The first chapter of Rachel Cantor’s latest novel, “Good on Paper,’’ offers a master class on beginning a novel.
Shira Greene is hiding with her phone in the supply closet of prosthetic leg company Legs-R-Us, her latest disastrous temp assignment, begging her boss for “something different . . . Really different. A new start,” when she receives an incoming call from “Ahmad. Friend of my youth, roommate, co-parent,” who tells her she has received a telegram, which she fears is news about her mother who disappeared when she was seven. So she runs away from work, grabs her daughter from camp, and heads off to Kmart. In three short pages, Cantor establishes back story, theme, tone, and literary self-consciousness (a telegram in contemporary fiction?). She also gets her story rolling, though not in the direction one might think, in one more harbinger of the delights of this wonderful read.
The telegram is from Nobel prize-winning Romanian-Italian poet Romei, who wants Shira to translate his new book, “Vita Nuova,’’ which is modeled on Dante’s poem of the same name, which Shira, now 44, had translated years ago in graduate school. Lo and behold, Shira has what she is looking for — “The New Life, it was about to begin!” — except it is only the end of the third chapter, so complications must ensue.
What follows is an intertextual Nabokovian romp that weaves together Shira’s tragicomic life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; the original “La Vita Nuova,’’ a collection of poems and commentary that tell the tale of Dante’s idealized love for Beatrice; Romei’s “Vita Nuova,’’ a collection of poems that narrate his far-from-ideal love story with American translator Esther; the biblical Song of Songs, the sensually embodied antithesis of Dante’s spiritual love; and a dash of post-Holocaust poet and translator Paul Celan, who interrogates the very possibility of language.
If this sounds frighteningly forbidding, rest assured that it’s not. For one thing, “Good on Paper’’ is flat-out funny, from Shira’s seven-year-old daughter Andi and her best friends — a stuffed Tinky Winky with many needs; Pammy, the domineering girl upstairs; and the imaginary Ovidio, who suffers travails worthy of his Latinate namesake — to People of the Book, the old-school neighborhood bookstore, which features shelves with odd, unidentified themes (“books about motherhood and Jimmy Hoffa. Labor? Going into Labor? Labor Day!”), waifish clerks, and rabbi-cum-literary-magazine-editor-cum-proprietor Benny, with whom Shira embarks on an erratically evolving romance.
But “Good on Paper’’ also takes its big questions seriously, asking whether change, love, and translation are even possible. Benny is as flawed and insightful as he is ridiculous, still stuck, in middle age, with the need to prove himself to his father and fully aware of the limitations of his revolving-door romances with his clerks. He is a fitting foil for Shira, veteran of a largely fantasized long-time affair with a high school classmate and a dead suburban marriage to a bore, haunted by the disappearance of her mother, and facing the dissolution of her platonic relationship with Ahmad, who has grounded her life since she became pregnant with Andi and is planning his own fresh start in another state.
Meanwhile, Dante dreams of Beatrice; Romei pursues Esther; and language may or may not have meaning in the dueling versions of “La Vita Nuova.’’ Benny tells Shira that in the Torah “one story comments on another, all occur simultaneously. Everything is connected,” and so it is in “Good on Paper.’’ Reinforcing these connections and the novel’s Talmudic emphasis on exegesis, Dante and Romei’s poems never appear directly, but are recounted by Shira as she struggles with the questions they raise about language, love, loss, and deception.
Shira also relays the tricks of translation and its perils — false friends, paranomasia, syllepses: tricks of language that can trip up translators, but also produce meaning — for “Good on Paper’’ is also a novel of work, referencing not just translation, but Shira’s temp jobs, Romei’s poetic practice, Benny’s bookstore management and itinerant rabbi-ing, even Shira’s friend Jeanette’s real estate business.
In the end, the book asks, what is life but family, love, work (which can also be art), and the language and stories through which we conduct them, which bind them and us together? And if we really want to change, to create a new life, we must at least confront — if not transform — all of those things, as Shira and her friends and family struggle to do.
It is not often that a novel comes along that is laugh-out-loud hilarious and thought-provokingly philosophical. “Good on Paper’’ is both.
GOOD ON PAPER
By Rachel Cantor
Melville House, 299 pp., $25.95Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.