Norah Labiner's "German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons" takes her self-described "favorite things" -- fine literature, family drama and big old houses -- and runs them through some painful sessions on Sigmund Freud's couch. For those who like a novel that picks apart their intellect, this one delivers. It's a mysterious mix of travelogue, ghostly dreams, family secrets, psychoanalysis, feminist manifesto and -- of course! -- jokes (of the vaudevillian, Catskill variety). That's enough to keep Labiner, who lives in Minneapolis, tagged as "experimental," but it shouldn't scare off anyone who likes their fiction literary.
The plot has a simple Nancy Drew-like origin: Prompted by a mysterious letter from an old aunt, a Hollywood starlet and a romance writer set off to Berlin to hear the story of their past. But from there the book fractures into several story lines through which Labiner reveals the secrets of a lineage, and in the process says some interesting things about the Jewish experience. She bounces us between time, space and generations -- from the inner affairs of a household during the rise of Nazi Germany, to the love affair of a housewife in 1970s Detroit, to the love affair of a young couple in contemporary Berlin, and around and around and back again.
When and how we move through these story lines is completely associative, as is the Greek chorus of follow-up questions Labiner sometimes inserts into the narrative, and the seemingly tangential German "lesson" sentences at the top of each chapter (such as "Stop! I have a revolver!"). These are all allusions to psychoanalysis, and such "Freudian slippage" is even more apparent in the character of Jozef Apfel -- a Jewish psychoanalyst whose patient, Elsa Z., sees the Holocaust in her dreams. As with Freud and his unsolved "Dora" case, Apfel can't figure out Elsa Z.'s "neurosis," and Elsa Z. resorts to telling jokes when Apfel denies her visions. The power of jokes as a defense mechanism against a chaotic universe isn't lost on the reader, and Labiner makes amazing use of a punch line.
Inserting herself into great literary moments is Labiner's specialty. She did it to Hamlet in her first novel, "Our Sometime Sister." She did it to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in her second novel, "Miniatures." She does it to Freud here, bravely digging into the ridiculousness of the horrible. Fans of the dense first-person voice in "Miniatures" will be surprised by the clipped pace, omniscient narrator and short chapters here, but not by the author's talent. Having been called both a shy recluse and a confident genius, she was once compared to Emily Dickinson by Coffee House Press editor Allan Kornblum. And yet this, Labiner's third book, has only 5,000 copies printed. That's the kind of boutique print run usually reserved for first-time novelists, not the writer of an American Library Association Notable Book and finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. And it raises the unanswerable question: Is it a comedy or a tragedy that more people don't read her?
Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a Minneapolis writer.