A Review of Shawn Rubenfeld’s: The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone by Juliana Converse

What is the pleasure of a game? We play games to distract, to kill time, to connect with others. But aren’t we also simulating suffering by playing certain games? Is the simulation of suffering meant to hone our survival instincts and strategies, or determine who among us is most likely to crumble under the pressure? In some Jewish private schools, for example, students are encouraged to imagine themselves within the system of Nazi regime, to imagine how they would be sorted in the death camps, according to ability and skill. The game is meant to be educational, while incidentally training students to hone their survival skills. Perhaps the thinking is that as a people, they have needed them before, and will likely need them again.

Shawn Rubenfeld explores the absurdity of suffering––and games––in The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone through a Jewish, millennial character from New York City. We meet Josh Schulman on the heels of a double-whammy in his life: the death of his mother, and the divorce from his wife, Heloise. Plus, “I had just turned thirty, which looks better on some than others”(1). He had been pursuing a PhD in Yiddish dialectology, a pursuit that collapsed following these traumatic life events. To fill the void, Josh returns to totems of comfort, in the form of video games he played growing up as a child in the 1990’s. Much of the first chapter of Eggplant is a detailed description of each game, its journey from eBay listings and haggling with sellers to its place on Josh’s gaming shelf.

As Josh narrates it, his life takes an absurd turn at a retro gaming convention. There, he glimpses a cosplayer dressed as an obscure character from a 1986 Nintendo game, called Kid Icarus. The Eggplant Wizard (an ode to the Japanese creator’s fondness for the purple vegetable) is enrobed head to toe in a purple cloak, one giant eyeball in the middle of a hooded head, and holding an eggplant-wielding staff. As the cosplayer enters the crowd, Josh inadvertently steps on the purple robe, tripping the Eggplant Wizard and causing the eggplant on his staff to smash. From then on, everything goes wonky.

Out of nowhere, Josh receives an invitation to interview for a teaching position at a private, all-boys high school in Roll, Iowa. The headmaster, Dr. Kirkland, selects Josh based on his long-ago-written article on Yiddish linguistics. Kirkland wants him to be his “diversity hire.” Caught off-guard by the offer, but determined to turn around his luck, Josh goes along with the headmaster’s assumption that he is still actively working towards his PhD. This is lie number one.

Once in Roll, Josh feels as if he has entered a warp zone. The landscape, for one, is vastly different from New York City. Everything is brown, flat, and the one diner in town closes at 2:00 P.M. He arrives early, parks in the school lot, and falls asleep, only to be awoken by the headmaster knocking on the window of the Uhaul. Kirkland, or “Captain Kirk” as he is known, is rendered distinctly real in Josh’s highly observant narration. From his habit of flattening or stroking his trimmed red beard, to his unrelenting jolliness, Kirk is a dead-ringer for any number of over-enthusiastic, academic program directors. He has a flair for theatrics, an indomitable school spirit, and a friendliness only a New Yorker would find threatening.

But not everyone is so friendly. Meeting the cast of other faculty at Fairbury Academy, Josh quickly learns he has a lot to learn. There is the pompous and sniping Hunter Green, who always wears a hunter green vest; the bro-ey, professional frisbee-player, Jane; and an assortment of other strangely-named teachers (like Pants and Timmer). As they talk about him and his PhD, Josh finds himself lying compulsively, causing his anxiety to grow exponentially. He is hiding in plain sight.

These crowded, anxiety-inducing scenes gave me flashes of Kingsley Amis’ 1954, so-called “campus novel,” Lucky Jim. Jim is, like Josh, a new, young faculty member, and an obvious outsider among the older, dusty academic types. But while Josh’s coping mechanisms involve eBay haggling for rare video games, Jim vents his exasperation through sarcastic, interior monologues, and stress-induced facial grimaces behind the backs of his colleagues. In both novels, the other members of faculty feature a Greg Daniels-like ensemble cast of foes and allies, including a female love interest and her suspicious fiancée/husband.

Then there’s the Judai-phile, Glen Gill, who gloms onto Josh and chats him up tirelessly on the subject of his ethnicity and academic study. “‘A Jew in Roll,’” he says, “‘You’ll have to excuse me. This is really exciting. Like finding a unicorn in the wild’” (89). It seems that Josh, who describes himself as “intellectually Jewish” is not alone in approaching Judaism as an academic interest. Gill discusses only Judaism with Josh, as if to him, that is the entirety of Josh’s identity. This interest is so pointed that it, too, begins to feel to Josh like a sinister fixation with ulterior motives.

Josh enjoys an uneasy sense of accomplishment passing through the initial hurdles of his new assignment, but it is not to last. Throughout his stay at Fairbury Academy, The Eggplant Wizard haunts Josh, who becomes increasingly convinced that tripping the cosplayer was the beginning of his downfall. His paranoia only increases during the schoolwide game of “Splat,” a previously-banned, cat-and-mouse game unique to Fairbury Academy that, according to Captain Kirk, they revived just for Josh. Players are given bendy straws they have to hold, and assigned a target who they try to catch without their straw in hand. No one knows each others’ targets, making everyone suspicious of one another. The game is so competitive that, according to Fairbury legend, it drove a previous player, a teacher, to leave the school and town for good.

Josh’s challenges fitting in at this school obsessed with nerdy rituals and traditions (inspired by Monty Python and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example), and eclectic pop songs (like R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World) are only compounded by his own, inexplicable behavior. Along with his PhD fib, he allows the attractive and married English teacher, Natalie Grey, to believe that not only is his divorced wife (named Heloise) actually deceased, but she shares the name Natalie. Currying sympathy may have been his aim, but he quickly becomes disgusted with himself and more anxious at being found out.

Amidst the humorous character depictions of faculty members and Josh’s facepalm moments, there is a dark undercurrent to Josh’s story. Viewed one way, this is a story about grief, in all its hallucinatory surrealism. Viewed another way, it is a very familiar story about an outsider holding secrets that seem arbitrary, but function as a liferaft for the psyche. Or it may be a story about being Jewish, featuring the familiar tropes of father issues, identity crises, self-loathing, survivor guilt, and neurotic coping mechanisms.

Viewed this way, The Eggplant Curse reminds one of Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 comic novel. Pnin is an affable yet bumbling professor, likewise prone to foibles and misunderstandings. He, too, is at the center of teachers’ lounge gossip, and a target for indecipherable conspiracies. But more to my point, his story is set against the recent backdrop of the Holocaust, with his former sweetheart having lost family members at Buchenwald (as Nabokov, himself lost loved ones in death camps). While Josh’s grief may pale in comparison with the Holocaust, it nonetheless creeps around him as he attempts to reinvent, his efforts only leading him around in a pathetic cycle.

Considered side by side, these characters are both reminiscent of the shlemiel, or “incompetent person” in Yiddish. Think Charlie Chaplin. While they may inspire genuine pity, we also have to chuckle at their frequently oblivious missteps. And yet our willingness to laugh at such a character is only achievable through our relative distance, whether as reader, because we are not Jewish ourselves, or not involved in academics. With this awareness of our own distance, we loop back to pity.

Josh even mentions his “hyperfixation” with the Holocaust, how he used to imagine himself in the selection process at the death camp, a form of self-evaluation. “Do you have any redeemable skills? I don’t think so” (85). Josh’s lying and his collection of games are his ways of amassing defenses, using nostalgia as armor, lying as preservation. While the stakes may seem comically low, Josh perceives his life in peril and is trying desperately to survive.

Rubenfeld does an excellent job balancing humor and pathos on the page, through vivid representation of his characters and their gestural quirks, and pressing on the complex aspects of Jewish identity. His pacing and rate of revelation, while not overly-tricksy or withholding, increase our sense of Josh’s anxiety, and walk the line between “what-a-twist” and too predictable. Millennial and Gen X readers will be tickled with nostalgia over discussions of the relative merit of retro gaming systems, as well as the joke concept of steady employment. Writers (and readers of Nabokov, or lovers of campus novels) will appreciate the pitch-perfect dialogue and candor of Josh’s self-effacing, interior monologues. From the exoticism of being a Jew outside New York City, a young divorceé in the Midwest, or an adult obsessed with his own childhood, Josh reminds us of what it feels like to be a perpetual outsider among those who seem to have it all figured out.

Juliana Converse has reviews and nonfiction published or forthcoming in Heavy Feather ReviewThe Compulsive ReaderTupelo Quarterly, and Witch Craft Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in What Weekly and BlazeVOX, and she was the 1st place winner of the 2014 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Short Story Contest. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and lives in Baltimore City, Maryland.