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In dark times, is a dystopian Jewish novel just what we need?

Art, architecture and the Jewish condition inspired the speculative fiction of 'A Brutal Design'. Author ZACHARY SOLOMON talks to ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL.
Andrew Silow-Carroll
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Zachary Solomon with his book ‘A Brutal Design’ (Lanternfish Press)

Published: 12 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

Art, architecture and the Jewish condition inspired the speculative fiction of 'A Brutal Design'. Author ZACHARY SOLOMON talks to ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL.

(JTA) — At some point during my reading of Zachary Solomon’s debut novel, “A Brutal Design,” I needed to look up Duma, the utopian city-state where the novel is set, and see if it is a real place.

It isn’t, but it is richly imagined: Duma is an “experiment in the desert” where “alternate ideologies could be put into practice without threat.” Its idealism is expressed in its architecture — modernist apartment blocks, plazas and factories that appear to draw on 20th-century movements like Bauhaus and “Brutalism,” the minimalist, utilitarian design trend that emerged in the 1950s.

But Duma is not what it seems, as Solomon’s Jewish protagonist, Zelnick, learns soon after he arrives hoping to take a job as an architect. Like Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Solomon’s novel is about the sinister side of social engineering. Duma turns out to be a place that recreates the evils of a world it is meant to replace — including antisemitism, racism and a strict caste system.

Set in what could be an alternative timeline, “A Brutal Design” joins a growing genre of Jewish “speculative fiction” — think science fiction without aliens, time travel or anything you couldn’t find in the real world. It’s a genre that ranges from Franz Kafka’s absurdist fables to Marge Piercy’s 1991 novel, “He, She and It” to Michael Chabon’s 2007 novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” More recently, the Israeli-born writer Lavie Tidhar has written novels about a future, post-Israel Tel Aviv (“Central Station”) and an alternative Jewish homeland in Africa (“Unholy Land”). “Other Covenants,” an anthology of Jewish alternate history stories, was published in 2022.

Solomon, 34, says he is obsessed with modern art, architecture and the Jewish condition. Writing about an alternative reality allowed him to “experiment with these ideas and see where they take us in a way that’s much more difficult to accomplish than when you have characters that are strictly reality based.” He welcomed the challenge.

He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, the novelist Mandy Berman, and their two children, including a baby who arrived just weeks before “Brutal Design” was published on Jan. 30. 

Your book is set in an imaginary country in an unnamed decade, although it appears to be after the Holocaust. The main character is a Jew whose parents were killed when he was a child in what appears to be an antisemitic pogrom. My question is, what does a Jewish dystopian novel add to the accounts of real-life dystopias that Jews have lived through, whether it was Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union?

“I wanted to write a book that was kind of historical, that has technology from the past, present and the future. It references Nazism, but it’s unclear whether it’s the same timeline. The book explores the inevitability of antisemitism that’s systemic and endemic, and I wanted to see what happens when that fact of life is not tied, for instance, to interwar economic problems for which Jews can be used as a scapegoat. I was experimenting with the idea of, what does antisemitism look like without history books?"

“I am also working through my own experiences of being a Jew in the world. My grandfather, who is a survivor, is still with us. He’s an incredibly old man. There’s 245,000 survivors left in the world and every year that decreases by 10-15%. As the Holocaust becomes recorded history only, the book is a reminder to check some of the overconfidence I have about my position being alive as a Jew. It’s more tenuous than I think most people realize. I experienced it to be more tenuous. It feels like there are no guarantees, which I think is bearing out a lot over the last few months.”

Your city of tomorrow, or whenever it is set, reminds me of Birobidzhan, the “Jewish Autonomous Region” set up by the Soviets in 1928 to solve their own so-called Jewish problem. Except Duma appears to be an autonomous region for free thinkers rather than Jews. 

Definitely, Birobidzhan was on my mind. Planned communities, kind of ersatz utopias, and even company towns were huge influences for me. The germ of this novel came from a New York Times Style Magazine essay called “Utopia, Abandoned,” by Nikil Saval about a town in Italy called Ivrea, which was the home of Olivetti typewriters. It was a planned socialist company town that provided all of the amenities: free childcare, sports leagues, libraries and schools. They brought in these extraordinary leading modernist architects and so many of the buildings are hyper-modernist structures. In my head, I was kind of recreating this town.

I grew up going to Disney World, and Disney World itself is this kind of freakish, demented utopia. But there’s a town called Celebration outside of Orlando where Disney employees were going to live. Or think of Levittown on the eastern seaboard. The idea of these planned communities is so tantalizing. There’s a common goal and you have financial security and your kids are taking care of and you can experiment with new ideas, whether it is communism or an alternative governing. It doesn’t just have to be a capitalist society. 

And these places have so much promise and they’re filled with hope and almost every single time they are destroyed from within, whether it is because of racism, like in Levittown, or greed or capitalism.

Your novel also made me think of another place meant to be a utopia in the desert, where people scattered across various countries all come to the same place to live and work and have to speak the same language, in what at first seems like a grand socialist experiment. I thought: That sounds like Israel. Did that cross your mind, that Israel was another kind of — I hate to say this — failed utopia?

Yes, it absolutely did. I don’t write about Israel, but I think about it obsessively. But it stops there for me, and now especially it’s too painful for me. I purposely did not make connections in my fiction to Israel. I’m avoiding it pointedly.

Your hero, Samuel Zelnick, is enamored with the memorial art he finds in Duma, until he becomes disillusioned with their maker and realizes the motivations behind them are not what they seem. 

He’s floored by them, in part because he wants to believe that his former professor, Miriana, is an ally in wanting to make the world a better place and is very anti-antisemitism, anti-fascism and when he looks at her art, there is evidence of it. There is this kind of duality to memorials: You could very easily look at a Holocaust memorial and say to yourself, “This is actually an homage to the Holocaust and how great the Nazis were at killing the Jews.” Granted, that’s not a typical person’s experience, but it is similar to the fine line between modernism and fascism. When it comes to extreme idealism about the way the world should be, it’s very easy to slip from one side to the other side.

Where do modernism and fascism come together and where do they diverge? Your protagonist moves to Duma in hopes of using his training as an architect to create “a truly equalizing architecture.”

I was struck by Le Corbusier, a kind of father of modern architecture, who designed a building in Marseilles called Unite d’ Habitation. And it’s not just an apartment complex. It’s got Architecture Classics: Unite d’ Habitation / Le Corbusier | ArchDailya rooftop garden, schools and doctors offices. Ostensibly, you could live your whole life in this building and never leave. But like fascism, these modernist ideals, these socialist ideals, have this really strong sense of the way the world could be. It’s a utopian sense. What if we were all equal? What if we all lived in a place where everybody had the same amenities available to us, the same resources but there was no hierarchy, there was no class stratification? What if it was all perfect?

And then I think to myself, these buildings were designed for an ideal human type, and that gets you thinking about the Aryan ideal, the Nazis’ notion of achieving racial purity. When you consider equality while ignoring differences, then you’re veering very close to fascism. 

About the author

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SILOWCARROLL) is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


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