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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Inventions" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Issue: Jan. 26, 2015

Story: "Inventions"

Author: Isaac Bashevis Singer

Rating: $/Meh

Review: I can't recall ever being overly thrilled or even mildly impressed when the New Yorker digs up and publishes a "lost" manuscript from a well-known but deceased writer; and here I'm thinking specifically of "Paranoia" by Shirley Jackson, from the Aug. 5, 2013 issue, TGCB 8/23/13). "Inventions," written in 1965 by the late Isaac Bashevis Singer -- who died in 1991 -- does nothing to change my mind on that. I can understand why certain craggy, cobweb-strewn nooks of the literary/academic world might thrill at the publication of one of Singer's lost stories, but I can't say I'm among that group of people.

Furthermore, for the story to even make sense on the first read (or even the first few reads (I know...I tried)) I'd have to to be way, way more fluent in my pre-WWII Soviet history than I am. I'd have to know and understand the difference between a Trotskyite, a Leninist, and a Stalinist, and to know why each of those groups might hate each other and why a Polish Communist theoretician -- like the story's main character Morris Krakower -- might have a crisis of consciousness after dreaming (or was he dreaming??) that his blankets were being repeatedly pulled off of him on a winter night and that he saw the ghost of an old colleague who had "disappeared" after returning to Russia and espousing some unpopular beliefs.

The following passage provides great clarity to what is otherwise an almost impossibly subtle story that would take me an hour's worth of Google searches to even pretend that I understand:

"...it was all a dream. If that were not the case, he, Morris Krakower, would have to surrender everything: Communisim, atheism, materialism, the Party, all his convictions and commitments. And what would he do then?...There are facts that a man must disown, even to himself. There are secrets one must take to the grave."

This passage provides a sort of codex to understanding the rest of the story, in case you (like me) weren't able to properly grasp it the first time. Krakower has his faith in Communism shaken by one night of bad dreams dredged up by his subconscious mind and discovers, perhaps, that his beloved philosophy of Communism cannot explain certain spiritual disturbances that seem very, very real. His choice is simple: either delve into that explainable spiritual realm and abandon Communism, or pretend it doesn't exist and stick to the known, the facts. He chooses the latter, and the next day after his dreams, his speeches are less vehement, he is shaken. Perhaps his Communism is at odds with what's inside of him, but he will likely spend the rest of his life trying to either bring the two together, or ignore that schism.

Okay, so I suppose I do "get" the message here. I'm just saying it would be much more profound, would have been much more profound, to people with a deeper understanding of the paranoia, guilt, secrecy, and subversiveness of early Soviet Communism, or if this had been a novel and Singer had had the time and space to unravel a narrative that explained it all. Again, I say that to a certain audience, I'm sure this is an extremely moving tale, but to me it's a story about a crisis of conscience wrought by a bad dream.

Meta-Fiction Alert: Proving that meta-fiction is with us now, always has been with us, and always will be with us, "Inventions" is told by a narrator who is also an author (aye)  during one of his own sleepless nights as he remembers a character that has lived inside his head for years. The narrator also relates to us one of his own dreams, about being trapped in a dank basement and seeing antler-like growths coming out of his arm.

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