Holocaust Impiety in Jewish American Literature: Memory, Identity, (Post-) Postmodernism by Joost Krijnen (Review)

By Lang, Jessica | Philip Roth Studies, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Holocaust Impiety in Jewish American Literature: Memory, Identity, (Post-) Postmodernism by Joost Krijnen (Review)


Lang, Jessica, Philip Roth Studies


Four authors are central to Joost Krijnen’s Holocaust Impiety in Jewish American Literature: Memory, Identity, (Post-) Postmodernism. These are: Nicole Krauss; Jonathan Safran Foer; Nathan Englander; and Michael Chabon. The book is divided into three parts, each of which tackles a broad theme, and each of which is further divided into two chapters. The opening chapter of each part focuses on a specific theoretical apparatus and the follow-up chapter applies this apparatus to four specific works written by the novelists listed above. This organizational structure illuminates at least in part the work’s strength and its weakness: its theoretical explorations are ambitious and quite vast while its literary applications and interpretations are more narrowly focused. At times this dialogic model is quite successful—at its best, Holocaust Impiety convincingly lays out, and furthers, scholarship tied to three essential themes of contemporary Holocaust fiction. At times, though, the sheer breadth of what this volume attempts to do overtakes what it actually does.

Part I, focused on memory, acknowledges the work done that addresses the Holocaust in American culture, but suggests that, problematically, Holocaust memory, rather than American memorial culture, informs it. Krijnen works to rectify this imbalance by addressing the idea of “memory travels” and, also, by pushing against more established interpretations and understandings of historical consciousness. He distinguishes between memory that is local and global; memory that is collective as opposed to individual. He furthermore conceives of historical consciousness broadly and inclusively, declaring it conditioned less by discrete cultural qualities and more by its variations across cultures and groups.

The works tied to the memory theme discussed in the second chapter are: Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Krauss’s The History of Love, Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Englander’s short story “The Tumblers.” Krijnen makes one of his most interesting and significant claims of the entire book in this chapter in noting that the “dynamic of distance,” the geographic and temporal space that separates recent Jewish American Holocaust fictions from the historical event of the Holocaust, in fact provides a powerful and enabling connection between the two. Indeed, this idea, convincingly researched and analyzed, has the potential to be a more forceful and sustained guiding impetus for the entire work. In certain ways it functions more effectively than the notion of “Holocaust impiety,” cited in the title and adapted from (and responding to) Gillian Rose’s work on “Holocaust piety” and Matthew Boswell’s Holocaust Impiety in Literature, Popular Music, and Film (2012). Indeed, the terms adapted from other scholarly works that are taken up throughout the volume prove more distracting than illuminating. Krijnen is at his best when he designs his own vehicle for exploration; “dynamic of distance” is one instance of this.

Identity is the theme explored in the second part of Holocaust Impiety in Jewish American Literature. In the opening chapter to this section, Krijnen reviews mostly sociological research that discusses both Jewish identity and American Jewish identity, and makes the case, one that has been made before, that the Holocaust is central to contemporary Jewish American identity. …

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