New Fiction

Finds and flops
More

One bizarre outgrowth of American democracy is that snobbery afflicts all social strata equally; a suburban housewife can be more supercilious than any moneyed aristocrat. Joan Silber, whose Ideas of Heaven was short-listed for the National Book Award last year, rivals Sinclair Lewis in her ability to dissect the persistent one-upmanship of life on Main Street. Set in New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s, Silber's 1980 novel Household Words—recently reissued after years out of print—chronicles the domestic travails of Rhoda Taber, a former French teacher who considers herself a cut above the rest. With a nervy bravado, Rhoda, married and the mother of two, lives the American dream while deriding its heartiness, its optimism, its flabbiness. "Rhoda hated all fat things. She would chide loose-fleshed old ladies: you just let yourself go. Of chubby schoolchildren she asked: what does your mother feed you?"

The sudden death of her husband hands Rhoda the perfect opportunity for escape, but she lacks the imagination to seize it, and thus continues to endure the machinations of her sour, impenetrable daughters (whom she finds "not enjoyable children in general") and her father's unintelligible pornographic fantasies, delivered in Yiddish. Household Words is a cult classic among fiction writers, perhaps because Silber rigorously examines her character's pinched and often unpleasant perspective with a near monastic purity. Rhoda's myopia permeates every corner of the novel (one family, we're told, keeps pets "in their permissive Gentile way"), and Silber never indulges in an ironic aside or the soaring lyricism John Updike permitted himself when depicting the similarly parochial Harry Angstrom. Although her refusal to compromise sometimes bears a faint whiff of castor oil, Silber achieves a frighteningly vivid portrait of smug, middle-class provincialism. Household Words is a virtuoso performance: meticulously crafted, unflinching, and ultimately dazzling.

Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In