being a well-adjusted gay man? I think not. The substitution of literary discourse for conversation becomes wearisome. And, on a more picayune point, the incessant name-dropping of Hollywood luminaries and New York's literary lions is annoying and unnecessary.

Favorite passage:
. . . it is impossible to overestimate the pleasure of being included. Even for one who has never much wanted to be.

Of interest:
Burr has established a website where readers can comment on the book or the issues it raises:


  1. Hi, Laura.

    I'm glad you wrote about my novel even though you don't like it. Reading your review illustrated something to me that I've never seen so clearly before. I've read numerous reviews of "You" that have been hysterical, and thus filled with incoherence, ideological reaction, and factual inaccuracy, and some that have simply been unintelligent (including positive ones). Yours is calm, precise, intelligent, and gets all the facts right. You know what you think, and you express it with precision. This is simply a novel that, on most levels, simply doesn't speak to you.

    I'll respond to the single piece that I believe shows an ideological premise, which axiomatically generates an inferior analysis, your statement about "power differentials, which I believe are critical to understanding group identity." This is wording taken straight from liberalism's 1960s-based identity politics (for my own politics: I was an avid Obama voter, loathe Bush, am pro gay rights, abortion rights, etc.). The thing is, the novel's central character comes to realize that she is virulently opposed to identity politics and to applying your "power differentials" and "group identities" to us all. The artists she most admires are those whose work explicitly, indeed fiercely rejects the idea that we should define ourselves by any traditional groups. That's why Anne loves W.H. Auden. Auden showed, to paraphrase another poet, that the greatest artists leave group identity behind. If you believe, as a matter of belief, not reason, in group identity, Auden's view is not assimilable.

    Last: People tell me their favorite passages or quotations quite often. It's fascinating hearing that this is yours, and I love it because it says to me that you were most interested in Anne as a character, a fictional human being, because this is a deeply human statement. Here's my favorite quotation: Romans 9:25, “I will call them my people which were not my people. And her beloved, which was not beloved.”

    - Chandler Burr

  2. Wow--I am stunned that you have posted a comment! Thank you. I must admit I am "from" the 60s and still carry a lot of the ideas (some might say baggage) I embraced during that era. The notion that we can reject identity politics entirely (Obama's post-racial America)is attractive, and I try to avoid labeling and dividing. Unfortunately, however, my life experience and observations prevent me from believing that we have reached a point in our human or national evolution where group identity has become irrelevant in politics or life more broadly.

    You are right that I was very interested in Anne as a character and I thought this quote was quite evocative. Also, I wanted to choose a passage that you had written, rather than a quotation from another writer, no matter how important to Anne and/or Howard.

    Your book reminded me of how poor my grounding in "the classics" is--I'll be checking out some Auden on my next trip to the local library.