Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes
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Upon landing at Ellis Island in 1907, Esther and Hersh Lipshitz discover their son Reuven is missing. The child is never found, and decades later, Esther becomes convinced that the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh is her lost boy. Esther’s manic obsession spirals out of control, leaving farreaching effects on the entire Lipshitz lineage for decades to come. In present-day New York City, we meet T Cooperthe last living Lipshitzwho struggles to make sense of all that came before him, and the legacy he might leave behind as well.
“It’s refreshing to read a novel that makes a veritable game of its storylines. The book is further enhanced by Cooper’s considerable descriptive powers, which bring to life such varied tableaus as a Russian pogrom, a Lower East Side gang fight and a Lindbergh rally in Oklahoma City. It is the story of Esther that resonates long after the book has been closed.”
The New York Times Book Review
“T Cooper travels an enormous distance in this new novel, from Russian pogrom to middle–class tract living in Texas. This is a fresh, funky, astutely observed and frankly different version of the immigrant story, making the most of lost and found identity in the mix of modern America.”
“A glorious identity–bending, multigenerational epic….Cooper’s storytelling skills are phenomenal. She effortlessly shifts perspectives, [and] throughout, her experiments are divine: They serve to make this peculiar family feel real.”
Time Out New York
“Cooper has an affinity for creative liberties, even in anything–goes 21st–century fiction, liberties of a stunning sort. This is not another generic everyday family saga, not when it starts in the Russian pogroms, jogs past Charles Lindbergh and closes with a guy who impersonates rapper Eminem at bar mitzvahs.”
“Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes is a brave novel of poignancy, reverberations and ingenuity.”
“The Lipshitz story is brilliant, and the post–modern coda…offers up a surprising conclusion.”
T Cooper is the author of the novel Some of the Parts (2002), and editor of the short story collection Fictional History of the United States with Huge Chunks Missing (2006). T’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Poets & Writers, and Out, among several other publications and anthologies. T holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University and lives in New York City. Visit the author’s website at www.t–cooper.com. If your book club, class, or library reading program would like to discuss Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, T Cooper is often available to speak with groups in person, via conference call, or online. For more information, please e–mail: bookclubs@t–cooper.com.
This novel is truly a unique epic tale. What inspired it?
I wanted to tell the story of an immigrant family starting a life in Americabut with a twist. What if it all goes awry, literally the moment the family steps off the gangplank onto Ellis Island, as it did with my family when they immigrated here? (My grandmother’s brother was lost and never found or heard from again.) I also wanted to play with the universal question of, “Where did I come from?” and have a modern–day character trying to answer that simple, yet equally impossible query. I wanted to posit whether one even can tell the “true” story of a family or history. What gets passed down, why, and how does it get altered from the original event?
You chose two wildly different narrative voices through which to tell this story.
Yes, I did. For me the first part of the book does not exist without the second, and the second does not exist without the first. The narrative choice I made was about bringing history into the present, acknowledging that to some extent, we are versions of our histories: no matter how far you run, no matter how seemingly distant you appear from your heritage, there it is, and there you are. The character T Cooper is totally estranged from his family, his only seeming connection to his heritage is that he performs as Eminem at rich kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs. And yet, he’s drawn back into his family history, drawn into attempting to tell the story and figure out why he is the way he is: angry, anxious, and afraid that everything will be taken awayeven when life appears otherwise so stable.
As for the structural shift, it was very much intended as a physical, textual, and emotional reminder of the radical shift inherent in immigration: that utter disorientation of stepping off a ship onto a foreign land after months of grueling travel, years of oppression or poverty or whatever, and then immediately setting about absorbing into the fabric of a country that is not one’s own.
How do the notions of fiction and nonfiction play into your writing?
The blurry line between fact and fiction fascinates me, as do the gray areas between binaries such as American/un–American, immigrant/native, male/female, Jewish/Gentile, black/white, etc. I try to explore the places and identities that exist somewhere between these (and other) extremes in my work.
Where did your interest in Charles Lindbergh begin?
I’ve always been interested in aviation and periods of history where massive leaps in industry and engineering have occurred. Lindbergh’s story and 1927 flight in particular have always intrigued me. When I read A. Scott Berg’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lindbergh biography in 1999, it dawned on me how much Lindbergh’s story encapsulates the story of the 20th century in America: his catapulting to fame and glory, the media’s obsession with personal details of his family life, the loss of his son, and finally, the crash–and–burn downfall and self–imposed exile to Europe. It hit me while reading that book: why not tell the story of this Jewish immigrant family against the backdrop of the Lindberghs’?
He was one of the first true “sons” of America with whom the world fell in lovethose sparkling blue eyes and blond hair, and handsome, chiseled face depicted in photographs and moving images that were flooding people’s consciousness in a way previously unheard–of. I think Lindbergh became almost a blank screen of quintessential, iconic American–ness upon which people projected their hopes and dreams and desires. They saw what they wanted to see in themselves, and that’s why it was such a blow when he started being such an outspoken isolationist before WWIInot to mention an admirer of the Nazi party.
What about Eminem? What draws you to him?
In some ways, Eminem is a modern manifestation of Charles Lindbergha blond–haired, blue eyed, middle–American success story. Only of course with Eminem, he is acutely aware of the stereotype and mines it. Eminem has made an entire career of weaving fiction from the facts of his life, going back and forth between fact and fiction, and employing different personas to bridge the gaps between them. Beyond my being a fan of Eminem’s skills as a lyricist and rapper, his self–conscious performance of the “angry blonde” (with a soft–center) fit intrinsically into the historical story I was tellingbut brought some of the themes I was working with into the 21st century.
Hip–hop artists often create exaggerated personas for themselves, weaving tales about versions of themselves who have more money, more sex, more women, and participate in more violence and criminal activity than they really do. In “Slim Shady,” Eminem has created an extreme persona for himself so that he can rap about stuff he never could as his real self, Marshall Mathers. Hip–hop culture has essentially given Eminem a “pass” to be part of what is predominantly a black musical tradition, and he takes this acceptance seriously. But Eminem also knows that he is as popular as he is not only because black hip–hop culture has accepted him, but also because he is white and looks more similar to the suburban white kids hanging out in the malls of middle America and driving sales of his records. Like Eminem, the T Cooper character also creates a persona for himself, passing as something he’s notwhile he’s simultaneously drawn into the story of his family members who were also trying to pass and assimilate into a culture that was not their own.
What resources did you find most helpful while researching this novel, or what might be interesting further reading?
A number of books were helpful in my research. For a fascinating look at the 20th century through one man’s life, I do recommend A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh (Berkeley, 1999). I also really relied upon both Lindbergh’s and his wife’s writings, including War Within and Without; Diaries and Letters, 1939–1944 by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), and We by Charles Lindbergh (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927). For turn–of–the–century tenement life in Manhattan, I immersed myself in Jacob Riis’s classic How the Other Half Lives (Penguin Books, 1997 edition; but originally published in 1890). I also recommend Ellis Island Interviews by Peter Morton Coan (Facts on File, 1997), and the beautiful Ellis Island: Gateway to the American Dream by Pamela Reeves (Dorset Press, 1991). For a thorough survey of the Galveston Movement and Jewish life in Texas, I relied upon Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West by Harriet and Fred Rochlin (Houghton Mifflin, 1984) and Galveston: Ellis Island of the West by Bernard Marinbac (SUNY Albany Press, 1983). Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom by Edward H. Judge (NYU Press, 1992) was invaluable to my understanding of pogroms and Jewish life in tsarist Russia; and if you haven’t gotten enough of the Real Slim Shady, try Whatever You Say I Am: the Life and Times of Eminem by Anthony Bozza (Crown, 2003). For a more complete list, a full biography appears at the end of my novel.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my third novel, set in an entirely different era and placeneither of which I’m going to disclose at this point, in the event somebody decides to hold me to it.
- Of Esther Lipshitz, a New York Times reviewer has written, “Not since Sophie Portnoy has there been a Jewish mother from quite the same place in hell.” Do you agree or disagree? Is Esther a good mother, a bad mother, or somewhere in between? What is the stereotype of the typical “Jewish mother,” and does Esther stray from this stereotype or adhere to it?
- Do you like the character of Esther? Why or why not? Do you think characters must be “likeable” in order for them to be compelling in stories?
- Why do you think Esther clings to the image of Charles Lindbergh when she reads about him in the newspaper after his 1927 flight? What might Lindbergh represent to an immigrant woman like Esther, and why would she want to claim him as her lost son? How does Lindbergh represent America to the rest of the world?
- How would you respond to losing your child and never learning what really happened to him or her? Are there any unresolved mysteries from your family history that will remain forever unanswered?
- What role does faith play in the Lipshitz lineage? The Jewish religion seems to diminish throughout the generations. Why do you think this happens?
- Many characters in the novel experience a change of identitysome more radical than others. What are some of the specific changes in identity that Esther, Avi, Ben, Miriam, and T experience? What about Lindbergh, especially during the years leading up to World War II?
- What do you think about the change in point of view in the second part of the book? What about the insertion of newspaper articles, telegrams, letters, and photographs throughout the narrative? Why do you think the author chose to structure the novel in this way? How might the novel have been different if it had maintained the same point of view throughout, or did not include these meta–textual elements?
- How do the effects of violence, persecution, loneliness, and loss get passed down or repeated throughout the four generations of Lipshitzes?
- Years removed from the Russian pogroms, the last living Lipshitz, T Cooper, appropriates the persona of a hip–hop artist who raps about violence, anger, and family. Why do you think T gravitates toward Eminem?
- The author’s grandmother lost a brother when their family landed at Ellis Islandmuch in the same way Reuven Lipshitz is lost when Hersh and Esther Lipshitz immigrate to America in Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes. There are other seemingly autobiographical “facts” sprinkled throughout the novel, including the character named T Cooper in the contemporary section of the novel. Does it change your experience of a book when you believe that parts of the story you’re reading are “true”? If so, how? And if not, why not?
- Why do you think the author T Cooper chose to give one of the protagonists of the novel the same name? Does this decision affect how you read the story? Would the experience of reading Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes be different if this character had another name?
- How is the character T Cooper’s passing as another gender similar to the immigrant experience of living within two cultures? How is it different?
- The novel opens with the quintessential American dream of a family’s coming to America in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. Most members of the Lipshitz family, in addition to Lindbergh and Eminem, are similarly pursuing an “American dream.” How has the American dream changed over the decades, especially as it is represented in Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes?
- What do you think Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes says about fame in American society in the 20th century and on the brink of the 21st?
- Do you think the ending of the novel is hopeful?