Halfway through “The Assistant” I felt confident enough to make a prediction about its ending. The prediction turned out to be only partly correct, but that is beyond the point. That prediction is at all possible is a sure indication that the author failed to engage me as a reader. Once the prediction is made the book is trapped: if it comes true, then the book is predictable; if it doesn’t, then one has the full right to complain about contrived plot twists.
Why did I feel confident enough to guess the ending? Because the story is painfully obvious. The story – and the outcome – are evident immediately after the first few pages. A struggling Jewish grocer is robbed, but one of the robbers has a conscience and clandestinely comes back to the store to work off the damage. We aren’t told this in these exact words until page fifty or so, but it’s obvious as soon as we see the character of Frank Alpine. Here is a character that is engaged in Deep Moral Struggle. Since this is a predictable book, all that is necessary to find out the remainder of the plot is to ask a few questions: Will Frank gather enough self-control to become a decent person (Y/N)? Will the store do better with him around (Y/N)? Will he fall in love with the grocer’s daughter (Y/N)? And so on, and so forth. It was with a sinking heart that I guessed the beginnng and the ending, and then beheld the two hundred pages in between. What else could possibly happen? Read on.
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In those two hundren-odd pages, the book turns into the absolutely sappiest melodrama ever written. To be sure, “The Assistant” lacks a main conflict. Yes, the store is a shambles; yes, these people have been slaving away for nothing; yes, they live in poverty; yes, they’re Jews. Those themes almost never surface. Instead, Malamud fills space with the most contrived, cliche mini-conflicts imaginable. I’ll leave it up to you to find out what they are, but each of those conflicts is written like it is the end of the world. Of course, it can’t be, since there’s still 2/3 of the book to go, but the characters gnash and lament like there’s no tomorrow anyway. Malamud frantically stitches viewpoint characters, often three times in a single page, to illustrate their grief from all perspectives. Rule #1: the author can only cry “wolf” so many times before it loses punch. It took us four “Scream” movies to get this down. Of course, Malamud predates “Scream”. The book reminds me of a scene from a Simpsons Halloween special, where Homer purchases a birthday present from an occult curio store (shades of Matheson’s short story “Prey”).
The toy is evil. “That’s bad”, Homer replies. But it comes with a free frozen yogurt! “That’s good!” The yogurt is also evil. “That’s bad.” But it comes with your choice of toppings! “That’s good!” The toppings contain potassium benzoate. Homer stares stupidly. “That’s bad,” the clerk helps him out.
The book wouldn’t have been as bad if the characters were more solid. The grocer and his wife are stereotypes: Morris is gruff but forgiving, while Ida is the precursor of every strict Jewish mother that ever was. Frank, on the other hand, is a walking collection of human traits that are only loosely connected. He’s street-smart and ruthless, both patient and impatient, a gentleman and an animal, frigid and lustful, caring and obscene, both with and without a conscience. He’s so diffuse that the reader cannot identify with him.
“The Assistant” cannot choose one of its numerous running themes to center on. It tugs the reader this way and that. Characters fall in love, and break up, and fall in love again. Malamud throws so many things at the reader, that after a while the only effect of reading the book is a dull heartache.
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