The Seventh Beggar, By Pearl Abraham, Riverhead, 355 pp., $25.95
In Hasidism, story and anecdote are a way of constructing religious faith. They give language to the ineffable, and order to the disarray of life. Pearl Abraham's third novel, ''The Seventh Beggar," is about stories, but it reveals their inability to finally resolve the perplexing questions of faith, desire, and death.
The novel takes place in a Hasidic community in upstate New York, where tradition holds sway. The community is divided into sects, each with its own teachers, habits, and rivalries. And its own stories. The first section follows Joel Jakob, a young yeshiva student who pursues an interest in the famous Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Nachman is known for his ''Tales," a collection of fables that are said to hold mystical knowledge. The path of the Jewish mystic is believed by Joel's family to be one fraught with danger. Joel keeps his curiosity secret, and soon it becomes an obsession. He comes up against sensual desire and desire to know God.
Within the story of Joel, the reader gets an insider's view of a Hasidic community, which although insular isn't unfamiliar. Abraham does a great service to a community that from the outside can seem secretive, mysterious, cultish even.
The first half of the novel is a heady mixture of Joel's external experiences and his inner desires. It's often difficult to know what is in fact fantasy. Sometimes Abraham leaves the narrative to reflect from another angle. She reveals how perception is what really shapes a story, rather than the actual facts. Abraham frequently swings the point of view to other characters, including Joel's father, mother, and his sister Ada. Particularly well realized is Ada, who designs clothing for women based on the most cutting-edge fashion but altered to account for Hasidic modesty. Ada marries Joel's friend Aaron, and together they have a son whom they name JakobJoel. It's his story that takes up the second part of the novel.
As a boy, JakobJoel grows up in a household that mourns Joel's tragic demise. He finds the notebook containing Joel's obsessive permutations. JakobJoel then becomes haunted by his uncle: ''He became a shadow riding on the young boy's shoulder commenting on everything, talking, advising, cautioning, always talking." JakobJoel is a seeker, but he is also a skeptic and a lover of empirical truth. He shrugs off his family's orthodoxy and attends MIT.
JakobJoel grew up among adults desperately seeking a resolution to the story of Joel. He begins to wonder if he can write a story with no ending. This is only possible, he realizes, through the creation of an artificial intelligence that can self-perpetuate without the need for a sense of completion. Her effort is noble, but Abraham's intent for JakobJoel does not fully manifest. It's not until the novel shifts again, this time into a truly fantastic tale, that Abraham finds her stride.
Joel's alter ego, living in JakobJoel, finally completes his quest -- to finish the one unfinished Nachman story, ''The Seven Beggars," in a series of tales within tales. This section of the novel is skillfully conceived, and often dizzying when you can't quite recall how many levels of story you are inside.
For Abraham, creation is an infinite task. Joel's desire for perfection, for a resolution to his yearning, becomes the source of his ruin. JakobJoel, on the other hand, is more excited by the possibility of infinite meaning (or none at all), a discovery he makes by constructing his own golem. Abraham shares this enthusiasm. She understands that the desire for a final story, a tale that will finally provide absolute meaning, can only result in foolishness. But Abraham's novel spins many tales within; some do work their magic and feel complete.