Ruby Namdar is an Iranian-born Jew now living in Israel, and his new novel “The Ruined House” is one of the most fascinating and intelligent novels around, brilliantly researched and with fascinating spiritual-psychological implications that seem unusually relevant for today’s postmodern, postreligious, materialist culture. Ones hears a great deal around town these days about the search for something spiritual in art and/or life, and this novel addresses that quest , and the interrelationships between a psychological and spiritual crisis which Carl Jung wrote about and considered to be the most important crisis of modern times.
The narrator, Prof. Andrew Cohen, is an entirely secular upper middle class, divorced professor at New York’s NYU. He writes about and teaches postmodern critiques of consumer culture, in particular–of which we read a plethora these days in the media and art media in particular, and/or in and from academe. Cohen is very self-satisfied, a real narcissist, with a string of male ego-driven affairs with a variety of women he meets along the way in Manhattan’s culture vulture world. He believes that he is about to receive a huge promotion for a new job/department dealing with postmodern cultural issues. He also has a come hither/go yon relationship with his two daughters from his prior marriage, though he also sees them through the lens of his male narcissitic personality. Some of Namdar’s best, and most amusing, writing about Cohen’s bachelor life in his much renovated, trendy Manhattan apartment are about his dinner parties, his obsession with making the perfect meal, inviting the perfect people and the like. But Namdar is not unsympathetic to the character he creates.
Cohen begins to see strange visions, on an increasingly regular basis. It’s clear to the reader that this near breakdown is perhaps as much spiritual as it is psychological; Cohen’s world begins to seem meaningless to him; his latest girlfriend, of course a just former student, increasingly boring and even repulsive to him ; he can’t sleep, becomes a slob /sloth, and the like: his “perfect” world seems to be collapsing and he doesn’t know to whom to turn. The reader is entirely privy to the various downwards steps as Cohen becomes increasingly desperate. Interspersed with descriptions of Cohen’s crisis are passages from The Old Testament with commentaries from The Talmud (those are commentaries on the Old Testament, written by rabbis all the way back to at least Babylonian times and are published in this novel in their entirety; they make for utterly fascinating reading and I urge anyone who reads this novel both to read those Biblical passages and the commentaries to them carefully. Cohen’s visions seem to be about rituals dealing with purity and cleanliness in the First Temple in Jerusalem, the one commissioned by the Biblical King David, rites dealing with the holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; ancient rabbis would have picked one man to lead the ancient Israelites through the rituals upon which, the ancient Israelites believed, their congregation/citizens’ next year of safety and prosperity utterly depends (the ancient Jewish peoples were the first in recorded Western history to stop human sacrifice; on Yom Kippur, instead, the sins of the congregation were symbolically placed upon a ram’s head and then the ram sent into the wilderness; thus the sins of the people are sent into the desert, instead of having animal or human sacrifices).
These ancient rites and rituals come to Cohen in flashes; they are increasingly violent, and he “sees” an ancient candelabra repeatedly, until he actually sees one in the offices of Hebrew Union College in New York, where he’s seeking advice and wisdom from a rabbi (in his actual life, to date, he would’ve scoffed at even meeting a rabbi). These visions of candelabra relate directly to the destruction of the First Jewish Temple (the Second, is still in Jerusalem now). Whether we’re privy to Jung’s historical collective unconscious, or Jungian archetypes, or some sort of historic/genetic memory isn’t entirely clear, but what is clear is that Cohen’s ancient Jewish history/genetic makeup is part both of his breakdown and his recovery. These visions of Cohen’s are interspersed with the Biblical commentaries and quotes from the Old Testament and these sections of this novel are riveting, fascinating, utterly compelling. (Novelist Geraldine Boyd’s written a series of novels about Old Testament characters, the most recent being King David ). The repeated imagery Cohen “sees” is about destruction, and/or about ritual to hold sin and punishment at bay; elements of what are now called Compulsive-Obsessive Disorder are implied in Cohen’s breakdown, as well. And the isolation described by people suffering from depression is well delineated in this novel. The extent to which Cohen’s (mid-life) crisis is psychological and/or spiritual is left to the reader.
“The Ruined House” is long and complex but makes for utterly compelling reading, more so as we increasingly live in an anti-spiritual time and place. I don’t think that this novel has had much press, but it deserves to be read, and once you read it, it comes back to you often as you ponder the interrelationships between the ancient and contemporary worlds. I’ve never read any novel quite like it, and I consider it to be a masterpiece.