CELEBRITY BOOK REVIEW: Martin Amis on Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron

by Courtney Maum

The Book of Aron

Editor’s note: Any resemblances to actual celebrities — alive or dead — are miraculously coincidental. Celebrity voices channeled by Courtney Maum.

I have heard tell that Jim Shepard is the greatest living short story writer in the United States. Given the uncommon amount of print and airtime afforded him, I’d been operating under the impression that this particular honor was the burden of David R. Sedaris. Either I was misinformed (unlikely, as I don’t frequent the ignorami), or Mr. Sedaris is dead. In either case, Jim Shepard’s name comes with some renown. It is for this reason that I deigned to salvage his particular manuscript (the just-out “The Book of Aron”) from the pyre of Holocaust literature that gathers on my key table since I published “The Zone of Interest” in the fall of 2014.

There is a particular perversion among writers who eschew adverbs — such literary minimalism always makes me think of those ductile South Indian beggars who don’t have body fat. I’ve never had the occasion to converse with this Jim Shepard, but I imagine he is the type of man who doesn’t own a lot of clothes. I also surmise that he traversed what was either a very rich or very troubling coming-of-age period as he frequently adopts the first person point of view of pre-adolescent brutes.

No matter — a paucity of adverbs and adjectives, first person narrators who aren’t grown — not everyone can have the breadth of mind necessary to pen a three-hundred page tragicomedy between two Nazi officers, a death camp prisoner, and an SS commandant’s wife.

Listen — I’ve heard all about the new attention span so I know no one is actually reading this online. It’s something that happens when one moves to Brooklyn — one starts to blog. I would not even be writing this if I weren’t trying to get away from the near planetary responsibility of having six offspring.

In any case: review. Jim Shepard’s writing makes me sick. Yes — physically ill. To see him accomplish in a ten-word sentence what I budget a paragraph for is belletristic S&M. So compelling, so convincing, so utterly space-taking is his voice that it only took three pages for me to move my ego to a corner with a little cap. Rather incredulously, given the schlock of filth that’s come my recent way, I took an immense pleasure in the reading of this accomplished book.

By way of summary (which you could easily outfit via a “hyperlink”, but extraneous typing is judicious as I get seven dollars a word), “The Book of Aron” tells the story of the young, eponymous Aron who is forced to relocate into the Warsaw ghetto with his family from the Polish countryside during the German occupation. Already something of a disappointment to his persevering parents, Aron begins to both sustain and endanger them by trafficking contraband with a band of feral fighters. Now, this is the Holocaust. Most of these children end up dead. Aron’s chances at survival, however, will eventually be bolstered by the efforts of a certain Janusz Korczak who was a celebrated children’s rights advocate before fate (and irony, n’est-ce pas?) made him the warden of a Warsaw orphanage in 1940.

I’ve become somewhat bedeviled by this Shepard, and begun to read his press. I hope Shepard doesn’t indulge in this same rabbit holing brummagem because what I found available is both preposterous and inane. He’s heralded — yes, heralded, I tell you — as the greatest living writer you’ve never heard of. In one instance, his lack of financial acumen was chalked up to the misfortune of his not being me. When was it, exactly, that journalists ceased all attempts to write?

Let us go then, as it were, into the good night of Shepard’s newest novel. Let us serve up several examples of his art for the buffoons who “haven’t heard” of him. On page 180 of the hardcover (which is the only thing now out), we have the sniveling, two-faced Lejkin, head of the Jewish police, who has been blackmailing the small Aron for some time:

He followed me out onto the sidewalk. It had begun to snow and he pulled up his collar and then pulled up mine. Then he cleaned off his seat and got on his bicycle and rode away. Because of the snow it slipped and slid all over on the cobblestones and he had to put his foot out every so often for balance.

Name me a writer who would have thought to add the gesture of Lejkin adjusting his prey’s collar, or to illustrate duplicity with a bicycle slipping about the street. Richard Bausch? Perhaps, fine. Now name me an author who could have done this in sixty-three words.

And here again, on page 190, near the end of the book and thus of these Jewish lives, Korczak enlists the young orphans to write outside the ghetto for help:

He said to write that peaceably they run around and play, these children who so recently arrived wounded, frozen, abused, hungry, and hunted. Some of the kids asked how to spell peaceably and he told them it didn’t matter. He said to write that there was no food for them and a lot of the smaller children had stopped growing.

Stopped growing. This detail actually — quite actually — took my breath away. For I have six children, as I have mentioned, and have watched my various wives and mistresses distress over the way in which they do or do not grow. For a child to stop growing…it means everything, you see? In another scene, a visitor shows up with something more precious than bread, even: tablets of Vitamin C. In my latest book, (“The Zone of Interest”, which I repeat the title of solely for the benefit of your dulled attention spans) I focused on the periphery of dying bodies: in particular, the smells. Jim Shepard focuses on the innards, the softening muscles, the metabolic faults.

Janusz Korczak, by the way, might just be the most tremendous man you’ve never heard of, too. He actually did all of the things Shepard accords him in this, his eleventh book. In addition to refusing freedom in order to stay with his young charges, Korczak was hailed for creating the first bill of children’s rights.

Listen in once more: I am not a “fun” man. I am not “carefree”. But having children run about, careening, as it were — it causes even a stern man to have lighter thoughts. I cannot — it would be somewhat antagonistic of me to not divulge that this great book, did indeed, cause me to cry. Friends, fans, my enemies, I am sixty-five. The author of over twenty books to date. An expatriate, to date. A homeowner in Brooklyn, so help me, potential God. I am not, as has been suggested, exempt from being moved. In the end of “The Book of Aron”, Korczak whispers into Aron’s terrified ear his childrens’ bill of rights. After I had composed myself post-reading, I contemplated calling my youngest son to my side to share these rights myself. Contemplated telling him how much it used to please me to see him staring off into the woods, sizing up whether or not he was big enough to climb the alder tree that jutted out of our property in Wales. How much I enjoyed it when he was a child.

But I am not that kind of father, nor that kind of man. And so, by way of altruism, or maybe it’s contrition, I offer those words here:

“The child has the right to respect. The child has the right to develop. The child has the right to be. The child has the right to grieve. The child has the right to learn. And the child has the right to make mistakes.”

About the Author

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