A review of The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
I’ve long been a reader of literary fiction, and had it in mind that I would be a natural as a writer because of it. I was wrong. You learn a lot by reading, obviously, and it’s certainly true that writing will come easier if your reading has been wide and deep. But that’s really not enough. You have to study the craft. So, after years (and years and years) of reading, I began to study craft. That is, I not only read for content and appreciation of the writing, but for the craftsmanship as well. It entails putting myself in the mind of the author, as best I can, to think through with him the plot arc, characterization, point(s) of view, structure, and a host of other considerations that may not be obvious until you sit down to write something yourself.
That brings me to The Chosen. In some ways, the author’s choices are simple ones. There is one point of view throughout, and it’s written in the first person. The narrative is straightforward and it unfolds in proportional time. While the subjects the characters engage in are sometimes esoteric and potentially elusive, the primary plot arc is not. All of that is fine; simple is better than complex. Complicated or experimental or mind-twisting techniques for writing novels are fine and good, but only if they particularly serve the author’s literary purposes.
I don’t praise the simplicity of Potok’s presentation just because it’s simple. I praise it because he succeeds with very straightforward story-telling to build and maintain tension. Your interest will probably attach early and strong even though the conflicts to be resolved are the kinds of conflicts that everyone faces in life. Potok is such a strong writer that he can hold your attention to the drama of an adolescent baseball game for the first 25 pages or so, without your even knowing why it’s going to matter.
And then, an early issue arising out of that game is resolved and we find that the game and the issue (I’m purposely being spoiler-sensitive) turn out to only serve as a gateway to a friendship that will then be the center of plot developments for the rest of the book. It takes real skill to write about subjects that are so universal that they’re the kind of things that happen in any person’s life. The dramas you encounter in your own life are not less significant than those in The Chosen, and yet you will find yourself glued. This is not one of those books that seems ordinary; that seems to go nowhere, such that you’re tempted to cut your losses and toss it back in the return-to-library pile unfinished.
The Chosen provides a window into Jewish practices and values, at least in New York in mid-20th-century. One of the two friends at the center of the novel is a Hasidic Jew. The separateness of that group lends an aura of mystery, if you’re not one of them, and especially if, like me, you’re not even Jewish. With its time and place setting, The Chosen illuminates attitudes of different Jewish factions in light of the holocaust, Zionism, Jewish tradition and history, and cultural values like academic excellence.
If you haven’t already read The Chosen, get it and read it. I recommend it. You’re welcome in advance.