Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick

A Review of Cynthia Ozick’s

Heir to the Glimmering World

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2004/2005

By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin ($20)

When writing a novel in the first person, an author with such fierce intelligence and power as Cynthia Ozick is forced to funnel her enormous lexicon into the limited tones of some necessarily smaller voice. Ozick has always been fascinated with impersonation and imposture, though, and in her latest novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, her ventriloquism act finds itself bound within a tiny doll-house theater that the author’s near-omniscience constructs from far-ranging material but that, from within he narrator’s small glimmer of life and reading, makes for tricky circumscription.

On its surface, this novel of the American 1930s is a tribute to the great English authors of the 19th century, but as Ozick speaks through the voice of her Brontëan orphan-protagonist Rose Meadows, it soon seems to be more like a reflection of the 20th century’s own reflections of 19th century style—particularly of John Updike’s and Saul Bellow’s conservative return to the big-old-fashioned-novel aesthetic. There are rule-breaking twists, however, as Rose’s narrative of her life-education with the German refugee clan the Mitwissers drifts out of the box of her own mental arena (the same way that Jane Austen sometimes breaks the strict logic of who’s saying or thinking what) and then diverges into the separate chapters that follow the perversely parallel non-education of the Mitwissers’ dissolute benefactor James A’Bair. These forays are the novel’s most inspired moments, but at the same time, I can’t help but think of Thomas Pynchon’s similar and more successful detours in his parodic Mason & Dixon.

Perhaps there are too many novels at play in this novel to allow it to cohere on its own, or perhaps Ozick’s muted voice is unable to rise in a way that lifts her vast learning into one living and all-encompassing entity. In the end, Heir to the Glimmering World is like a brilliant Frankenstein’s monster that can’t help but be an impersonation.

—David Wiley

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