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Total Immersion: An Interview with Allegra Goodman
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Since her stories about Hawaiian Jews, self-absorbed academics, and three generations of the Markowitz clan began appearing in The New Yorker and Commentary in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Allegra Goodman has been known for her rich and vibrant characters, whose often discordant voices create a choral effect as she moves seamlessly from one point of view to the next. In Goodman’s hands, a lanai-turned-Hawaiian synagogue or a Hasidic rabbi’s book-lined study—places that might seem exotic and esoteric to most—become intimate and familiar. To read the work of Allegra Goodman is to become totally immersed in a fictional world where quirkiness and closely observed details forge pathways to spiritual discovery and Austenian universal truths.

A literary wunderkind who grew up in Hawaii and attended college at Harvard, Goodman began publishing fiction as a teenager. Her first published short story, “Variant Text” (1986), appeared in Commentary when she was seventeen. The story collection Total Immersion was published in 1989 on the day she graduated from college with degrees in English and philosophy. Goodman went on to publish her short story cycle The Family Markowitz (1996) while pursuing a PhD in English at Stanford. Her breakout novel, Kaaterskill Falls, about an Orthodox Jewish community summering in the Catskills, appeared in 1998. A finalist for the National Book Award, Kaaterskill Falls was widely viewed as heralding a Jewish American literary revival, and Goodman became the poster child for a still-growing group of post-assimilationist writers who tackle the topics of spirituality and religious observance head on, while finding fertile sources in Yiddish storytelling and Hebrew liturgy.

Since Kaaterskill Falls, Goodman’s diverse body of work has allowed her to probe recurring motifs from different angles. Paradise Park (2001) follows its free-spirited heroine Sharon Spiegelman on a personal quest for spiritual enlightenment. Intuition (2006) dissects the high-stakes world of biomedical research, where the quest is for federal funding and a cure for cancer. The Other Side of the Island (2008), a dystopian coming-of-age novel for young adults, imagines a future of ecological disaster and stultifying social conformity. Most recently, The Cookbook Collector (2010) traces the rise and decline of the nation (Edward Gibbons’s monumental history of the Roman Empire is referenced early on), from the heights of the dot-com boom to the fall of the Twin Towers and the sobering aftermath of 9/11. As she discusses in this interview, Goodman’s fascination with ritual animates and unifies her disparate narratives. Her work raises penetrating questions about the supposed divide between the sacred and the secular, as when an atheistic scientist pursues research with religious zeal, or a Hasidic rabbi puts his faith in the stock market.

Earlier in her career Goodman was most often compared to Philip Roth, yet beginning with Kaaterskill Falls, her satire-tinged explorations of social and familial relations have led her to be labeled the “Jewish Jane Austen.” Intuition, although it is about the perils of scientific investigation in a time when all truth is relative, resonates with Austen’s Persuasion (1818). The Cookbook Collector, the story of Emily and Jess Bach, two sisters with opposing dispositions, is Sense and Sensibility (1811) set in the digital age. While Goodman claims Tolstoy as a more apt model for her assemblages of characters, her updating of Austen for a postmodern era creates unexpected collisions between the traditional and the contemporary.

Goodman attributes her unique perspective to her Hawaiian upbringing. A white Jew in racially diverse Hawaii, she was, in island parlance, a haole, the Hawaiian term for outsider or interloper that is used as a label for Caucasians. This unusual minority positioning informs her fiction and gives her an insider/outsider perspective on the larger American Jewish community. As a child, she was educated at Punahou School in Honolulu, the elite prep school that Barack Obama also attended. In an essay published in The New Republic in 2008, during Obama’s historic presidential campaign, Goodman reflected on the lessons learned from growing up in this multiracial environment: “To envision a world where racial identity is more fluid, where men and women are more mobile, and...

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