An Art Thief Discovers His History

The World to Come
Bryan G. Chen

When Ben Ziskind steals a Marc Chagall painting from the Museum of Hebraic Art, he has to come back three days later—along with everyone else who’d visited the exhibit—to tell curator Erica Frank that he didn’t do it.

“I write questions for ‘American Genius,’” he says to her. Erica, who is still settling into her role as an interrogator, is skeptical. “That’s a full time job?” she asks. “I write several hundred questions a day,” he replies. “For every question on the show, there are hundreds that are rejected.”

These rejected questions, unlike those that make it onto television, do not have clear answers, and—for Ben, at least—they are far more pressing. “During which of the following incidents in the past year did Nina lie when she claimed that she loved me?”...“For how many of the eleven months of our brief and pathetic marriage was she actually sleeping with someone else?”... “Once Sara sells our parents’ house, what will be left of them?”

Ben may have found an answer to the last question when he took the Chagall painting—which had once belonged to his beloved mother. Behind the story of the stolen Chagall painting lies the story of Ben’s family, of Soviet Russia, of Jewish folklore, and, finally, of death, birth and rebirth.

Dara Horn ’99, GSAS ’06 in her second novel “The World to Come,” no doubt cast Ben in the role of trivia-master for several reasons. He is a grown-up child prodigy, and is struggling to rediscover that knowledgeable ease that he outgrew along with his high school clothes and adolescent scoliosis. He is small and unassuming, and needs a way to express his strength. But perhaps the most important reason is that Horn’s entire book is built on questions behind questions, on stories behind stories; for every one that surfaces, there are a dozen more hidden underneath.

In telling these stories, Horn—who received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard this year—draws heavily on the books that populate her novel, moving freely from text to text. Ben’s narrative interweaves with the children’s books that his mother wrote, with the old Yiddish authors who knew his grandfather in Russia, with funeral songs and folk tales and his father’s letters from Vietnam. There are real-life sources propping up Horn’s novel as well: the central art-theft story is ripped from old headlines of The New York Times, when a Chagall painting did in fact disappear during a singles’ cocktail hour.

As much as these stories enrich one another, they also add weight, and occasionally the accumulation becomes more than the novel can bear. Horn writes in slyly beautiful prose—a forest at sunset can suddenly become “a drawstring bag…tightening the early evening sky with wrinkles of naked branches”—but the movements between storylines often feel heavy and imposed. But when Ben comes home from the museum and looks at the Chagall painting (a study of a man floating over a city), we read that Ben himself feels “very light, as if, lying prone on the bed, he were actually floating through the air”—and we have our doubts. With so many stories behind stories, it is difficult to juggle all the balls at once, and we sometimes get the sense that Horn deals with this by making easy moves.

The turns in plot and character, too, can seem overly facile for the material from which they are drawn: the wonderfully brutish Leonid, for instance, a hulking, red-haired Russian boy who makes Ben’s life miserable in high school, turns all too quickly into a misunderstood nice-guy who ends up marrying Ben’s twin sister.

Still, the corners of Horn’s novel are nailed down solidly enough to make up for any rough edges. “The World to Come,” as it reaches for the heavens, may not soar toward profundity with quite the ease that many of its loquacious characters do; but it is Horn’s thoughtfully arranged, vibrantly written examination of people in their private times of crisis that makes her book memorable.

We may not learn about life after death from its pages; but we see how particular people deal with their own lives and deaths, and that is far more illuminating.

—Reviewer Catherine L. Tung can be reached at ctung@fas.harvard.edu.

The World to Come
By Dara Horn '99
W.W. Norton
Out Now