What do you think about as you stroll through Washington Square Park?
Are you haunted by the potter’s field, a burial ground for the city’s anonymous poor and marginalized in the early 1700s? Or are you thinking about the bad breakup you had on that bench beneath the moon tree?
Popkin’s new novel, “Everything is Borrowed,” follows architect Nicholas Moscowitz as he lands one of the biggest commissions of his career. But the project site carries an unforeseen problem: a buried history of a 19th century Jewish anarchist, also named Moskowitz. As the architect attempts to uncover the past, he discovers a mirror into his own life as well as the city itself. Explore the story behind the story, as Popkin tells it to PW.
“Everything Is Borrowed” is as much a story about place as it is its central character – protagonist Nicholas Moskowitz. What was the kernel idea behind the novel?
Anarchists, in the common imagination, are people who tear down, rip apart, destroy. This reputation comes from their desire to remove the state, remove religion, remove corporate control and start over. But anarchism as a philosophy is about nurturing organic community, sharing property, living together, but with a high regard for personal freedom. It is about building up.
Architects are supposed to be the builders up, and yet in this novel, the architect Nicholas Moscowitz has hit a creative block – he struggles particularly with how to practice his profession in an authentic, original, and just way – this is a kind of Jewish struggle. To go forward he needs to tear down – his own practice, the commission he’s supposed to be working on, and in the rubble try to rebuild. In this struggle, he discovers a figure with the same name, Julius Moskowitz, who comes to the U.S. in the 1880s and at some point as a young man becomes an anarchist. By assembling the architecture of Julius’ life from the scant historical record, Nicholas discovers that on Yom Kippur 1889, Julius, who was dressed for prayer in a white outfit, signifying purity, set up his peddler stand in the Washington Market across from the Love of Mercy synagogue on Bainbridge Street. Working on the holy day is forbidden, but not only that Julius stood there facing the synagogue and he recited anarchist tracts, what they called a “pure prayer.” This was a taunt aimed at the powerful. In those days many of the anarchists in Philadelphia were Jewish immigrants and many of them focused their actions on the stranglehold of religious tradition, which in their minds represented authority, arbitrary and unreasonable power, and subjugation. Julius, with his very public protest, goaded the religious into self-betrayal: they came outside and assaulted him. Discovering this incident from history causes Nicholas to face a similar kind of act from his own past. And in that reckoning, borrowing from Julius’ life as he pieces it together, Nicholas begins to see how he might start again. Yom Kippur, after all, signals a kind of rebirth.
I read about Moskowitz the anarchist a long time ago and stored it away. It fascinated me – and it became for me a way to treat themes like self-betrayal, cruelty and regret in a novel form.
The title lends itself to both to Moskowitz’s ancestral journey and his dive into the heart of the heart of the city. Do you believe cities – their monuments, landscapes, ideas – can be vehicles to explore our personal lives, or is it a one-way relationship?
I believe that the city, like a book, can be read in its various ways – in the layers that each of us creates. The layers collect over time. The city, like a life, collects in layers. This is a novel of digging through the layers in search of meaning. But it’s also a novel about memory and how people and physical places can trigger it, in a powerful way. Cities do form us and we form them and you can read the process in the landscape.
The theory of the double seems to figure largely here. Did you want to incorporate that into the book?
Yes, certainly. It’s a literary trope, I suppose. In this novel Nicholas is mirrored by Julius (Moskowitz and Moskowitz) and Eva by Nadia. Anarchists mirror architects. As Nicholas tries to frame together the facts of Julius’ life, he finds analogs: other anarchists, like Emma Goldman, or the immigrant Waechter, born and died the same year.
Your last published book similarly explored hidden layers of Philly’s history and built environment – albeit in a journalistic vein – and anyone familiar with your work at Hidden City Daily will know this to be a vocation of yours. Did researching and writing that book with your colleague Pete Woodall influence your approach to “Everything is Borrowed”?
So much of my work allows me to consider Philadelphia as a subject, object and setting – it’s a deep well for a writer, almost, perhaps, infinite. I worked on both “Finding the Hidden City” and “Everything is Borrowed” at the same time and each influenced the other. In fact, I was able to treat certain subjects in both books and in both cases draw on the material culture of the present-day city and of the past. But fiction allows me to explore the personal and to experiment with form.
In the city, we say in “Finding the Hidden City,” “consciousness of eternal time mingles with finite reality." This becomes the atmosphere, the psychic milieu of “Everything is Borrowed.” In conceiving this book I wanted to ask how a person can account for the presence of the past, or even of multiple pasts in his or her own life. For we don’t just live now – genetically, we’re old material; our built environments were most often built by others long ago and they reek of those other people; we are often trapped by personal memory; and yet we live with our eyes on the future. Such tension that can’t ever be realized in a linear narrative progression. Our lives don’t work that way! And so I've attempted to tell the story of Nicholas and Julius in the historical past, in the recent past as Julius faces his own acts of cruelty, and in the present as if it were all the present, with time kind of swirling, with lives of the living and the dead reverberating, with the protagonist provoking the streets, buildings, rooms (that both trap and distill time) to tell him what they know. It is in this other sense, too, that everything is borrowed.
As a cross-disciplinary writer, how do you choose what long-term projects should be fiction or nonfiction? Is there a thought process to it, or is it their an organic inception moment that just happens at the get-go?
I’d say there is an organic inception moment. With fiction, a story comes to me, usually connected to a theme I want to explore. I take notes and see where it goes. It’s taken me a lot longer to teach myself to write fiction than non-fiction. The non-fiction books have appeared as opportunities to make sense of ideas, observations and concepts. Fiction has been a much harder grind. You have to invent worlds and that takes a good deal more intention. But there is no question that my fiction writing is deeply informed by my orientation to non-fiction, history and journalism. It’s all authentic to me and all derives from the same long confrontation with place.
Philly has a pretty robust poetry scene. The poets tend to be more communal than the fiction writers in my experience, but there’s a great deal of overlap too. What do you think is missing in terms of literary culture?
There’s so much here – energy, organizations, nodes of literary life. Mostly invisible to most people because we don’t have a single hub. But, wow, I see so much going on—literary mags, publishers, book stores, centers like Kelly Writers House, and so many excellent writers in all genres. But as we talked about before, one of the reasons I helped organize Writers Resist was to try to connect people across genre, community, identity, etc. – the literary community utterly sprawls without a center. And I think even with our successful event we only barely scratched the surface. What’s missing: I’d say two main things. First is a definable literary culture. Our writers aren’t well known enough to our readers. There’s no consistent celebration of Philly writing—there’s no festival. It’s hard to say why a festival hasn’t ever caught on. Second, there’s no large or medium-sized publisher of fiction. No Coffee House or Graywolf or Melville House or New Directions. Those kinds of literary publishers create a tangible culture.
Everything Is Borrowed. New Door Books. 227 Pages. $24.95 (hardcover). $9.95 (Kindle).
OTHER BOOKS IN SEASON
Check out a few of these fine reads, many of which are authored by Philly-based writers.
Ryan Eckes, Split Lip Press, $16
Like Hollywood chase scenes in prose, Eckes’ poems fill the page with a punch. “General Motors” speeds through the movie set of late-stage capitalism, neoliberal labor fantasies and Philadelphia’s postindustrial identity.
JAZZERCISE IS A LANGUAGE
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, The Operating System, $18-23
Ojeda-Sague may be one of Philly’s funniest poets. He calls his latest book “a long poem that wants to be a smiling, skinny white woman.” But don’t let the Spandex and 1980s leg warmers and Richard Simmons references fool you into thinking this isn’t also serious work about pop culture, sexuality and individual liberation.
TAKE OUT DELIVERY
Paul Seigell, Spuyten Press, $15
A regular on the Philly poetry scene, Paul Siegell’s fourth book presents a mashup of “exuberant, encyclopedic poems” that will leave you feeling “like being at a fireworks show whose explosions morph into exposé,” says fellow Philly poet Kevin Varrone.
WELCOME TO LAGOS
Chibundu Onuzo, Catapult, $26
Onuzo weaves a heartfelt tale of intertwining lives in Nigeria where young army officer Chike Ameobi goes AWOL after being ordered to kill his innocent countrymen. The story follows our protagonist’s journey to the African nation’s largest city where a political scandal quickly unfolds.
THE FEMALE PERSUASION
Meg Wolitzer, Random House, $17
You may know Wolitzer as the New York Times-bestselling author of The Interestings. Her latest work explores the ego’s need to be seen, idol worship, intergenerational feminist movements and much more in a story told with Wolitzer’s deft and charming narrative style.
Danielle Lazarin, Penguin Books, $16
This widely acclaimed debut collection should be high up on summer reading lists for short story lovers and short attention spans alike. Danielle Lazarin’s work, according to Philly author Carmen Maria Machado, “joins a growing canon of quietly realist stories that establish women’s experiences as worthy of literary attention."
– MAX MARIN | @MAXMMARIN