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Inherited Neuroses

Ilana Masad
May 16, 2016

by Ilana Masad

Discussed in this essay: Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables, and Problems, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs. Regan Arts, 2016, 272 pages.

FATHER-AND-SONEVEN IF YOU didn’t assume that Adam Ehrlich Sachs is Jewish (and, I confess, I didn’t, and I still don’t know for certain, although his famous economist father, Jeffrey Sachs, is filed under “American Jews” on Wikipedia), there is something about his new book, Inherited Disorders, that feels incredibly Jewish. It isn’t overt — though there are many Jewish-sounding names, as well as quite a few characters who are referenced as Jewish — but there are underlying neuroses that feel like bad Jewish jokes (which are also, in my experience, the best Jewish jokes), and a kind of prevailing sense of “oy vey” to the entire thing.

The book, as its subtitle indicates, is a set of stories, varying in length from a paragraph or three to several pages at the longest, and they all tend to tell the same few stories in different configurations. There is always at least one son and always at least one father, and there is either perfect agreement or perfect discord between them. Each story revolves obsessively around the father-son relationship and the way a son will or won’t inherit the skills, illnesses, talents, or woes of the father.

In one story, three professionally athletic men — a mountaineer, a sea kayaker, and a skydiver — all died trying to achieve their greatest goal (a climb, a sea journey, a skydive), which their sons then feel obligated to attain, even though each hates the activity in which his father was involved, and even though others assure them that they needn’t complete these final goals. It is an innate feeling they have, one that they know is ridiculous but that isn’t less true for that. Another man introduces the three sons to one another, and they all agree that they will each complete the task of one another’s fathers, thus fulfilling their obligations but not needing to take the same journey their fathers took. The punchline to this story is that the mutual friend who introduced them “has taken pride in orchestrating all this. His father was also known as a great connector of people and facilitator of conversations who was always putting interesting people in a room together.” In other words, this mutual friend is the only one who truly does take after his father.

The stories parody themselves at times, or describe what they’re doing within the setting of a particular story. In “The Stipulation,” for instance, a famous performer requests that his father be kept between thirty and 300 feet from him at all times, and that he also mustn’t remain stationary but rather be moved about within that range. The narrator of the stories — who begins to crop up more and more often as the book proceeds, making it seem as if Adam Sachs is coming out of the woodwork as an observer of sorts — says that “Men — at least in the comment threads I have seen — have been largely sympathetic, many noting their own shattering realization as adults that they could exist neither near nor far from their fathers and would spend the rest of their lives moving cyclically towards and away from them...” This seems to be exactly what the narrator is trying to do in all these stories: looking for the ideal distance between sons and fathers.

Although most of the book isn’t political, it does foray into some issues and acknowledges how the conceit of the stories could be read as such. A startlingly funny example is in a story called “Peace Plan,” in which the “insane son of the Israeli prime minister and the insane son of the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization [...] have agreed on a peace plan for the Middle East.” A story like this, in which these men spend shake hands and recite the “demented terms” of their plan, makes one think of the old idea about insane asylums wherein perhaps it is those inside who are sane and everyone else who isn’t. In a way, the book is asking that same question: Is its obsession sane and are we, the readers, the ones who are delusional in thinking that the fathers and sons who morph into one another, have one another’s decapitated heads, or place huge responsibilities on one another through generations, are preposterous?

Sachs takes the theme he plays with and pushes it to an extreme, making the repetition part of his gleeful game. The book isn’t boring for this repetition, not at all. It is heavy-handed, but quite purposefully and inescapably so. After all, there’s nothing boring about anxiety when you’re in it, and this is something Sachs manages to simulate and raise in the reader: the agonizing worry and anxiety about how much one is like one’s parent and how much one is like oneself, and whether the latter is at all possible.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel and now lives in New York.