While a party raves on below his bedroom in 18th-century Paris, a jaded and dissolute actor apparently expires, watching the candles by his bedside quiver and fade. When next he awakes, he finds himself possessed of unusual powers and even odder tastes. He notices wings and wonders, has he become an angel — or perhaps a demon? After all, he had been an Orthodox Jew before abjuring his faith for a more worldly life. No, he soon discovers, he has been reincarnated as a fly. More than 200 years have passed, and he is doomed to buzz around a contemporary Orthodox Jew, as she finds her way between her family’s strict religious observance and her ambition to be an actress. Thanks to Rebecca Miller’s densely detailed prose, such a transformation seems quite believable, propelling “Jacob’s Folly” on its own strange and often wonderful flight.
Being a fly has its limits, as the besotted Jacob discovers. An insect, for example, cannot expect to win the love of the beautiful would-be actress. However, his overall insignificance is offset by skills probably denied the ordinary housefly, including the ability to read thoughts and memories and to insinuate images into the humans around him. This allows Jacob to not only narrate the stories of Masha, his newfound love, and the virtuous Leslie, a married man who reminds Jacob of his long-dead father, but also to influence them. And as he works to free Masha from her strict upbringing, he also seeks to ensnare Leslie with her charms, replicating elements of his own libertine life.
This dual quest sets up the narrative thrust of the novel, Miller’s second. Flitting between contemporary New York and his memories of decadent pre-Revolutionary Paris, Jacob finds much that has not changed. Masha’s family, for example, lives in ways familiar to him. But he and Masha are very different people. Whereas Jacob in his human form had tried to live an observant life, only falling out through an odd set of circumstances involving a stolen pistol and a possible demonic possession, Masha is an outsider from the first. She yearns for more, even as she finds comfort in the familiar rituals and proscriptions. And though Jacob was — and still is — a lusty fellow, Masha is fundamentally chaste.
In light of these disparities, Jacob’s motivation for pushing Masha into the modern world at first feels like no more than a fit of pique — his revenge on the religion. The tension he recognizes in her, however, is ultimately revealed as the ageless struggle between free will and faith, the desire to assimilate and the urge to be true to one’s roots, and Miller’s vivid writing captures both their worldviews with a wit and restraint that underlines their essential differences, as well as their similarities.
“Jacob’s Folly” works best when it lets itself fly, drifting into intriguing asides from the procedures of volunteer fire departments to the economic realities of actresses in the Comédie Française. (It is worth noting that Miller is married to triple Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis.) Sadly, the author did not ultimately trust the natural, if meandering, flow of her entwined stories, and the last 14 pages of the book are a bit forced as a new character ties Jacob and Masha together too neatly. With writing this stylish and lively, it would have been more fun to stumble along, even to a more ambivalent conclusion. The trip until this point has been so engrossing, another hundred pages of happy wandering would have been a blessing.