Prose’s new novel is nested: several stories resting uncomfortably together. It’s not uncomfortable for the reader, just for the main character, Simon Putnam. Poor, naïve Simon, just out of Harvard with a major in folklore and mythology, of all things. The novel’s set in1953: Joe McCarthy’s HUAC hearings are in full swing and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have just been executed for passing secrets to the Russians. In the opening prologue, Simon and his parents (who knew Ethel Rosenberg) are watching Ethel’s execution on TV in their Coney Island apartment. Prose’s juxtaposition of their banal conversation and the horrific event is a brilliant piece of writing.
With the help of his well-known cultural critic uncle Madison Putnam, Simon lands a low level editing job with a literary publisher: Landry, Landry, and Bartlett. (There’s only one Landry; the second iteration of the name is for pretentiousness.) Simon is the slush pile reader, but one day Warren Landry comes by with a special manuscript: The Vixen, the the Patriot, and the Fanatic. Simon’s task is to edit the manuscript in secret. It’s a bodice-ripper that Landry hopes will sell millions and save the company from financial ruin. The only problem for Simon is that the main character in all those steamy sex scenes is easily recognizable as Ethel Rosenberg. Sex with the prosecutor! Sex with her jailer! Simon knows the book is trash and that by trying to improve it he’s betraying his parents and their belief in Ethel’s innocence. He’s also betraying his own literary ideals. “Some compromise could still be brokered between trash and treasure,” Simon muses, afraid to fail on his first assignment.
It gets more complicated. Simon falls in love with the author, Anya Partridge, first from her photograph then when he meets her in the asylum where she’s a resident. They have sex in the Terror Tomb in Coney Island, the first in a long line of trysts in dark places. He’s also in love with Elaine, the publicist at Landry, Landry, etc. His famous uncle takes him out for a boozy lunch. How is it that all of Simon’s fantasies about the publishing world are coming true? Here the reader begins to sense that something’s not quite right and Simon’s being played. There are other levels in this story and the reader can identify some of them ahead of time but probably not all. Echoes of the Norse folktales that Simon loves start to color the plot.
The novel is funny and touching, but Prose is also making comments about the paranoia of that era (and our own). It’s 1953 seen through the lens of 2021 and reflected back to us through a coming of age tale. Do I make it sound complicated? It’s not–Prose is in complete control of her story and characters and sweeps the reader along, chuckling all the way.