The Puttermesser Papers: A Novel
With dashing originality and in prose that sings like an entire choir of sirens, Cynthia Ozick relates the life and times of her most compelling fictional creation. Ruth Puttermesser lives in New York City. Her learning is monumental. Her love life is minimal (she prefers pouring through Plato to romping with married Morris Rappoport). And her fantasies have a disconcerting tendency to come true—with disastrous consequences for what we laughably call “reality.”
Puttermesser yearns for a daughter and promptly creates one, unassisted, in the form of the first recorded female golem. Laboring in the dusty crevices of the civil service, she dreams of reforming the city - and manages to get herself elected mayor. Puttermesser contemplates the afterlife and is hurtled into it headlong, only to discover that a paradise found is also paradise lost. Overflowing with ideas, lambent with wit, The Puttermesser Papers is a tour de force by one of our most visionary novelists.
Fans of Cynthia Ozick are likely already familiar with Ruth Puttermesser, whose highly educated, unlucky-in-love but rather mystical existence as a Jewish woman in New York City has been chronicled in previously published stories appearing occasionally through the years. The Puttermesser Papers collects the old stories, along with several new ones, combined to create a funny and surreal picaresque narrative, touching upon Puttermesser’s job at a blueblood law firm, her creation and intellectual sparring with the golem she makes out of soil from her flowerpots, her term as mayor of New York, her own death by murder, and beyond.
New York writer and critic Cynthia Ozick was shortlisted for the 1997 National Book Award (the American Booker Prize) with this novel. In it, she creates her most compelling fictional character yet—Ruth Puttermesser—a name fittingly ridiculous (it means “butter knife” in German) for such a monumental perfectionist. Ruth is obsessed with learning, and afraid of love; she is the token Jewish female in a top-notch Manhattan law firm, where Jews never get to be made partners no matter how hard they practise their squash strokes. But Ozick turns Ruth’s story into a resonant parable that has no room for social realism. When Ruth’s career takes a downslide, her fantasy life takes an upturn. She yearns for a daughter, and creates the first recorded female golem. Together they campaign to make Ruth mayor, and then create an Eden out of corrupt and filthy New York. But the dream turns sour when the golem turns against her mistress displaying the voracious need for sex and power that Ruth so assiduously suppresses. Ozick’s cerebral, comic narration subtly offsets the fantastic events she describes. And despite Ruth’s need for life to resemble Platonic ideals, her humanity is stamped on every page. —Lilian Pizzichini