The Danger of Isolation

A Review of Sara Lippmann’s Lech

By John Brantingham

I downloaded Sara Lippmann’s new novel, Lech, on my Kindle immediately after having heard her at a reading in support of New Voices, a collection coming out in January by various poets and writers that hopes to reevaluate and reunderstand the Holocaust from a 21st century point-of-view. In this new collection, writers and poets react to photographs of the Holocaust, some overtly horrifying, others where one must take a moment to understand the implications of what is being shown. Lippmann’s flash fiction piece “Good Girls” follows two French girls who see an image of Hitler and Petain shaking hands, but they are too young and naïve to understand its implications. They are sent to Paris’s Velodrome to be rounded up with other Jews on their way to the concentration camps. With their father dead, separated from their mother, and the adults of their country betraying them, they are isolated from all those people meant to care for them, and this isolation as much as anything else is at the center of Lippmann’s piece. Isolation is shown to be a force of anguish and torture. Isolation is one way they are controlled, and it signals the beginning of what we know will be a long series of losses for these girls.

Lippmann’s story in part helps to highlight the role that isolation played in the Holocaust, and it could not be timelier. Social remoteness has infused our world because of the pandemic of course, but also because of the political forces that separate us more and more from each other. In the story, Jews are being moved out of sight of the rest of the society as a first and necessary step in the project of dehumanization. These girls are separated from everyone they know for that same goal and to promote a sense of hopelessness in them. While “Good Girls” in New Voices reexamines this isolation in a historical context, Lippmann has developed this same theme in her debut novel Lech and what moved me in her reading does so in her novel as well. Lippmann is looking seriously at the danger of this isolation and helping us to understand what the possible and actual results of it are.

We know that we as a society are dealing with this problem, but what Lippmann points out in her novel is how powerfully dangerous it can be and what a tool it could become in the hands of the wrong people. To be clear, this is not an overtly political novel, and there are no newscasters or politicians shown manipulating the population. Rather, we are clearly shown how we are pushing each other and ourselves into smaller and smaller groups while promoting the idea that we are essentially different from each other. This is a book less about blame and more about the dangers of being a human.

Lech follows several characters in the Catskill Mountains during the summer of 2014. They are a mix of Jewish people, many of whom flee to Upstate New York in the summers, and the local non-Jewish residents who live in an area that thrives on the summer tourism and often resents those tourists. However, not everyone who lives there resents them. Noreen, for example, is a real estate agent who makes her living largely on outsiders moving in and gentrifying the area. Others hate the way the area is losing its characters to those who would move in but do not have long connections to it.

At the center of the novel is the titular character, Lech, who is renting a house on Murmur Lake to Beth and her son. He is having affairs with Beth, who is recovering from an abortion, and Noreen. There is a Hasidic Jew who is a drug dealer named Tzvi. Tvzi’s mother drowned in Murmur Lake, and Paige who wants to leave the area for Florida but feels trapped. The truth is that all of these characters are trapped because they do not feel a close connection to each other or anyone else, and so they are stuck in the problem at the center of this collection. It seems to me that this is the kind of collection only a master of flash fiction like Lippmann could write. The characters’ problems are developed in fascinating vignettes of place. In many of these pieces, as in life, they do not grow because of this isolation. They do not always come to epiphanies. Their lives are difficult and unsatisfactory. In doing this, Lippmann is able to create a long description of our new world. Like a great flash fiction writer, she is able to suss out the details that suggest meaning.

 I find the character of Beth to be particularly interesting. She is married and has a child but is essentially alone in the world. Her abortion only highlights this problem. She, more than anyone, seems to understand how harmful this is and seeks connection through an affair with Lech and by trying to be close to her son. This anxiety in her is crystalized when she loses sight of the boy at a fair. “My son — but her mind blanks on what he looks like or what he’s wearing” (323). Of course, part of the reason her mind blanks is just the terror of losing her child. However, to me it feels very much like the self-involved hypnosis that I have been engaged in as well over the last few years. So often it has felt to me like a strange stupor where I am more aware of my internal dialogue than the people around me. When she finally finds her son, his face is ballooning from an allergic reaction:

She doesn’t say: Where were you? How dare you? Why would you ever leave me?

All she says is, “I’m here” (323).

It is telling that while she knows that her child needs medical attention for his allergic reaction, she also instinctively knows that he needs someone to be there for him. He needs to know that he is not alone in this world as do we all.

Other characters try to weather their loneliness with drugs, meaningless sex, or money making. None of these satisfy their needs. For Tzvi, whose mother drowned in Murmur Lake when he was a child, having and using drugs and taking on the role of drug dealer is ultimately unsatisfying. He has been and felt alone most of his life. It is through a recovery program that he is able to find relief. However, human intimacy and belonging seems to be far more important than being clean:

Slowly, the talking begins. Every word chokes him up so he keeps starting over. Take your time, they say. He takes it. What matters is he is not alone. There are people, many people like him, scattered all over . . . He has questions and more questions. One at a time, they say. They call themselves a family (226).

Salvation can be found only in other people and only when they care. Tzvi is able to find his.

That we are feeling spiritually empty is not surprising. Neither is that we have grown more and more isolated. Lippmann’s gift is in showing us the danger of our divide, how it fosters a relentless need for meaning and how we will eventually go after any kind of connection that we can find even when that connection is dangerous. If we are not careful, our need can be used as a tool for dehumanization as she shows in the short story “Good Girl.” In fact, the agency for dehumanization is often praised. After all, the ironic title shows us that girls are valued for not complaining about things that they should complain about. The highest goal for them is to be unnoticed, and she illustrates in both the novel and the story that being noticed is vitally important to not only the individual but to society as well.

This theme is repeated in Lech in Beth, who remains silent about her needs to the point where she removes herself from her society and seeks a hermit-like existence in the Catskill Mountains. Luckily for Beth, she and several characters in the novel ultimately find that connection in healthy ways. However when we will go toward group dynamics that give us a sense of belonging, we can follow the wrong sorts of people and ideas. That might mean following demagogues and demonizing our neighbors. Lippmann certainly shows the beginning of that as the summer people who come from the city are kept away from the residents of this area. What she is perhaps fighting against is allowing the conditions seen in Paris by Petain to creep back into our world. This is a noble effort, and the book is noble as well. It’s not just that. It is also beautiful and moving. It shows us the dangers that exist in this world, but it also clearly presents our salvation.

Lech by Sara Lippmann

John Brantingham

John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022. He has nineteen books of poetry and fiction including Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). He is the founder and general editor of The Journal of Radical Wonder.  He lives in Jamestown, NY.