Hannah Lehmann is one of six children in a wealthy. New York, Orthodox Jewish family headed by a somewhat caustic, undemonstrative mother and a father whose concern is business. Hannah is obsessed with her mother, who never loved her enough, but whom Hannah cannot leave, forgive, or stop thinking about. Years, lovers, and psychiatrists do not help her. “My mother is the source of my unease in the world,” Hannah says, “and thus the only person who can make me feel at home in the world.” Though it is all her mother’s fault, Hannah feels she is nothing without her.

“Somewhere in this story,” writes Daphne Merkin at the beginning of her novel Enchantment, “is a tragedy, but it is very hard to see.” Too hard; for a novelist who has put her character’s mind—or perhaps her own—under a microscope, the tragedy is buried so deep that the rest of us have to wonder if it’s really there at all.

Merkin has taken her title from Plato—”Everything that deceives may be said to enchant”—but it is Aristotle she should be rereading. “A tragedy is impossible without action,” he wrote, and the essential plot has three essential elements to it: a reversal of circumstances, a change from ignorance to knowledge, and suffering.

Enchantment has only suffering—a long, articulate whine. If it’s clear that life is genuinely painful for Hannah, it doesn’t keep her from being endlessly irritating. I say articulate because Merkin writes well and with apparent care. There are some metaphors and thoughts that are quite lovely: “The only part of Sunday that I like is the morning; past twelve o’clock I begin to hate the day, the way in which it sags,” or, “I don’t suppose I’ll ever use any of these items, but their arrival in the mail, packed in auspicious brown cartons, made me feel momentarily less lonely, at the end of someone else’s thoughts.”

But they cannot save the book. Merkin may have some gifts for observation, but she has none for plot. It may be she has abandoned plot altogether; this book is remarkable for its utter lack of it. Absolutely nothing happens; instead, Merkin has put all her eggs into one basket—character—and it’s Hannah’s character that must hold the reader to the book. There’s nothing else, no beginning or end, no character development or progression in thinking, nor regression, even.

Merkin has very believably drawn Hannah, in monumental detail, right down to her theories about her bodily functions—revelations I could have done without. (You have to be an exceedingly good writer to overcome the gratuitous coarseness of writing about going to the bathroom.) To have created Hannah is something. For an actor, whose job is characterization, it would be everything. For a novelist, it’s not nearly enough. The author has to make you want to finish the book, not just believe it. I couldn’t get away from the feeling that Enchantment could as easily have been half as long or twice as long. When something has no beginning or end, what is it that puts boundaries around the middle? Whim? Fatigue? An editor who says, any longer and we’ll have to raise the price to $18.95? I know no more, really, about Hannah by chapter 18 than I did after chapter 2; aside from some nice lines, I’d gained no more insight into Hannah or the world or anything else, and I hadn’t been particularly entertained; surely we make the effort to read a book for one of those reasons?

A novel in which nothing happens must have a main character capable of taking center stage and holding it—in this case, 288 pages worth. But Merkin has painfully painted herself into a corner by creating a character who is complete but unsympathetic. The focus of a book has to have some strong allure, even if it’s mostly demonic; Hannah I just want to shake some sense into. Past and present mingle into one great extended monologue always in the present tense. I grew desperate for any kind of action at all, anything, just not another hundred pages of lengthy ruminations on the Hannah Lehmann self.

Some of my friends liked the book better than I did. “She’s peeled herself like an onion,” said one who liked the book precisely for the completeness and shamelessness of Hannah’s self-exposure. For me it felt like a vicarious, decade-long therapy session, and I’ve never been much of a fan of psychoanalysis. Merkin chronicles the details of Hannah’s life indiscriminately, moving in ever smaller concentric circles, like some poor parody of Dante’s hierarchy in Hell, from the petty details to the pettiest. Details are vital to any book, of course. But not every single detail that can be gleaned from scrutinizing your apartment and from thinking back over your friends’ and family’s lives and your own 20-odd years of experience. Merkin is guilty of the novelist’s equivalent of relativism: anything—a squeezed-out tube of toothpaste, just anything—is as good as anything else, and everything is chronicled and included.

So in Enchantment you have every bit you’d ever want to know about an upper-class Jewish girl too weak to be evil, too self-involved and petulant to be much good. If there is one thing that made me pause when I was finishing Enchantment, it’s what this exhaustive portrait means. All novels are to some extent autobiographical, in that writers must put something of their own lives, experiences, or observations into them, and first novels (which Enchantment is) are notoriously so. But any book with this precise a picture of one needlessly broken personality almost certainly has to come, and to a frightening extent, from its author’s own life. In the end, what is haunting about Enchantment is that you can’t seem to separate the dancer from the dance.


[Enchantment, by Daphne Merkin (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $16.95]