Saturday, April 13, 2013

Embracing Your Inner Deus Ex Machina

by Amy Shearn.
Simon & Shuster
339 pp., $14.99

The god from the machine is a plot device introduced by Greek tragedy.  Many of the plays by Euripides, they say, employed a crane to lower gods, or risers to raise them through trap doors, in order to resolve a plot line.  Aristotle didn’t much care for them. “ [The poet] ought always to seek what is either necessary or probable” in developing a story, he said in his Poetics.  In other words, no cheap devices to bail out the novelist when she has written herself into a corner, as Christopher Hitchens accused J.K. Rowling of doing in Harry Potter. 

The eponymous mermaid in Amy Shearn’s second novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn, released on April 2, 2013, is no cheap trick.  True, there’s a certain mystery in how a Slavic rusalki comes to take up residence in the East River and then the body of a depressed Brooklyn mother of two, whose magazine editor job has evaporated, and whose husband with a gambling problem disappears on the way home from work one night.  Rusalkas, we are told, are “the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be” and the alter ego of Jenny Lipkin, the main character and first person narrator of this delightful novel. 

Nietzsche, who was a student of ancient Greek texts, literature, and language, noted that in Greek tragedy there was always a struggle between the Dionysian (orgiastic, not rational) and the Appollonian (rational).  It was the melding of these opposing elements into a seamless whole that imbued Greek tragedy with its majesty and truth.  And it’s the blending of these two elements in Jenny Lipkin that makes The Mermaid of Brooklyn transcend the ordinary. 

There is no dive-in-the-river-and-break-your-neck tragedy in this book.  The problems are more ordinary, more universal, but no more trivial for all that.  How can we find happiness or satisfaction in this modern, harried world?  How does a marriage survive after a husband goes walkabout for five months on the way to stop for cigarettes, after adultery? Can it?  Turns out a renegade Slavic rusalki and a really great pair of shoes can help.   Who would have thought?  Part tragedy, part romantic comedy, part fairytale, part chick-lit, part Dear Abby, this novel takes a deeply loving look at motherhood, life in the big city, kids, friendship, and love. 

I’ve not met Amy Shearn, except on Facebook, although she’s my wife’s second cousin, once removed.   But I trust her judgment, her sensibility, her Dyonysus and her Appollo.  I’ll follow her wherever she wants to lead us next.

And here, courtesey of my friend Sandy, is Lucia Popp with Song to the Moon from Dvorak's Rusalka


  1. As a dad, I get goose bumps reading any review that includes, my daughter, Amy Shearn and JK Rowling.
    I wonder if the marriage between Jenny and Harry will survive. Or has Jenny learned that she needs Harry while the children are little and she will dump him when he is no longer needed.
    It occurs to me in rereading your review that I am more excited about JK Rowling than Euripides. I guess 30 years in the world of business has just about erased my comp lit degree from Cal.

  2. I enjoyed reading your blog very much AND meeting you last night. Sorry we got separated at the Anne Marie Burgoyne and Tom Shaw Trio concert. It was great fun, wasn't it? And very "inspiring." Albert