Another delightful novel set in academia arrives—or at least arrives in my consciousness, as it was published 25 years ago. This time she’s an American, and she wrote The Mind-Body Problem, which reminds me of Posession and Mating. Rebecca Goldstein’s novel is narrated by Renee Feuer, a lapsed Orthodox Jew who discovered—or gained the freedom to discover—sex in college, and she mastered a body of knowledge that complements her already vast but not overwhelming intellect. Don’t groan from fear that The Mind-Body Problem is another bildungsroman: the story proper occurs after that growth spurt, when Renee is trying to navigate the world of adult relationships.
Hers is particularly unusual, given that she’s found a math genius who she loves despite his genius, though the genius attracts her initially. The situation isn’t as confusing as the previous sentence makes it sound, as the lucid narrative flows with smooth control. More importantly, I laughed constantly while reading The Mind Body Problem. The comedy didn’t flag during the marginally more serious points. Humor isn’t easy to explain, although trying to resolve the paradox of bodily lust and mental philosophy does make for a good set up that could also have a heavier treatment, like Narcissus and Goldmund.
The novel starts with a brief mediation on Himmel, brilliant if socially awkward mathematician, and then looks back to see how Renee developed from Orthodox girl to less-than-Orthodox woman, her present vantage a view of the devout through the eyes of the fallen without making caricatures of the devout. The Jewish tinge is reminiscent of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, since both concern the efforts of Orthodox Jews to integrate into and reconcile with the majority society. The struggle for reconciliation in those novels is much stronger than in The Mind-Body Problem, particularly given the pool Renee swims in, where the majority society becomes the minority: “At Columbia even the non-Jews had seemed Jewish.” That contrasts, though, with her home with Himmel: “There were Jews at Princeton, of course, but nobody seemed Jewish” (italics in original). Observations like these, politically incorrect though some are, form the realistic and shrewdly aware narrative voice. That and Renee’s recursive knowledge of herself make her, if not precisely a happy woman, at least content with her intelligence, but not always the way it is applied.
Though The Mind-Body Problem focuses on Judaism, some of Renee’s problem could easily be transported to other kinds of Others, as when she has an affair with a college professor who had never before had a Jewish lover and lamented that he hadn’t: “It was as if someone who professed a great love and knowledge of wines told me he had just sampled a Bordeaux for the first time and thought these wines merited further investigation.” And that’s toward the end, when too many funny novels have lost their spunk in their efforts to finish the plot. Sometimes that’s okay—as in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, where the schmaltz floodgates open at the end—but more often you wish for more of the beginning. But The Mind-Body Problem never loses its focus.
Renee’s awareness helps. When another professorial relationship—see a pattern?—has Renee as an accessory to his midlife crisis, she sees him playing out his own family pattern by having “[a] son and daughter pursuing their adolescent rebellion with the same uninspired conformity to the norm as their father was demonstrating in response his own life change.” Mythic patterns that hold over the course of time aren’t of much interest to Renee, though she lives one too. But Goldstein doesn’t need explicitly mythological constructs to perceive how her characters are operating in their society, much as she doesn’t need a somber tone to explore the issues that make her characters tick.
Again like High Fidelity, the humor makes a deeper point: that we are creatures of the flesh, and we neglect either the abstract power of the mind or the body at our own peril. In addition, we have to accept that we are creatures with needs that need to be fulfilled even while we need to be cognizant of the needs of others, who in turn need to be aware of our needs. Does that sound recursive and, as with so many valuable points in literature, like a balancing test? It is, and the people I consider wisest realize this, and the hilarity in serious subjects like how to experience the pleasures of mind and body without leaving either behind.