Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Arthur Miller's Novel Assault on American Antisemitism - Review of "Focus"

I have long known of Arthur Miller's writing through his plays - "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible."  Little did I know of the punch of his fiction writing.  "Focus" is a small jewel - and by far his most controversial work.  In this compact novel he attacks the antisemitism that boiled beneath the surface in America during World War II.

Lawrence Newman lives in Queens and commutes to his safe job in Manhattan working for The Corporation.  He is a nondescript personnel officer.  In this corporation, Jews need not apply, but what is that to Newman?  He is safe and secure.  Then his world slides out of focus.  Too vain to be willing to get glasses as his eyesight deteriorates, he tries to hide his myopia.  Unfortunately, he hired a woman who clearly looked Jewish, but his eyesight was too poor to pick up on the stereotype.  He is reprimanded by his boss.  The eyeglasses he finally gets accentuate his facial features in such a way that many people assume he is Jewish.  He is asked to move to an office where he will be less visible, and he resigns in protest.

Meanwhile, back in his gentile neighborhood, changes are taking place.  A Mr. Finkelstein has moved in and opened a candy store.  A group of vigilantes make sure that Finkelstein - and the presumptive Jew, Newman - are made to feel uncomfortable.

Throughout the ordeal,Newman's own values and assumptions are shaken to the core as he confronts racists neighbors and his own wife.

Miller captures in sharp focus the anguish of Newman in a way that reminds me of the memoir, "Black Like Me." As Newman experiences what it feels like to be marginalized, he is forced to reassess every part of his life and his thoughts.    

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