Chiasmi and Comfort Zones: Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor
In the opening section of Good on Paper, the protagonist, Shira, receives a mysterious fax. She anxiously assumes it is from her estranged mother (“Damn it, I thought. Thirty-five years in and still you do this to me?”) but then it turns out to be a once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity to translate a Nobel Prize-winning poet’s upcoming release. She crumples it up into a ball and throws it on the floor, thus establishing Shira’s near-debilitating fear of change and abandonment. In defending her refusal to believe this opportunity as valid, readers see the emotional prism through which Shira views the world: People don’t change, and Shira doesn’t want change, even with this glorious “door number two” opening right before her. This attitude effects all of her relationships and emotional reactions, especially when she finds herself being pushed through door number two.
Since dropping out of her PhD program, where Shira studied Dante’s La Vita Nuova, she skipped around from temp job to temp job, living in New York with her daughter Andrea (Andi for short) and Ahmad, a gay professor who serves as a father figure for Andi while also offering a welcoming home for an underemployed single mom. His school pays for the apartment, which is much bigger than it would otherwise be for a single professor: “By Manhattan and possibly other standards, it was enormous: come the revolution, it would be divided among three, if not four, proletariat families.” (Sidenote regarding the occasional apocalyptic references: The story takes place in the year 1999, and aside from faxes serving as plot points, there’s a nice, pervasive note of paranoia sung throughout by those certain that Y2K will bring the apocalypse. This paranoia fits in seamlessly, providing a general fear of change as backdrop.)
Shira calls their luxurious apartment “the Den of Propinquity” — “joking, because the place was large, not joking, because some days it seemed hardly large enough.” It’s clear that despite its size, she still struggles with the forced intimacy: At times, she threatens to move on from Ahmad’s, though she prevents herself from having the means to do so by job-hopping and not buying household goods.
“I’ve never invested much in things: any day, or so the theory went, we might move on.”
It’s a unique domestic setting with inevitably awkward dynamics, particularly with regard to Ahmad’s relationship with Andi and his tenuous status as a part of their family. The awkwardness of his more than avuncular relationship is only exacerbated by Shira’s fear of change, as she, given her abandonment complex, finds his undefined support perfect for her prolonged mid-life stasis. Following that, when she starts to translate the poet’s work, her life increasingly revolves around her simple comforts; she turns to a doll kept in Ahmad’s study that she talks to in trying times, and spends increasingly more time at her neighborhood standbys.
There’s Cuppa Joe’s, where she downs half-caffs, nods to the regulars, and replays her favorite lines with the local panhandler (“Can I offer you some change? … No, thanks, I’m fine the way I am.”). There’s Cohn’s Cones, where she takes Andi and they take turns thinking of Cohn’s Cones koans; and then there’s People of the Book, the local bookshop, where she hates the unstable young female clerks but enjoys the company of Benny Jablonsky, the owner of the store and an old, rabbinic literary friend. Shira visits these spots constantly while treading through the middle of her translation project. The poet’s new work is an updated version of Dante’s La Vita Nuova, centered on the autobiographical narrator’s obsessive love, Esther, who is now hospitalized (which is based on Dante’s intense obsession with Beatrice, established in Nuova).
But as Romei, the poet, sends her new portions of the epic poem, thickly stacked parallels between Dante, Romei, and Shira quickly amass. For example, when discussing Dante’s obsession in the original, Shira points out to Romei that Dante intentionally maintains a distance with Beatrice so that she can remain an untested ideal: “Beatrice isn’t real, so she doesn’t have to change. An idea can be perfect forever.” This line comes to mind again when Shira mentions that she never sought out details regarding her mother’s strange departure during her childhood — her mother remains an idea to her, an idea that can be whatever she needs it to be at a given moment. The parallels, brilliant in their subtlety and orchestration, cover a wide range in emotional and literary depth, and sometimes the overlap goes beyond those three as Cantor shows great control in her ability to create relatable characters.
However, Shira’s own personal relationships strain under the weight of her rediscovered if still erratic professional obsession; as a result, it strains her own absolute desire to not become too involved in anything, or with anyone except Andi. She is often very loyal to her fears, then overcompensates for her misplaced loyalties in hindsight. Yet she maintains a good sense of humor throughout. In other words, she’s an impeccably funny, down to earth, realistic narrator. And in documenting her struggles, Cantor finds a charming way to portray the character’s ability to engage in high-brow intellectualism — chiasmus, as a word itself as well as a poetic device, is casually used maybe a dozen times — using her exceeding talent to create a genuine, low-brow character in Shira. Perhaps nothing makes this more evident than the cultural crossroads depicted when Shira, rummaging through old boxes, looking for her copy of La Vita Nuova, comes across an old Tinky Winky toy sitting on top of a stack of Italian dictionaries —
“Are you in exile again? Just like Dante!”
This is hardly a throwaway bit, as Shira’s own self-imposed exile of sorts parallels not only Dante’s and Tinky Winky’s, but also Ahmad’s complex personal history as well as her mysterious mother’s. Cantor combines a detailed web of characters with her humor, carefully arranging the emotionally impactful moments as well as the wordplay and comical sense of domesticity. Dante and Tinky Winky may still be in exile, but by combining their forces, Cantor pulls off a well balanced and entertaining novel.