Olympus on Earth: Daniel H. Turtels The Family Morfawitz
The Family Morfawitz
(Blackstone Publishing, 2023)
As we all like to march out at some point or another, Leo Tolstoy famously opened up his novel Anna Karenina with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Vladimir Nabokov even polishes this old chestnut off in the opening of his final and greatest novel, Ada, or Ardor, just to have his narrator tell the reader, “That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now.” While I enjoy Nabokov’s cutesy coyness here, it should be noted that Daniel H. Turtel’s delightful and frightful new novel, The Family Morfawitz, features one of the most uniquely unhappy families in literature.
The Family Morfawitz is the multi-generational saga of a Jewish family from Russia, driven off their land by Cossacks and a pogrom. Characters of that generation bear names like Chaim, Gallina, and Uri. We soon find Chaim in Berlin in the 1920s working as a watchmaker. Chaim sires six children who all make their way to the new world (one by a different route than the others), and Chaim himself becomes a victim of the Holocaust he sent his children away to avoid. In New York we see his heirs establishing a family, and then family businesses, with Zev (his son who took a different route) and Hadassah (Chaim’s eldest child) married and sharing power. This is not the only instance of incest that we see, but it is part of the early indication that this family dynasty is modeled on another, the Olympian gods of Greco-Roman mythology, specifically how they are rendered and expressed by Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
Theft, bribery, extortion, arson, insurance fraud, and murder are just some of the crimes added to incest as the Morfawitz family business expands from shipping (through a marital connection) into real estate, construction, hospitality, and anything else that can turn a quick buck. The novel is bookended by a family gathering at Tower Morfawitz and everything in between is the story (and so many sub-stories) of how the family got to the US and how eventually the tower is built. This is how our post-modern Mount Olympus is described:
Seen from far away, the top ten floors of Tower Morfawitz—sixty-seven to seventy-six—looked like a white limestone cube perched above the otherwise gray steel of the building. Each floor was home to a single, full-story apartment belonging to a different member of the clan. But there were other differences, too. For one, it had its own entrance on Central Park South and was known as Tower Morfawitz, while the other residents entered from Sixth Avenue and had an address of 1414 Sixth Avenue; for another, this upper echelon of the building was its own cooperative tax entity, distinct from the remainder of the tower; also, the family floors were serviced by their own elevator, which went nowhere else.
Zev is obviously based on Zeus; Hadassah on Hera. As stories develop for each family member and the different characters they interact with, the Ovidian analogies shine through. The Metamorphoses of Ovid is not only the narrative skeleton of this novel, but a source for the thematic underpinnings of the novel about change, transformation, and the American Dream. [Trigger warning: This book contains graphic depictions of sexual violence.]
Throughout the novel, Turtel paints gripping and sentimental portraits of New York City and how it changes over the second half of the twentieth century. The Family Morfawitz is as much a story of a family as it is the city that helps shape that family. In these moments the Jewishness and the immigrant nature of the family enhance the characterization of the place. Through the use of Yiddish, history, folklore, and occasional theology the Jewish diasporic experience is carefully and lovingly rendered.
It might be illuminating to explain how and why I have been assigned this review. My connection to this novel is one possible entry point towards understanding it. While no direct reason was given in the assignment, other than the simple, “this book seems to be your thing,” from my editor, there are some indisputable certainties. I have a Masters in Religion that focused on religion and literature with a whole lot of post-colonialism, mythology, folklore, syncretism, and transculturation involved. That degree, and five years of teaching in a Religion Department, were followed by a PhD in Comparative Literature in which I continued the main theoretical framework, but focused on African geographies, Black diaspora, and the role of the artist in theories of the state. My first novel to be translated into another language (French) was The Death of the Cyborg Oracle, a future noir set in a domed Atlanta post climate catastrophe and the subsequent fall of capitalism. In the absence of the abstraction of capitalism, a new religious zeal has emerged and everyone worships their own god/goddess/deity. Crime is divided into Sacred and Profane, and Sacred crime is primarily investigated by a rabbi detective, Jakob “Thinkowitz” Rabbinowitz. In this first installment, someone has murdered the Oracle of Delphi, Tiresias Pithias, and Detective Thinkowitz and his new partner, Edwina Casaubon, are on the case. Its sequel, The Shrieking of Nothing, is forthcoming. I have a deep respect for Judaism, but sadly do not possess the honor of more than a distant genealogical connection to the faith and the people.
So yeah, The Family Morfawitz seems to be my thing.
Several writers over the last two thousand years have grappled with the influence of Ovid and his of metamorphoses for characters and narrative. His work has given storytelling fodder to William Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf (I’m reminded of her excellent novel of a character metamorphosizing over time, Orlando). Looking at the literature of the United States we have William T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series showing clashes between European forces and Indigenous Americans always with shape-shifting and metamorphosis of characters and landscape from one age to another. Earlier still, we have Charles W. Chesnutt who in 1899 published The Conjure Woman, a collection of subversive, southern African American tales of slavery and life after, a handful of which are repurposed from Ovid. Some scholars refer to Chesnutt’s efforts as “subversive classicism.”
If you know your Ovid well, you can anticipate the narrative subtleties of each forthcoming chapter and how those established tales of transformation might be expressed here by Turtel with these characters. There is an interesting push and pull in Turtel’s technique where at times it is hard to know who is leading, the Olympians of Ovid’s metanarrative or the undeniably distinct Morfawitz family members. Names can tip off the reader to whom from Ovid a character is based upon, but at times their patterns of conduct are felt as inevitable and Ovidian pattern appears to be archetypical.
The darkest part of The Family Morfawitz, and one very much with us from that first, hard-to-stomach chapter, is that to try to humanize the Olympian gods in the modern world is to bring to life inhuman crimes and horrors. The reader is left wondering how people could worship gods like these if this is what their actions look like when performed by mortals. This gets to one of the central “sociology of religion” questions, if gods are created in our image, then to what end? Are they meant to serve as metonyms or moral guidance? Turtel’s novel serves as a cautionary tale about the stories we create.
Metamorphosis is part of the promise of the American Dream. That dream also allows social climbers to reach godlike heights of wealth and power. The extreme of American Individualism at its worst can look like a personal expression of Manifest Destiny, where “greed is good” a la Gordon Gekko, and humanity is something to be conquered within oneself on the path to “success.” Part of the crime and horror aspects of Turtel’s novel are due to how well-suited the Olympian gods are to expression in American exceptionalism and American greed.
At one point early in the novel, after Zev has visited a brothel with his illegitimate son, Asher (a character analogous to Apollo), he gives the paternal advice, “If you think something is wrong, then it is weak of you to do it; true freedom is refusing to believe that anything is wrong.”
Occasionally, characters wrestle with their humanity, but with the ostentatious “success” and power of Zev always on display, it is a wrestling match that most often finds the Olympian aspect of the character victorious. As we see at the beginning of the novel, and work our way up to by the end, the family Morfawitz is happy like any other extremely wealthy American family, but it is in very distinct ways that they are uniquely unhappy.
In the recent years we have endured and combatted the demagoguery of Donald Trump, who once occupied Trump Tower, and a residence noted to have a gold-plated toilet, a throne of gold. It is hard not to draw connections between the Tower Morfawitz of the novel and the Manhattan tower of our former president. We are learning more about the operations of this multi-borough crime and real estate family once begun by Fred Trump and for the last several decades maintained by a patriarch with god-like delusions of grandeur. And while our real world might be preparing to serve the Family Trump with comeuppance for its crimes, the Family Morfawitz will ultimately have to contend only with themselves—a confrontation, as the ending suggests, that will not necessarily be painless.
(Daniel Turtel has written a guide to help readers interested in learning more about the allusions to Ovid: https://www.danielhturtel.com/myth-guide)