One thing I have noticed about Bruce Jay Friedman’s fictional experiments with schlemiels is the fact that a person’s parents play an important role in the schlemiel process. But in his fictional scenarios, mothers are not the sole source of this or that person becoming a schlemiel. To be sure, fathers can also play a key role. And this inclusion of the father into the schlemiel process brings to light many things about the schlemiel that we have missed.
In films like Meet the Fockers (2004) and Guilt Trip (2012) and in novels like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Bruce Jay Friedman’s A Mother’s Kisses, it is the mother that is held responsible, in major part, for the male character’s becoming-a-schlemiel.
I recently pointed out the relationship of the schlemiel to the a wayward mother in Bruce Jay Friedman’s “The Good Time.” In that story, the mother is so into the son having a “good time” that she creates a distance between herself and her child. He ends up withdrawing from her and becoming something of a nebbishy schlemiel who is afraid of the future, hides from the wind, and worries about his eyeglasses (amongst other things). The problem that Friedman locks on to is that the schlemiel emerges out of a gap between the children and parents (and this includes fathers and not just “overbearing” Jewish mothers).
In yesterday’s blog entry on the story “Brazzaville Teen-ager,” I pointed out how Bruce Jay Friedman’s story and Michael Cera’s translation of it into a film short outlined the gap between a father and a son. That gap, as I pointed out, is the basis for the main character’s being a schlemiel. The son would like to speak to his father in a man-to-man way but he can’t bring himself to do it. Rather, he foolishly relies on a kind of feeling and a prank with his boss to, so to speak, practice being bold. But it’s all in his mind. He is, as the story suggests via symbolism, stuck between two floors: childhood and manhood.
To be sure, both stories show how latter-day American parents – mothers and fathers – create schlemiels. They also show us that it is the father-son or mother-son relation (to the exclusion of both parents) that marks a fictional-schlemiel-family-scenario. But the fact that Seth Rogen (in Guilt Trip) and Michael Cera (in his Brazzaville Teenager film short) have decided to revive this theme, today, is very telling. After all, Bruce Jay Freedman wrote these two above-mentioned stories for the baby-boomer generation. But Rogen and Cera think that they also speak to our generation. The only reason I can find for this is the fact that they are pitching these films to a generation that feels that it is unable to attain what their parents have attained; but, more importantly, they feel that this generation identifies with being schlemiels who are, so to speak, stuck between floors.
In other words, these films – based mostly on a figure that Bruce Jay Freedman developed nearly forty years ago – speaks to a private family experience that, for many today, is still the source of their deepest frustrations. What I like most about Cera has done, however, is that he, unlike Judd Apatow in Knocked Up, wants to have us focus on this intermediate stage rather than seeing it worked out in the film. He’s more interested in presenting the problem than offering the solution. And this, the famous author Anton Chekhov once claimed, is the purpose of good art.
The problem of the schlemiel, today, situates us between parents and children, on the one hand, and manhood and childhood on the other. What does maturity mean today? Do we put the same value on success as our parents do? Is their an unbridgeable gap between us? And how does the schlemiel help us to pay closer attention to these issues?
Most importantly: Is there a problem or have we “progressed” out of this schlemiel family-issue, today?
Michael Cera, who played a main role in Arrested Development (2000-2013) and starred in such films as Superbad (2007), Juno (2007), Year One (2009), and This is the End (2013), recently decided he wanted to direct his own film short. Cera’s film short, Brasserville Teenager, is based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. The story, written over thirty years ago, was re-written by Cera with Bruce Jay Friedman. And like any translation of text into film, something is lost here and something is added there. What interests me most is the portrayal of the schlemiel and humiliation in the film. To be sure, in this filmic translation the humiliation is greatly diminished and the schlemiel is displaced by the special effects which turn the film more toward a symbolic dimension (reminiscent of a David Lynch film) than toward a deeper understanding of the schlemiel’s failure and frustration.
Let’s go through the short story first and then compare notes.
The story starts out with the hope of the schlemiel, Gunther:
He had always felt that perhaps a deathbed scene would unite them; he and his father would clutch at each other in a sicklied fusion of sweetness and truth, the older man dropping his lifelong cool, finally spilling the beans, telling Gunther what it was all about. (9)
The narrator’s tone already suggests that Gunther’s hopes might be a little off. As the story goes on, we see that, in this schlemiel scenario, there is a big gap between the father and the son. The son feels that this event “would unite them.” However, as the story shows us, nothing changes in the end. But it’s the journey to that point which matters most.
The main conceit of the story is that, after Gunther leaves his father, all he can think about this how his father’s “knuckles” have enlarged and that his body has been “whittled down.” He is saddened by his reduction of his role model; following this, however, an idea comes to him which, somehow, will change everything:
The idea came to him that if he, Gunther, were to debase himself, to do something painful beyond belief, the most embarrassing act he could imagine, only then could his dad recover…The instant his plan formed, he wanted to tear it form his head. (10)
This idea is childish and presupposes some kind of magic that will occur if he does something. He becomes obsessed with this idea. His plan is to get his boss, Hartman, to sing backup vocals in a song called “Brazzerville Teen-Ager”:
It’s about a young boy whose father is a mercenary and gets sent to the Congo. The boy goes along and write this letter back to his girl from the States, talking about how great it was surfing and holding hands and now here he is in Brazzerville. (10)
Since he knows the producer, he feels he can coax him to let his boss, Mr. Hartman, sing back up vocals.
After he finishes telling Hartman what he would like to do, Hartman, bewildered, tells him “You’re still not coming through”(11). And he proceeds to ask him the logical question: “What’s the connection between all this and your father’s sickness?” In response, Gunther tells him that “I can’t explain it…I’ve learned that if I can get you to do this thing, which of course is way out of your line…Dad will recover”(11). Hartman asked him what he means by “he’s learned” and all Gunther can say is that he just “knows it.” Gunther asks Hartman to “forget the logic part” because he really “feels” it’s true. In response, Hartman tells him to back into the office and to “forget you ever made this little speech.”
After this experience, while driving around at night, Gunther congratulates himself for speaking his mind. Although he failed to get Hartman to do it, at least he spoke. But then he gets an idea: “If I got myself to say something like that to a boss, there’s no limit to what I can do”(11). This spurs him to drive out to Hartman’s house and speak more.
What’s so interesting about what spurs him is the fact that in his speaking to a superior, his boss, he feels as if he has done something life changing. This, no doubt, has to do with speaking the truth to his father. Apparently, he never gets to speak his mind; and this is what troubles him most about his relationship with superiors and elders.
When he arrives at Hartman’s house, he stumbles into a party of the rich and powerful. They humor him and Hartman nearly fires him there on the spot. But Hartman’s wife comes to the rescue and tells Hartman to do it because Gunther, “the poor fellow is quite upset. It will cost you very little and it might be fun”(12).
Hartman goes ahead and does the backup vocals. He is asked to “girl it” in his “doo wahs.” And he does so. Following this humiliation-of-sorts, Gunther drives him home and sees someone flipping pancakes in a store front. He pulls over, asks Hartman to filp one, and gets the owners approval. Hartman does this, too.
The next scene we learn that the Gunther’s father is better. He helps him pack up and go. But when he starts thinking about all the things he wanted to ask him, as he did at the outset of the story, and says “Dad.” He chokes up and fails to speak. The father asks him what, but Gunther says “nothing.”
In the last section of the story, on the way from his father’s apartment Gunther stops the elevator between floors. And then he screams out, “You son of a bitch! You know what I had to go through to get you on your goddamn feet?”(14)
In Cera’s rendition of the story, much is the same except 1) the film includes a male interlocutor in a bar who speaks with Gunther; 2) the conversation with Hartman (played by Jack O’Connell) has words like “lesbian” and the expression “rock in my show”(5:28); 3) the wife says she will “wet” Hartman’s “whistle” if he goes (a sexual allusion that isn’t present in the original); 4) Gunther says, after getting Hartman onboard, “Once in a while you’ll meet a crazy person who will go along with you no matter what”; 5) the music studio scenes bear mention of having “one heart” and include scenes that aren’t in the story; 6) the recording scene is morbid, like a David Lynch film; 7) Hartman, unlike the story, is moved by the music; 8) the pancake flipping scene is deleted; 9) the scene with his father (played by Charles Grodin) is incredibly long.
What I liked about the film version of the story was the fact that it brought out the divide between emotion and masculinity. We could clearly see that doing a good deed made Hartman more kind, which is something we don’t see in the story. And we also see the divide between Gunther and his father in a clearer manner. Most importantly, I like how Cera used the timing of the film to illustrate the differences between the father and the son. It shows how they continually miss each other and how the father has become a grumpy older man while his son remains a schlemiel who cannot speak to him face-to-face.
In the end, Gunther is the schlemiel because, in his mind, his action and his feeling should be enough to heal his father and unify them; ultimately, however, he remains a person who screams “between floors.” He is caught between being a man and a child. He wants to have a “normal” relationship but can’t say the right things to make it happen. His prank on Hartman took some kind of odd-courage, but, ultimately, he can’t bring that courage to his real-life relationship with his father. His feelings and his prank can’t do it. He has to let go of that magical connection that all children, in some way, think exists between reality and emotions. But he can’t.
Cera’s film, at the very least, is faithful to this message in Friedman’s original story. This isn’t lost in translation, however, it is amplified.
Bruce Jay Friedman has been writing fiction since the early 1960s. As a novelist, he is most well-known for Stern. But he is most famous for his plays Scuba Duba and Steambath. Both were shown Off Broadway in the early 1970s and were overnight successes. Steambath was adapted for TV in 1973. And Friedman wrote several screenplays that were turned into popular movies such as Heartbreak Kid (1973), Stir Crazy (1980). Dr. Detroit (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984), and Splash (1984), and Brazzaville Teenager (2013). (The last film is short directed by Michael Cera and Heartbreak Kid was recently redone with a starring role by Ben Stiller).
In most of his novels, short stories, and screenplays, Friedman includes at least one schlemiel character. To be sure, Friedman, like Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, and Judd Apatow, has popularized the schlemiel in American culture. Unfortunately, very few people have properly read his schlemiels. In the Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse characterized his novel, Stern, in negative terms. The main character, a schlemiel named Stern, “suffers from an ulcer, the localized symbol of hurt, and actual cause of his anxiety and pain. The ulcer is a kind of “heart condition”(87). This, for Wisse, is the anti-thesis of what Saul Bellow had done with the schlemiel in his novel, Herzog (Herzog means “heart song” in Yiddish). This schlemiel’s sickness is “a lower, less poetic organ” and it is, for Wisse, “symptomatic of Friedman’s harsher, lower form of humor”(87). Wisse goes on to call Stern just “another study of the sick man as the relatively healthy man, the psychological equivalent of loser as winner, but one that exposes the full horror of this inversion”(87).
Wisse’s words are by no means charitable to Freidman and neither are the words of the famous film critic J. Hoberman who recently likened – in the most negative way – the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man (2009) to Stern. Larry Gopnik, the schlemiel of Serious Man – is like Stern:
Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher.
To be sure, the case for the weak and sick man-child schlemiel is made in many places by Bruce Jay Friedman. But what’s sometimes missed is how this sickness relates to the other or in the case of a story called “The Good Time” the (m)other. In this story the mother’s boundless energy also makes her into a schlemiel. And while she may appear healthy and the boy sick they are, in fact, a team.
In “The Good Time,” the main character and narrator of the story is a schlemiel who is going off to war in Korea. He is in Chicago and will be leaving from there to basic training and then war. Friedman uses “coldness” as a leitmotif in the story. The main character is followed by it everywhere:
No matter what I wore, the cold got into me and down inside my clothes and made feel lonely and as though I would never relax for the rest of my life. It followed me into the hotel room in which I stayed and chased me as I drove along the Lake. (117, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman).
It seems as if the main character is in a transitional point between childhood and manhood and that the cold chasing him around is the cold of life and adulthood which he pulls back from. Regarding sickness, he notes that the word Korea reminds him of the word “Cholera.” In the following sentence, he notes that, for the first time in his life, he is getting a pair of eyeglasses. The fact that he is astonished that when you put the glasses on you can “see everything” should alert the reader that he is naïve and childlike.
In the midst of this cold and his contemplation of what may happen to him over there, his mother decides to leave Philadelphia for Chicago so as to show him a “good time.” She “knew I was feeling bad” and wanted to “cheer me up”(117). His mother, to be sure, is fearless, loud, and brash. But when we see her in juxtaposition to her son, we see that she is also a schlemiel. But her schlemielkeit, it seems, is more in tune with a vital American culture. It is a kind of energetics that is based on fast-talk and quick-action.
When we first meet the mother (or rather “Mother,” her name throughout the story), we see that she is brimming with enthusiasm for every experience she has (as if every moment is her last). Mother brings a woman she meets on the train who travelled with her. She insists that the lady and her baby meet her son. It doesn’t make any sense, but since Mother is so excited by their spending time with each other she wants her son to meet her:
“Did you ever see such a sweet face on a girl? Look at her. That’s the type I meet everywhere I go. And good? Good as gold. Her and her baby.” (118)
Upon seeing him, Mother demands a hug: “Grab your mother around for a hug. It’s all right. It’s your mother. I came all the way from Philadelphia.” When he notes that the girl, which his mother said was so great, was ordinary, his mother says, “You’re in quite a mood.” In other words, the mother wants him to be infected by her intensity and to overlook the ordinariness of things. She wants him to live in the moment instead of being in fear of the future.
His mother yells for a cab, engages the cabbie in talk, and they are off. As they are moving, the narrator notes a juxtaposition between age and youth in his mother. And as he passes from the one to the other he warms up: “Her figure was still so young and good it embarrassed me to look at it. And I have to admit I didn’t feel quite so cold now with her near me”(119).
Once they start talking, the narrator feels he can be honest with her and speak about how he feels about going “over there.” In response, she tosses a line, rhythmically, that sounds off against the word “there” – he calls this a “pet line”: “He’s there and you’ve got to get there.” These lines irk him and make him cold because they refuse to give in to his fear. After hearing this, he remembers another one liner, which, to be sure is all about challenging the other: “You’re on your way in, I’m on my way out.”
To be sure, as the story moves on more and more of these pet lines come to the surface. They are used to get things going and keep things warm and exciting. However, they don’t leave room for any emotional bonding between them. And they don’t leave room for fear. They are given out in rapid-fire fashion, as are her bold movements.
She has no regard for the civility. When they get back to the hotel, she takes off her top and walks around in “her brassiere and skirt…it made her comfortable”(120). It doesn’t matter that she is doing this in front of her son. To be sure, he takes this as normal. But after a while, as we shall see, he lets too many things slide. And this comes back to bite him.
The story shifts into high gear as they go out. And as they move, we hear more and more noise. But Friedman turns this noise into a kind of music that is laced with optimism. In one scene they go to a club where Tommy Dorsey is playing music. While they are getting into the music, a large group of paraplegics come into the club. Excited by the music, they all start making noises to the music. They are giving canes by the club and they tap them against the floor in rhythm to the music. The narrator’s mother hears the word “sheeeet” repeated by some of them while one of the narrator’s friends, who tags along, goes “spit-spat.” All of this noise works to just move things forward, into the future.
Moved by this rhythm, they get into the car and speed off along the Chicago lakeshore Listening to music as they drive, they continue the rhythm from the club. They carry it on late into the evening, but the mother doesn’t want to sleep:
“If you want to sleep, sleep…It’s your privilege. But you’re crazy if you miss a minute. I have quite a day planned for you.”(124)
The next day they go off to see a musical comedy called “New Faces.” During the act, the mother has her own comedy act and interrupts people in the audience. She wants to be the center of attention and make a scene for her son. After having her laugh and causing a stir, she leaves with her son to see an old friend called “Monkey” Lucella.
Monkey is a lot like her. He is wild, but he is also very wealthy. When they first meet, Monkey pulls out a wad of bills and tells Mother, “look at this.” In response, Mother says: “The son of a bitch…The money this son of bitch must have made here in Chicago. The fortune of money”(126). All of this theater hits a fever pitch at the end of the party when Lucella, who is married (his wife is “cold” and quiet) and has a son named “Seal”, lifts Mother up on his shoulders.
The narrator breaks down when he sees his mother’s underwear:
Her skirt split open and some garment showed that I never wanted to see in my whole life. It had elaborate hooks and snaps on it and it seemed you’d have to be very old before wearing it. It was just something I never wanted to see on my mother. (128)
When he sees “more” of the undergarment, he loses control and does something “I haven’t done in perhaps fifteen to twenty years, but something I had been in the habit of doing for quite some time as a child. Starting to cry, I put my head down, closed my eyes and rammed my head into Lucella’s groin” (128).
His mother responds by sweeping him out of the house and getting a cab. Upon leaving, the main character, feeling miserable, vents:
Was this her idea of giving me a good time? Was that the way you treated a son who was very cold and couldn’t relax and needed glasses and was going to a place that sounded like a terrible children’s disease – a disease that probably began with a rash, for all I knew, and ended by attacking your damned kidneys. (129)
Like Stern, this story ends with sickness. But what needs to be seen is that this sickness, which is steeped in fear, is spurred in many ways by the mother. Her optimism and bold embrace of the moment divorce her from her son and make him sick. Moreover, it is her sexuality that she doesn’t hide from him. Freidman seems to be suggesting that this is what drives him back into his childhood and makes him a schlemiel. His mother has gone to far and instead of cheering him up, she has only made him more bitter and scared. This comic due shows us that a schlemiel can be a kind of nebbish character (like the son) and can also be a vital character who is out of touch with reality (like the mother).
Contrary to what many critics might say, Bruce Jay Friedman was interested in the many varieties of the schlemiel. The critics only got him half right. As we can see in this story, the main character may be like Stern but his mother is not. And I would like to suggest that it is the latter, fast-talking kind of schlemiel that is often missed in Friedman’s work. Her optimism and brashness, though foolish, is – in this story – juxtaposed to the main character’s fear, childishness, and cynicism. It is the relation between the two that makes this story – and these schlemiels – distinctly American.
Vladmir Girshkin is the main character of Gary Shteygart’s novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. It is the story of a particular kind of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel and his becoming-American world. The “arc of his dreams,” as the schlemiel-like narrator of the novel shows us, begins in Russia and ends in America. These dreams come from a character whose story (and whose persona) is characterized as “Part P.T. Barnum, part V.I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe.”
If we listen closely to this sentence, we will have to ask two simple questions:
1) If Lenin was the man who would conquer half of Europe, was P.T. Barnum the man who conquered the other half?
2) What does it imply that Vladmir’s story is one part Lenin’s power and the other part, so to speak, “American circus power”?
In response to this, I’d suggest we ask what P.T. Barnum’s power is and how that power relates to Vladmir, and what Lenin’s power is and how that relates to Vladmir. On the one hand, the power over “the other part of Europe” is an American-carnivalesque-power. And this, as we see in the novel, is part of Vladmir’s character and is part and parcel of the narration of Vladmir’s story. This circus power is the power of the American-schlemiel-dreamer. On the other hand, we have the power of Lenin which is political, intentional, and masculine. I’d suggest that the latter is humored by the former and that the schlemiel is kept in check by the latter.
But the narrator shows us, right off, that America has the home team advantage, since the story doesn’t begin in Russia; it begins in a shabby immigration office in Manhattan. And the story takes off in the most mundane way, which indicates that Vladmir may in fact dream of power since he has none. But we see something other than power in his office. He is in the “middle of (immigrant) things.” The story begins…
On a Monday morning. In an office. With the first cup of instant coffee gurgling to life in the common lounge.
But not so fast. This scene of the immigration office is revised by the narrator. His revision gives you a sense of the narrator’s way of thinking and speaking. He tells us of how Vladmir’s
…story begins in New York, on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, the most disheveled, godforsaken, not-for-profit corner of New York’s financial district. On the tenth floor, the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society greeted its clients with the familiar yellow water-stained walls and drying hydrangeas of a sad Third World government office.
He is a schlemiel who works together with “Assimilation Facilitators” to process immigrants. In this American scene, these Assimilation Facilitators forge truces between warring peoples of the world in order to make peace in the office (not the world): “in the reception room, under the gentle but insistent prodding of trained Assimilation Facilitators, Turks and Kurds called a truce, Tutsis queued patiently behind Hutus, Serbs chatted up Croats at the demilitarized water fountains.”
While this is all going on, Vladmir is in “the back office.” He is the immigrant schlemiel: “the immigrant’s immigrant, the expatriate’s expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer and an unlikely hero of our times.
Reading these words about a fool who is the “unlikely hero of our times,” I am reminded of the title and main theme of Ruth Wisse’s schlemiel-theory opus: The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. At the end of her book, it seems as if the schlemiel ‘was’ a modern hero but is no longer one since (in the early 1970s) Jewish American writers like Phillip Roth wanted to put an end to the schlemiel.
The schlemiel can only live in a world which is neither fully optimistic nor fully skeptical. And the world of the 1970s wanted to create more “positive” images of the Jew in which Jews were shown as normal, strong, and American. The schlemiel, interpreted by Roth (in Portnoy’s Complaint) and Bruce Jay Friedman (in Stein) as a half-man and a loser, seemed to have been something they had left behind after they wrote his obituary.
To add to this, Irving Howe thought Jewish literature would lose its Jewishness the farther it went away from its immigrant roots. But this opening of the novel challenges Howe, Roth, and Friedman. And it puts forth the new “unlikely hero” who also happens to be an immigrant.
In one fell swoop, Shteyngart shows us how the schlemiel lives on but as a new kind of immigrant: Vladmir Girshkin.
His becoming-American is the story of a schlemiel – an “unlikely hero” whose story is part P.T. Barnum and part Lenin.
(I will be blogging more on this extraordinary novel over the next few weeks. This will, of course, be interspersed with blog entries and guest blog entries about new and old work on, about, or related to the schlemiel.)