Jacob’s Folly, by Rebecca Miller, Canongate, RRP£17.99 / Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$26, 374 pages
The first words of Rebecca Miller’s new novel – “I, the being in question” – propel the reader into a glittering literary cadenza that describes a soul being reborn. That soul belongs to Jacob Cerf, formerly a knife peddler in 18th-century Paris, who is hurtling through time and space to emerge in 21st-century America as what he hopes is an angel but soon realises, ignominy of ignominies, is a common housefly.
Why and how he has been thus transmuted, Jacob will gradually discover. In the meantime, from his new vantage point, Jacob provides us with an insect-eye view of two more wandering souls: Leslie Senzatimore, boatbuilder and compulsive lifesaver, and Masha Edelman, a young Orthodox Jew chafing at the constraints of her religion and culture. What these three lives have to do with one another is one of several pleasing puzzles in this ambitious, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious novel.
In between shoring up the lives of his pot-addled sister, Buddhist stepson and alcoholic parents-in-law, Leslie volunteers as a firefighter, a metaphor for his battle with inner demons, the legacy of finding his father dangling from the rafters in the family garage. Masha, too, is at war with herself: behind the compliant appearance, she yearns to be an actress, a conflict that finds expression in heart pains for which doctors find no explanation. Jacob, hovering over her hospital bed, feels her “ambition ... growing, ineluctable as a healthy foetus, in the womb of her spirit”.
Interwoven with Jacob’s busy life as flying snoop and mind-reader are his memories of Paris more than two centuries earlier, where he ekes out a pitiful living and tries to avoid Hodel, his half-witted 14-year-old wife. When Jacob is unexpectedly plucked from poverty by the Comte de Villars, he finds himself taking part in a social experiment to transform a Jewish infidel into a Christian Frenchman.
As fly or man, Jacob is an engaging narrator, and if the verve of the historical chapters outshines the more plodding modern plot lines, Miller’s eye for detail and pitch-perfect ear for an exquisite turn of phrase are ample compensation. Jacob-the-fly realises he can see into the minds of others “like a hot knife piercing a tub of chicken fat”. When Leslie gets talking to the divorced Deirdre in a car park, “Sexual tension eddied into the ensuing pause like seawater filling a cleft in the sand.”
The comic timing is impeccable. A lady-fly smells to Jacob “delicious – a cocktail of candy, orange juice, and excrement”. Copulation ensues, with the pair “looping randomly through the air like a pricked balloon”.
Miller’s previous novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2008), was about a woman reinventing herself, and the central theme of Jacob’s Folly is transformation, the extent to which we can or can’t shape our lives in ways we choose. Alongside this is the question of how far the external show mirrors the inner self. Masha secretly enrols in a drama school, where she’s given the part of Carol Cutrere, the vulnerable exhibitionist in Tennessee Williams’ play, Orpheus Descending.
Back in 18th-century France, Jacob has ascended from tinker to personal valet to star actor. And Leslie, the big-hearted saviour-of-all-and-sundry, is, in his own way, playing a part too.
Miller’s interest in the world of theatre is unsurprising given that she is the wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis and daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller. Before turning to writing, Miller was herself an actress, and she has continued to work closely with actors as a writer-director.
An abiding concern with identity and self-determination fuels much of her work, on both screen and page. In this book Jacob imagines himself director-cum-puppet-master, pulling the strings of other characters to make them do his bidding. As events unfold he is forced to acknowledge that his control – over his own fate and that of others – is a self-aggrandising illusion. The past must be reckoned with if these characters are to choose the path they want for their future. Whether we can learn from the past or are bound to repeat it is one of the puzzles Miller leaves unanswered, along with that of the precise nature of Jacob’s “folly”.
The novel ends where it began, with that first word, “I”, now absorbed and transfigured into “a mirthful sky”. Jacob’s journey from egocentric start to elemental finish is the one we all make. Between lies the glorious, folly-ridden, unavoidable challenge of being.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)