The Great Letter E
by Sandra Schor Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, 1990 224 pp., $18.95
The hero of Sandra Schor’s first novel, The Great Letter E, is a man who refuses to take the wheel and steer his own life, preferring to cower in the back seat with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics. After discovering that his wife is having an affair with a friend he has known since childhood, Barry Glassman passively watches as his family disintegrates. His sensitive, thirteen-year-old son runs away from home — suffering under the weight of Barry’s philosophical obsession and moral absence. Barry himself slowly falls to pieces like a termite-ridden chair, consoling himself with syllogisms about the universal grain of the wood.
In the workaday world, Barry is a fair-to-middling optometrist with a dwindling practice, an Everyman from Bayside, Queens, New York, who worries that the external necessities of his existence may “perforate the delicate web of [his] internal life!’ Rather than bear the sharp, tearing prick of his own inadequacy, Barry withdraws to a drafty rented room to live amid reveries of Spinoza’s life.
The novel’s first-person narration immerses us in Barry’s consciousness, that braying, changeable, unreasonably reasonable instrument. In doing so, Schor risks estranging her reader. Barry’s querulousness drives his own rabbi to slug him at one point in the novel. This is a move which the reader may well applaud.
By pitching us headlong into the turbulent motion of her protagonist’s mind, Schor winds up giving short shrift to the women who figure in Barry’s life. His wife, Marilyn, and the brilliant physicist, Enid (whom he takes as a lover), both seem preternaturally concerned with having more babies. Schor does nothing to mitigate Barry’s contempt for his wife. Marilyn remains a stock figure — inherited like an ill-fitting shoe from the comic novels of Jewish male writers — convicted of maternity, materialism, and meshugas (craziness).
Barry himself is something quite different; his infuriating and vital need for a philosophical slide rule to help him master life’s tragic subtractions differentiates him from the numb, divorced men we know from the fictions of John Updike and Richard Ford. Barry strikes a chord in us because he’s an ordinary schmo with an incurable sweet tooth for Spinoza’s philosophy.
He wrestles with the irrational in religious man: the belief that because one loves God, it is only right and proper that God should reciprocate the sentiment. If he ultimately is pinned to the mat by his own egoism, at least he learns to recognize and accept his own failings.
In The Great Letter E, Sandra Schor has created a little man with gargantuan preoccupations. That’s no mean feat for a first novel.