Odds and Ends Shelf: The Golem and the Jinni

For three days the rains came and went, three days of infuriating confinement. If the Jinni had been able to go outside, and chase himself to the ends of the earth, then his growing obsession with the world of men might have dissipated, and he might have gone to visit the jinn habitations of his youth, as planned. But when the clouds exhausted themselves and the Jinni at last emerged to a newly washed landscape, he found that all thoughts of returning to his own people had vanished with the oceans.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

I spent much more time with this book than I thought I would, since it ended up being perfect material for a critical paper to use in my grad school application. As part of the application’s overall theme of blending literary techniques with fantastical subject matter, I spent a lot of time thinking about the book’s themes. Though I made a good case for it in the paper, I was forced to leave out mention of some aspects of the book that I felt were underdeveloped.

In 1890s New York City, a golem and a jinni both end up stranded in human civilization, forced to blend in with people they don’t understand. Their experiences parallel those of real-life immigrants who came to the USA in droves during that time, who make up most of the book’s human characters. The mythological creatures that they’re based on also inform their personality traits, making the golem selfless and struggling to be of use in a situation where she has no direct master, and the jinni chafing against the society that limits the complete freedom he was used to when he wasn’t stuck in human form. Complications arise, and eventually they learn to live with each other.

What the book does well, aside from translating and updating ancient mythology into human characteristics, is using its environments to reflect the characters’ moods. Most of the characters in the book feel isolated from other people for various reasons, hence the prevalent use of disconnected indoor environments. When the streets and landmarks of New York City are made to look wondrous and impressive, as they would to a tourist, it’s because the golem and jinni have finally met and can enjoy themselves now that they know they aren’t alone in thinking humanity is confusing.

Wecker was originally inspired by her own marriage to someone from a different culture, and she probably made the golem female and the jinni male to reflect her own Jewish background and her husband’s Syrian one. Unfortunately, when combined with the characters’ aforementioned personalities, this results in correlation with gender role stereotypes: a woman with an inherent need to care for those around her and a taciturn man who does what he wants, including sex, and doesn’t care for the nags in his life. When the book focuses on the golem, I do get the sense that she is being unfairly shut out of traditional Jewish life because of her gender, such as being barred from her caretaker’s funeral, and said caretaker regretting that she can’t take up a labor-intensive job like a stevedore. On the other hand, both of the women in the story who have sex outside of marriage are punished by either a pregnancy or a supernatural health condition. I’m not saying that Wecker is sexist, just that feminist theory was not a top priority for The Golem and the Jinni, and that’s a missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned.

The other aspect that concerns me is the book’s main villain. In my paper, I rationalized him as being a man who has forsaken morality and humanity to chase eternal life. He created the Golem, and is drawn back into her and the Jinni’s story through his spells, hanging over the narrative like a cobra poised to strike. The moment where he finally collides with them resolves multiple plotlines at once and ties them together nicely, but it also changes the rest of the book from a slice of life story with supernatural elements added into a full-blown urban fantasy. It’s not like the change comes out of nowhere—the foreshadowing works and the build-up is done well–but it makes the story less relatable and more esoteric.

I’ve seen The Golem and the Jinni compared to Neil Gaiman, even though every work of Gaiman’s I’ve read so far is more focused on the fantastical side of things than every part of Wecker’s book except for the finale. Still, it also remind me of the quieter moments of American Gods, so I can correlate how much a prospective reader will enjoy The Golem and the Jinni with their opinion on Gaiman’s work. When he’s not writing Sandman, Gaiman’s work is interesting but not transcendent, and I have to say the same for Wecker’s debut.

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