In England, where I live, temperatures rose over 100 degrees last week – a record. Fires raged across the country, roads and train tracks swerved in the heat, and even climate scientists were dumbfounded. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, so many contemporary narratives attempt to tackle climate change – whether it is portrayed as a problem that needs solving or one we have failed to solve, leading us into a post-apocalyptic (“cli-fi”) future. In just the past two years, we’ve had Ali Smith’s “Summer,” “The Weather” by Jenny Ophel, “High House” by Jesse Greengrass, and “Something New Under the Sun” by Alexandra Kleiman, among others, underlining the urgency of the situation.
Brett Ashley Kaplan’s book Rare Objects itself enters into this literary conversation about our environmental crisis, but just calling the novel environmental fiction won’t do it justice. This novel has a little bit of everything, including, but not limited to, Appeal for the Planet: a mystery that takes readers, along with its protagonists, from Chicago to New York to Boston to Quebec City to the world at the bottom of an ocean; Yiddish-speaking whales (also at least one shark); wicked clown clowns and hairy wild escape; poem of interracial love; and linking them together, which is a message we can all do better.
The novel begins with the main character Syed, a young Jewish photographer in an on-and-off relationship with a mixed-race Jewish man from Guadeloupe, where she has lost her father. To launch us into the adventure that the novel has become, Kaplan discovers a bag master full of clues that her deceased father left behind – one red high-heeled shoe, a pair of blue baby gloves, a portrait of a man wearing a fedora, a small metal figurine of a reclining woman, a sandpaper weight, and a paper bag of wax and other things.
But where will these clues lead? Will they help Syed solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance decades ago? Do you understand her father? itself? Climate change?
Always keeping us on our toes, the narration moves from a first-person perspective, allowing us to hear not only Sid’s voice, but also the voice of her friend, Andrei, the academic; her father, Aaron (we are privy to the incomplete manuscript of his book where Yiddish-speaking whales reside); and her mother, Dorothy (also through her writing). There are also interviews, poems, book reviews, and letters woven brilliantly into this already colorful tapestry. However, the novel is by no means confusing. Conversely, the questions posed in one section may be answered in another, and the pace of narration is fast.
Rare Things characters are not deeply developed, but each person has their own rich history and collectively adds to the picture of bonding. We get glimpses of aristocratic Austrian Jewish life before the war, as well as clandestine Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition and settled in the Caribbean. We meet couples of different races, such as Syed and Andrei; They are the subject of the photography project Sid. We read about Jewish whalers in 19th century New England and Jack Johnson, a black heavyweight champion who, in a novel within a novel, is given a happier ending than was allowed for the historical character. We read about dark times and places: The Eagle’s Nest (Hitler’s Sanctuary), the looting of Jewish art in the Holocaust, the murder of Eric Garner (although it happened in another place and time).
Implicitly, we are asked to think about the genocide of the Jews alongside the extinction of species, and what the loss of these species could mean.
We even got to know some whales who, we’re told, speak Yiddish since they decided to learn a human language at the turn of the 20th century when it was a transnational language spoken by millions, and thus seemed a good option. Who knew that Yiddish speakers — and Yiddish itself — would be rare by the end of the century? Implicitly, we are asked to think about the genocide of the Jews alongside the extinction of species, and what the loss of these species could mean.
However, these serious points are often hidden in humor. One whale explains, “We sent messages saying things like ‘Save the Humans’ and ‘Save the Planet,'” but then something got lost in translation and we heard reports from the surface that the fender stickers on your cars (thankfully no longer fueled by whale oil) are getting worse. “Save the whales,” he said. Kaplan’s wise but misunderstood creatures remember the dolphins in a classic comic series similar to Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” As evidenced by the title of the fourth novel in the Adams series—“So Long, Thanks to All the Fish”—the dolphins have been warning humans of Their need to escape from a planet doomed to failure.Unfortunately, humans misinterpreted the message, believing that dolphins were singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Kaplan whales, like Adams’ dolphins, know (and act upon) what humans have consistently failed to truly understand. : Earth is in trouble.
If you look up Brett Ashley Kaplan, the literature professor for whom Rare Stuff is a fictional beginning, you probably won’t be surprised to see that she has written a book on Philip Roth. After all, in addition to references to many other American novelists, poets, and filmmakers (Herman Melville, Henry James, Ezra Pound, Toni Morrison, Woody Allen), we find many of Roth’s recurring characters making cameos in Kaplan’s book. For example, David Kibisch (from “The Dying Animal” among other titles of Ruth) appears here, interviewing Syed’s father, a novelist named Aaron Zimmerman, who is similar to Ruth’s Ruth Nathan Zuckerman (who is similar to Ruth). But most importantly, Ruthian fun abounds in this novel, which makes Rare Things, despite its dire warnings to humanity, a joy to read.
Karen E.H. Skinazi, Ph.D., He is Senior Lecturer and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol (UK) and author Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Warriors, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.