New Fiction

Finds and flops

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.

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Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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