“Citizen Conn” is about partnerships. The narrator is partnered doubly, to her academic husband David and to God through her work as a rabbi, and it becomes her project to heal the partnership of two old men, Artie Conn and Morty Feather: two comics legends whose early collaborative work grew into something hugely popular and became the foundation of a whole publishing company. There was money involved, and Artie signed away some of those rights for a large lump sum, but the betrayal runs deeper.
The rabbi is employed by a sort of hospice, and I kind of love her. She’s sure of her work, her abilities to give comfort and spiritual solace to the dying, and she is certainly up for the continual trials of revelation that dealing with people in pain entail. But she also recognizes her limitations, and she waivers between the feeling of being called to her vocation and her own human weaknesses, when communication breaks down, or when she feels burdened by her feelings or sadness or irritation.
It’s no secret that Chabon is a master of long sentences, that he can pack a whole universe into a few linked clauses. But they move quickly and they never lose you in their vastness. Because this story is told from the rabbi’s perspective, it is also littered with comments on the one of the central questions of the faith, being of course ‘what is it to be a Jew?’ Rabbi observes: “Aged Jews tend to shrug with practiced eloquence, expressing subtle fluctuations in the nature of their doubt.” Doubt and miscommunication and faithfulness are at the centre of the larger Venn diagram of the partnerships explored in “Citizen Conn”, with having both love and the knowledge that you are loving always an unknowable thing, because that’s part of what it means to be with other people, or even with God.
I read this story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker.