In the wondrous A Guide for the Perplexed, Dara Horn crafts a richly layered novel that allows her to probe with great sensitivity and depth the themes that have emerged as her inescapable subjects — the urgency to retrieve and commemorate a past rapidly fading from memory; the contemplation of alternative, often fantastical, worlds that might have been and may still be; and the patterns of human experience that eerily recur across cultures and generations.
The biblical story of Joseph inspires the main plot, which focuses on the brilliant computer programmer, Josephine Ashkenazi, and her less brilliant and envious older sister, Judith. Josie has earned her fortune by creating a software platform, Genizah, which “saved not only material that its users deliberately created, but essentially everything else they did too, running recording components on devices the user already owned and then employing natural language processing and facial recognition to catalogue worlds of data according to users’ habits.” Essentially, the program enables its users to record, collate and track virtually every experience in their lives so that no experience or memory of that experience need ever be lost.
Admiring her expertise, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt offers Josie a position as a visiting consultant to help them develop their own digital archive system. Judith aggressively encourages Josie to accept the offer and sends her off to a volatile contemporary Egypt. Once her sister is abducted by fundamentalists, tortured and presumed dead — Horn’s novel offers an especially bleak outlook on post-Arab Spring Egypt — Judith unflinchingly sets about replacing her as mother-figure to Josie’s daughter, Talia, and lover to Josie’s handsome Israeli husband, Itamar.
In the novel’s subplot, Horn reimagines the real-life Solomon Schechter and his discovery of the Cairo Genizah in the late 19th century. A genziah, we learn, is the storeroom that synagogues maintain to keep damaged books and other papers that contain the name of God. In one sense, the subplot dramatizes the point that human beings have always relied upon available means to record and memorialize experience. That users of Josie’s Genizah work on a “tablet” conveys the biblical resonances in this ultra-contemporary software program. The effort to retrieve and commemorate the past would seem to be noble, and we might expect Horn to celebrate it unequivocally through her narrative, which in its very architecture retrieves the biblical story of Joseph, Solomon Schechter and even the wisdom of the great medieval Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides.
Yet, as Schechter mills through moldering stacks of banal contracts, business ledgers and divorce decrees to the detriment of his lungs, we are meant to question whether such outsize retrieval efforts might corrode human experience in the here and now.
Horn examines this question in the main plot as well. At the Library of Alexandria, for example, Josie’s assistant and minder, the mysterious Nasreen, brazenly suggests that her software offers users the capability of gathering information absent the crucial moral guidance of knowing which information matters. “You cultivate the trivial,” she argues. While Josie seeks to defend the virtues of the program, even she marvels at how many files and photos about their cats people seemed to store in the Genizah. In captivity, Josie is afforded ample opportunity to contemplate the morality of unfettered remembrance further as her brutal captor forces her to create a virus to attack the capabilities of her software program (the ruling regime has been using it to quash his opposition group) and to archive his memories and photos of his murdered adolescent son.
The predicament suggests the tension at the heart of the narrative between the virtues of remembrance and forgetting. Josie’s daughter, Talia — a girl of disappointingly average intelligence we are told — offers the most incisive critique of our increasing ability to record, collate and store every experience in our lives when she notes how much luckier her mother was prior to her invention, “Because you get to remember everything the way you want, instead of how it really happened.” Here, Talia recognizes in her own way that her mother’s Genizah undermines the creative component of memory central to human experience. Josie doesn’t truly seem to hear her daughter, however. Not until her captivity does she contemplate the lurking dangers of a gargantuan visual and aural archive, that “the act of reliving the past could consume the future, that regret regularly ate people alive.”
Horn has magically summoned the wisdom of the ages to address a most contemporary dilemma. How ought one live a meaningful life in a world that perpetually disappears before our eyes? Our advancing technologies continually outstrip our ethical frames of reference. Such deep philosophical reflections aside, what makes A Guide for the Perplexed Horn’s finest novel is its riveting and suspenseful quality as the narrative unfolds. Who exactly are Josie’s captors? Is Nasreen somehow involved? Will Josie survive? Horn’s careful pacing of the narrative and her full development of and empathy with her characters make us care about these answers and showcase a novelist at the height of her powers.
Andrew Furman teaches English at Florida Atlantic University.