Sunday, May 29, 2016

Focus [1945]

Human history, to rephrase Marx, is a history of prejudice and persecution. Arthur Miller, renowned largely for his seminal plays – most notably Death of a Salesman, had experienced virulent anti-Semitism during his stint at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, and that formed the basis for his powerful debut novel Focus. Lawrence Newman, the tale’s meek and mousy protagonist, is a senior Personnel manager at a sprawling Corporation; the job of this Gentile 40-something man living in a predominantly Christian suburb, is to ensure that only correct “types” are employed, with Jews being on the top shelf of the forbidden list. Though not overtly hostile to minority communities, as a WASP in a respectable white-collar job he’s smugly superior about his place in America’s class structure, and tacitly perpetuates the rampant bigotry through his apathy, disdain, inaction and participation – he doesn’t give a damn when a Hispanic woman is molested outside his home, easily stereotypes the Blacks he sees on the subway, doesn’t hire a lady with a Jewish appearance, and quickly re-aligns himself when a White Supremacist group takes the onus of driving out an old Jewish candy-store owner from the neighborhood. However, when he’s forced to wear glasses on account of failing eyesight, people around, ironically, start mistaking him for a Jew – it starts on a more routine note when he’s demoted and his job application is refused by multiple organizations, but starts taking a more sinister and even violent form when he’s clubbed with Finkelstein by the local Christian Front for their anti-Semitic activism. The Kafkaesque novel, which brilliantly alternated between a dark satire, bleak ruminations and a taut psychological thriller, on the wonderfully etched backdrop of New York (the sardonic evocation of a particularly warm NYC summer in the penultimate chapter qualifies as the epitome of narrative description), was a disturbingly prescient portrayal of social, religious and political discrimination against communities that are considered subaltern by the mainstream majority, and consequently is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.

Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Psychological Thriller
Language: English
Country: US

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