Books: Parlour games with the mayor's monster

Sylvia Brownrigg watches the worlds of Woody Allen and ancient myth collide in a fairy-tale of New York; The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick Jonathan Cape, pounds 10, 236pp
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS more to Ruth Puttermesser than first impressions suggest. Cynthia Ozick opens her picaresque biography with a pointed account of her fictional subject's fraught employment in a blue-blooded law firm, where she is faced by two challenges: anti-Semitism, and her mother's desire that she find someone to marry. Ozick seems to be leading us into a familiar New York Jewish fictional territory, populated by vibrant characters such as Ruth's great-uncle Zindel, who "died with thorny English a wilderness between his gums". He is teaching the eager Puttermesser Hebrew.

But in fact he isn't. Zindel is Puttermesser's wistful recreation of a relative she never knew. When Ozick reveals this, at the first chapter's close, we realise the metafictional fun is just beginning. What follows are four playful episodes in the life of the ambitious but unassuming Puttermesser, part Zelig, part Lilith, and (in her fondest fantasy) part George Eliot, a brainy polymath looking for her own G H Lewes with whom to lounge in her cramped Upper East side apartment.

The novel's lengthy second chapter takes Ozick's heroine on her wildest journey. Frustrated both by the deterioration of city life and by her married lover, Rappoport, who leaves her after she insists one night on finishing Plato's Theaetetus before making love, the childless Puttermesser fashions a golem out of the earth in her houseplants. The golem, called Xanthippe, inspires her to leave a dreary civil-service job and run for Mayor. In the way of fables, she gains office, and launches a glorious period in New York's history. Civility and education flourish, and crime and corruption are banished.

Puttermesser does not initially understand that she herself is the author of Xanthippe (she fears the dusty girl she finds in her bed is a vagrant). Her researches help familiarise the reader with the traditions of the golem story, one of which is that the magical creature will continue to grow and that, though intended to do good, it will need to be destroyed.

So it is with Xanthippe: the growing girl's sexual appetite wreaks havoc on the Puttermesser administration and she has to perform an ancient rite to turn Xanthippe back to dust.

The difficulty with this story's structure is that its circularity threatens to render the entire tale redundant. What is accomplished, dramatically, by allowing Puttermesser to become an impossibly great mayor, before becoming an impossibly disastrous mayor, and eventually returning to unemployment? The descriptions of New York as paradise seem thin, as if Ozick is more in love with her conceit than its execution. The golem story is amusing and imaginitive, but in no way advances Puttermesser as a character, or the novel.

This structure recurs, until one concludes that the last chapter's epigraph, from the Song of Paradise - "Knit and unravel/commands the Gavel./ Do and undo/until nothing's true" - could well serve for the book entire.

Ozick richly lines her fiction with erudition as she canvasses ideas of creation and destruction, imitation and authenticity. But her supple wit and prose enable her to wear her learning lightly, and she keeps the tone generally buoyant. Yet the novel's unexpectedly violent ending leaves the reader with a question about Ozick that earlier applied to Puttermesser and her golem. Why go to the trouble of inventing such a benign and appealing figure, only to wreck it so brutally in the end?