12/27/19

Adam Ehrlich Sachs - an absurd and beautifully finessed pseudo-historical novel which deftly circles around a dark core. A madcap, ingenious fable that booms with endless jokes and riffs about the nature of consciousness

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Adam Ehrlich Sachs, The Organs of Sense: A

Novel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.


"This book is only for people who like joy, absurdity, passion, genius, dry wit, youthful folly, amusing historical arcana, or telescopes." ―Rivka Galchen

In 1666, an astronomer makes a prediction shared by no one else in the world: at the stroke of noon on June 30 of that year, a solar eclipse will cast all of Europe into total darkness for four seconds. This astronomer is rumored to be using the longest telescope ever built, but he is also known to be blind―and not only blind, but incapable of sight, both his eyes having been plucked out some time before under mysterious circumstances. Is he mad? Or does he, despite this impairment, have an insight denied the other scholars of his day?
These questions intrigue the young Gottfried Leibniz―not yet the world-renowned polymath who would go on to discover calculus, but a nineteen-year-old whose faith in reason is shaky at best. Leibniz sets off to investigate the astronomer’s claim, and over the three hours remaining before the eclipse occurs―or fails to occur―the astronomer tells the scholar the haunting and hilarious story behind his strange prediction: a tale that ends up encompassing kings and princes, family squabbles, obsessive pursuits, insanity, philosophy, art, loss, and the horrors of war.
Written with a tip of the hat to the works of Thomas Bernhard and Franz Kafka, The Organs of Sense stands as a towering comic fable: a story about the nature of perception, and the ways the heart of a loved one can prove as unfathomable as the stars.

"Adam Ehrlich Sachs is one of the most intelligent writers in America, and one of the funniest. His fiction is both deeply cerebral and deeply human—and deeply human because it’s deeply cerebral. Inherited Disorders has proven to be one of the most lasting literary pleasures of the decade for me, and The Organs of Sense is every bit as sharp and surprising. The bottom line is this: over the last few years, his work has offered me the zing of true and exhilarating literary exploration in a way that few other books have done."—Kevin Brockmeier

"This is the funniest and most original novel I've read in a very long time, a madcap blend of philosophical malpractice and byzantine palace intrigue. It's like what might happen if Helen DeWitt attempted a revisionist seventeenth-century historical novel, or if W. G. Sebald had gone insane. In other words, there's nothing else like it. Read it and see!"—Andrew Martin

"Somewhere at the intersection of sober science, historical pastiche and lunatic parable . . . [The Organs of Sense] is brilliant, weird, and profound, telling truths about the modern condition that most novelists today have forgotten, or never knew." ―Adam Kirsch, Tablet 

"Sachs confidently fictionalizes history, infusing the process of scientific discovery with dark absurdity." ―The New Yorker 

"Adam Ehrlich Sachs's The Organs of Sense is layers-deep. At its core it's a story of a 1666 encounter between a young Gottfried Leibniz and a blind astronomer who makes the unlikely prediction of a solar eclipse . . . It is at once a pitch-perfect send-up of an overwrought philosophical tract and a philosophical tract in its own right―meaty, hilarious, and a brilliant examination of intangible and utterly human mysteries." ―Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed News

"A madcap, ingenious fable that booms with endless jokes and riffs about the nature of consciousness, The Organs of Sense is yet another dazzling, high-wire performance from our modern-day Kleist, Adam Ehrlich Sachs." ―Karan Mahajan

"At once erudite and comic, The Organs of Sense is an absurd and beautifully finessed pseudo-historical novel which deftly circles around a dark core." ―Brian Evenson

"This is the funniest and most original novel I've read in a very long time, a madcap blend of philosophical malpractice and byzantine palace intrigue. It's like what might happen if Helen DeWitt attempted a revisionist seventeenth-century historical novel, or if W. G. Sebald had gone insane. In other words, there's nothing else like it. Read it and see!" ―Andrew Martin

Mix Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, add dashes of Liu Cixin and Isaac Asimov, and you’ll approach this lively novel of early science.
Being an astronomer in the days before high-powered telescopes were developed was not an easy job, especially for the sightless but productive astronomer at the center of Sachs’ (Inherited Disorders, 2016) literate, quietly humorous historical novel. The astronomer in question, who, notes protagonist Gottfried Leibniz—yes, that Leibniz, polymathic philosopher and inventor of calculus—is “in fact entirely without eyes,” has predicted, to the very moment, that at noon on the last day of June 1666 a profound solar eclipse will plunge all Europe into temporary darkness. Given that no other astronomer has arrived at this forecast, Leibniz is intrigued, and off he goes to find the astronomer and gauge whether he is truly blind and truly not off his rocker: “So, if he is sane, and he has not detected me, then this is not a performance, and either he really sees, or he thinks he really sees.” Given that the year 1666 has been an ugly one of plague and war and anti-scientific purges, there’s plenty of reason not to want to see. The astronomer has much to say about such things, spinning intricate tales, some of them increasingly improbable. There’s a gentle goofiness at work in Sachs’ pages, as when he constructs a syllogism about the relative movements of thinkers and nonthinkers, concluding that “if you look very closely at a nonthinker and a true thinker you’ll notice that they’re actually standing still in completely different ways,” and when a prince reasons that in order to call a dog a dog, the thing has to love us, whereas “before that point we call it a wolf.” Yet there’s an elegant meditation at play, too, on how science is done, how political power can subvert it (in the astronomer’s case, in the form of onerous taxes), and how we know the world around us, all impeccably written.
A pleasure to read, especially for the scientifically inclined. - Kirkus Reviews

In his sublime first novel (following the story collection Inherited Disorders), which recalls the nested monologues of Thomas Bernhard and the cerebral farces of Donald Antrim, Sachs demonstrates the difficulty of getting inside other people’s heads (literally and figuratively) and out of one’s own. In 1666, a young Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—the philosopher who invented calculus—treks to the Bohemian mountains to “rigorously but surreptitiously assess” the sanity of an eyeless, unnamed astronomer who is predicting an impending eclipse. Should the blind recluse’s prediction come to pass, Leibniz reasons, it would leave “the laws of optics in a shambles... and the human eye in a state of disgrace.” In the hours leading up to the expected eclipse, the astronomer, whose father was Emperor Maximilian’s Imperial Sculptor (and the fabricator of an ingenious mechanical head), tells Leibniz his story. As a young man still in possession of his sight, he became Emperor Rudolf’s Imperial Astronomer in Prague, commissioning ever longer telescopes, an “astral tube” whose exorbitant cost “seemed to spell the end of the Holy Roman Empire.” The astronomer also recounts his entanglements with the Hapsburgs, “a dead and damned family,” all of whom were mad or feigning madness. These transfixing, mordantly funny encounters with violent sons and hypochondriacal daughters stage the same dramas of revelation and concealment, reason and lunacy, doubt and faith, and influence and skepticism playing out between the astronomer and Leibniz. How it all comes together gives the book the feel of an intellectual thriller. Sachs’s talent is on full display in this brilliant work of visionary absurdism. - Publishers Weekly


Commencing Leaving the Atocha Station with a sharp gesture, novelist Ben Lerner puts all his narrative and descriptive responsibilities aside, in favor of a very funny use of vernacular language, when his protagonist follows a man carefully until the moment where the latter “totally lost his shit.” Lerner so clearly flags his shirking of the demands ordinarily placed on a novelist that the book as a whole comes alive and for its remainder doesn’t settle for anything less.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs in his new book, The Organs of Sense, his debut as a novelist, does something similar. However, where Lerner is content with giving his reader one heads-up at the very beginning, Ehrlich Sachs indulges in driving his story off a narrative cliff again and again. Such detours go back to the substantial conceit of Erlich Sachs’s book, as The Organs of Sense stages a fictional encounter between the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, portrayed at the age of nineteen, and a mysterious, blind astronomer, both anticipating an eclipse predicted by the latter to take place at noon, June 30, 1666. Relentlessly, the fabric of narrative gets cut off in this mise-en-scène wherein, crucially, Leibniz is the auditor of fiction.
The Organs of Sense is peppered with comic sequences wherein a particular word or phrase is robbed of its meaning by repetition; simultaneously, these segments are importantly put before the philosopher Leibniz at an impressionable age. A sculptor ecstatically confident at creating a perfect model of a human head (“I can make that head. I can make that head. I can actually make that head!”), an emperor quizzing the agent who purchases art for him about the fish on a particular painting, or the astronomer, celebrating the appearance of a new star in the night sky, going out in the streets of Prague to tie into knots the Aristotelians who thought that celestial bodies were eternal—these are but a few examples of how Ehrlich Sachs disrupts important assumptions involved in reading a contemporary novel.
So unlike the extremely self-aware and postmodern Lerner, Ehrlich Sachs, with his total commitment to completing every single skit, resembles older writing—bawdy tales from Gogol’s Dead Souls or Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel—and thus displays a modern attitude. Indeed, this motif is pursued so consistently that The Organs of Sense is something halfway between a novel and a piece of conceptual art.
There is much here to remind us of Ehrlich Sachs’s earlier collection of “stories, parables and problems,” the fantastically funny Inherited Disorders. Yet the most important connecting motif is the botched attempts, intellectual or violent, between fathers and sons at getting inside one another’s heads.
So what does this meeting with a blind, crazy astronomer mean for the philosopher Leibniz? It is quite wonderful to contemplate The Organs of Sense as the tragicomic illustration of Leibniz’s universe of self-contained monads between which no communication is possible. - Arthur Willemse


http://www.adamehrlichsachs.com/


Early in Sachs’s debut novel, a blind astronomer says to a visitor after one of his frequent digressions, “This probably sounds obscure but what I mean will become perfectly clear.” This statement holds true for readers as well. Things can be perplexing at first, but once you realize what Sachs is up to, a certain rhythm and theme becomes explicit. Narrated by philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the story ostensibly shows how the astronomer ended up alone on a remote mountaintop, stargazing despite his lack of eyesight. But getting to that final moment is filled with delightful tales of palace intrigue, sibling rivalry, and extensive forays into empirical thought and logic. Deep philosophy is applied to nearly everything that pops up, including the eating of soup. Yet despite these heavy themes, Sachs applies a liberal does of clever humor throughout; nearly everyone is a charlatan in what might be the most lighthearted work about the history of science ever published. Meanwhile, hopping on the Internet while reading, you can learn about glockenspiels, the union of Auhausen, and the concept of “horror vacui.”
VERDICT Great fun and notable for its singular style, playful tone, and sense of economy (Sachs covers a huge amount of ground in just over 200 pages), this impressive debut is for fans of George Saunders and Vladimir Nabokov. - Stephen Schmidt


Summer vacation — and summer reading — start soon. Two perfect reasons to visit the stars.
Fair warning, however: Pittsburgh native Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ novel, “The Organs of Sense,” isn’t a beach read. Unless, of course, you usually bring Voltaire or Spinoza to the beach, which makes you the target audience for this tale of wit and science.
Sachs (“Inherited Disorders”) begins with the discovery of an unpublished manuscript from noted philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who writes of a strange adventure: Long before his achievements in mathematics, law and library science, Leibniz encountered a mystic.
A lone astronomer has predicted a solar eclipse that no other scientist has anticipated, which will take place on June 30, 1666. This odd forecast could be easily dismissed, except for one complication: The astronomer in question has no eyes.
Curious, Leibniz visits the blind stargazer, who is more than happy to explain himself to the future polymath. His story, however, is a crazy quilt of alchemical fable, family drama and shaggy dog saga that may not answer any of Leibniz’s questions at all. Call it a scientific scandal in Bohemia.
“The Organs of Sense” is deeply rooted in the Western intellectual tradition, and prior knowledge of Leibniz’s optimistic worldview is helpful for appreciating the book’s satirical streak; it’s also helpful if you’ve read “Candide.” Sachs’ writing, however, aligns most closely to Thomas Bernhard’s, particularly in its listener-monologue structure.
But don’t panic: Sachs — a semifinalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor — also has martini-dry wit and a fantastic sense of comic timing. Incremental repetition of key phrases heightens the overall absurdity; one especially amusing sequence revolves around bread dumplings, leaving the reader free to decide if the moral is “pleasure clouds judgment” or “don’t eat carbs.”
Most likely, it’s both. Sachs’ story works on multiple levels, in the spirit of many 17th-century alchemical and kabbalistic tales. Mechanical heads, bowls of blood and other oddities are too ridiculous to be taken literally ... or are they? If the astronomer’s story is true, what are the implications for reason and the scientific method? Is there more on heaven and earth than is dreamed of in Leibniz’s philosophy?
“The Organs of Sense” also fixates on father-son relationships with an Oedipal intensity, a theme Sachs also explored in “Inherited Disorders.” Plot developments revolve around the astronomer’s uneasy relationship with his own father and son, both artists. Succession squabbles in the Emperor Maximilian’s royal line feature here as well, with serious consequences for both the astronomer and Bohemia at large.
All of the characters — including Leibniz, whose doppelganger shows up to parody his philosophical views — fail to see that the either-or paradigms they cling to are both irrational and, largely, imaginary. Sadly, they also appear to be inevitable: Besides losing one’s sight, there are a great many ways to be blind.
Reading (and reviewing) “The Organs of Sense” is not unlike being a blind astronomer oneself. The text is a vast tapestry of sky, and the number of stars readers see in it depends on the quality of their critical lenses (and, possibly, the length of their telescopes). In the end, readers confident they have seen all there is to see should be prepared to admit they might be wrong.
Has Sachs written “the best of all possible books,” as Leibniz himself might call it? In a literary landscape crying out for wit and intricacy, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been better. Highly recommended for clever readers who don’t mind the possibility that the jokes are, ultimately, on them. - Leigh Anne Focareta

Deep in the mountains of Bohemia in 1666, a blind astronomer has made a bold prediction. He has forecast the exact time for the next solar eclipse. The wrinkle is, the astronomer is not just blind; he has no eyes. His case attracts the attention of polymath Gottfried Leibniz, who treks to Schwarzenberg to find out what gives. This is how Sachs kicks off his beguiling and utterly magical first novel, in which the unnamed astronomer narrates his personal history with the clock ticking down to the much-awaited celestial event. What unfolds is a riveting story about geopolitical scheming, warfare, and the reach of the Catholic League in the seventeenth century. At the novel’s beating heart, though, is a much more universal theme as Sachs considers father-son relationships and other complicated family dynamics that can make or break creative ambitions of all stripes; add to that how the astronomer’s singular focus on cataloguing all the known stars of the universe is constrained within a personal and more frayed canvas. Sprinkled with generous doses of philosophy, this gem of a novel, with a spectacular denouement, might make for labored reading initially, but ultimately, it’s an utterly immersive and transportive work of art. — Poornima Apte

Gottfried Leibniz may have discovered calculus, but really he had the soul of a novelist. You might be forgiven for thinking so, anyway, after reading Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s first novel, The Organs of Sense (227 pages; FSG), which tells the story of a young Leibniz, hungry to understand the world, its inscrutable rules, and its even more inscrutable inhabitants. You might also see the novelistic sensibility in Leibniz’s philosophy. Calculus offered a neat method for the world and its rules, but neat methods aren’t all that useful unless you’re trying to ace the SATs or go to the moon. It’s a genuine boon to human thought that Leibniz’s groundbreaking work in mathematics did not get in the way of his inventing a rather batshit metaphysics of his own, the Monadology, which basically posits a simple substance—the monad—endowed with intention and appetite, busy at work acting as the substrate of the universe. Luckily for Sachs, it’s quite possible, probably even necessary, to be a world-historical genius with an innate understanding of the underlying structure of the universe and a weirdo with a crackpot theory.
Here’s some Monadology:
Since the world is a plenum all things are connected together, and every body acts upon every other, more or less, according to their distance, and is affected by the other through reaction. Hence it follows that each Monad is a living mirror, or a mirror endowed with inner activity, representative of the universe according to its point of view.
It’s just about the perfect metaphor for human interaction and, even though it doesn’t appear in the novel, it’s the kind of deep background that might have made Leibniz an especially appealing investigator into unusual phenomena. The Organs of Sense opens with word reaching a young Leibniz, fresh off a failed attempt at a law degree, of a mysterious astronomer’s prediction:
At noon on the last day of June 1666, the brightest time of day at nearly the brightest time of year, the Moon would pass very briefly, but very precisely, between the Sun and Earth, casting all of Europe for one instant in absolute darkness, ‘a darkness without equal in our history, but lasting no longer than four seconds,’ the astronomer predicted, according to Leibniz, an eclipse that no other astronomer in Europe was predicting…
Note the coiled sentence structure, slightly parodic academic tone, and nested narration—all constant features of the novel. Leibniz’s every thought and action is mediated by a conjectural scrim, and the narrator sometimes draws on extant writings or other, more spurious, attributed language. This narrative voice does, in fact, belong to a character—there is an “I” attached—but the absence of a locus of narration or any identifying clues (except that he is a translator, which is mostly a recurring half-joke) makes it hard not to make your inner novelist queasy by throwing up your hands and saying it’s probably just Sachs himself.
The astronomer, who claims to possess “the longest telescope known to man, and therefore the most powerful, a telescope said to stretch nearly two hundred feet,” is not merely scientifically gifted but possibly oracular, “not merely completely blind…but in fact entirely without eyes.” Being “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature,” Leibniz sets off at once, and before too long he finds himself in the astronomer’s tower, somewhere in Bohemia, trying to figure out whether this eyeless man is off his rocker. How is he to know?
The problem of getting inside another head, and seeing what that head was seeing (or not seeing) and what it was thinking (or not thinking), now struck Leibniz as a profoundly philosophical problem. Neither cradling it nor cracking it open would do it, for the barrier involved not only bone but also a thick layer of philosophy. The human skull consists, one might say, Leibniz wrote, of a quarter-inch-thick layer of bone and a quarter-inch-thick layer of philosophy. Of course the brain is also cushioned by various membranes and fluids. A skilled doctor can penetrate the skull with a drill, and he can cut through the membranes with a knife, and he can drain the cerebral fluids with a pump, but his instruments are utterly useless for penetrating that solid, condensed layer of philosophy. “Even the most state-of-the-art medical instrument wielded by the best doctor in Paris will simply bounce off the cerebral-philosophical membrane,” Leibniz wrote. That left language.
Anyone who’s ever been stuck at a party trying to have a meaningful conversation with a philosophy student knows that a quarter inch can seem awfully thick, and language is itself an imperfect instrument. What follows is a self-consciously tangled pattern-building exercise, as the narrator relates the astronomer’s tale, as told to Leibniz, of how he lost his eyes—basically the story of his life as an aspiring chronicler of the cosmos in Bohemia. His father hopes to curry royal favor by presenting a show-stopping mechanical head to Emperor Rudolf, King of Bohemia, descendent of the august Habsburg lineage, and holder of sundry other titles. In the first great Greek tragedy of the astronomer’s life, he betrays his father in order to be installed as the Emperor’s Imperial Astronomer. There is genuine movement and pathos to this part of the story, but it mostly sets up a suspended preamble to the astronomer’s sudden turn into eyeless-ness, meaning it’s an opportunity for copious riffing. To wit:
Then his father went to bed and the astronomer—by the light of a single candle lit only after he heard his father’s sixth snore, for one snore could of course be faked, as could two snores or three, even four simulated snores is not unthinkable if his father had suspicions, and the idea of feigning five snores to catch your son in some verboten act is, if absurd, not impossible, whereas after six snores his father was probably asleep—read, for example, the portions of Friar Bacon’s Opus Majus concerning the physiology of vision or his Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature with its depictions of those ingenious devices of antiquity that according to legend made distant things seem near or near things distant…
The same structure occurs later, when the astronomer slowly recognizes that a room containing a glockenspiel is actually a room containing many glockenspiels, in fact it is lousy with glockenspiels, basically a plenum of glockenspiels. Once the glockenspiel situation has been sorted out, the story continues.
Sachs runs these perspectival recursions often, and while all are smart and some very funny, many only have the tone of being funny, and don’t really work. When they do, though, they follow an absurd and exuberant logical momentum and accrete surprising valences, like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill. In one riff, a ditty about a butcher chopping a pig into limit-approaching sections (quarters, halves eighths, sixteenths, etc.) turns out to be an ode to the beautiful insanity of the infinite: “The song, [the astronomer] realized, had taken a mathematical turn.”
What is the point of all this? One of Sachs’s characters conveniently offers an explanation on his behalf, telling the astronomer that “the true artist walks straight toward the insignificant, while slyly keeping an eye on the significant, and moving at all times away from the gorgeous…” Indeed.
The astronomer finds himself caught up in some palatial intrigue having mostly to do with the Habsburg brats, whose names I couldn’t keep straight. Here, as the novel sprints toward the insignificant, it begins to wobble a bit. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to care about this submerged plot, or even to follow it. The problem is not necessarily that these sections are syntactically convoluted or demanding. It’s that, as the voice luxuriates in its own convolutions, it teaches you to pay less attention, to gloss. I suspect Sachs knows where the reader’s attention is likely to ebb and flow, and, again, he suggests a larger reason: “One wants above all to understand the Sun,” says the astronomer, “but one cannot aim one’s telescope right at the Sun!” The “sun,” in this case, might also be the thing we want to communicate. Sachs knows that seeing into someone’s head requires their head to do a lot of work with language in order to produce a series of gestures back toward some always-inarticulable idea. Not every utterance is worth paying attention to, unless you’re the one talking.
We are periodically re-situated in the tower, where the clock is ticking on the astronomer’s prediction. A cat, Linus, stalks the room. (A perfect syllogism, courtesy of the astronomer: “A man delighted by a cat is discomfited by existence, a man delighted by existence is discomfited by a cat.”) The astronomer occasionally presses socket to telescope and writes down long strings of numbers, a refrain that mostly works to remind us that Sachs is in control.
But his is a fine control, and it’s surprisingly propulsive, this mystery of whether the forecasted event will occur—at once banal (four seconds in the dark, big deal) and galactically meaningful (the sun occluded for four seconds is a very big deal for those of us who rely on its warmth and light for our survival). It’s a kind of structural suspense, reading to see whether Sachs will pull it off, wondering which threads will be tied neatly, which left frayed. Wondering what, for God’s sake, happened to the astronomer’s eyes! Happily, the dénouement of the novel is excellently wrangled, and its grotesquerie depends in part upon a demonstration of the horrors of a vacuum, which made me wish that more inventors had shown up in its pages to blow everyone’s minds. (To be fair, there’s also the aforementioned mechanical head, a perpetual motion machine, and more.) Sachs’s chosen historical moment bristles with so much metaphysical weirdness in large part because discovery and mysticism are not yet at cross-purposes. Cutting-edge scientific discoveries are intimations of reality’s as-yet-unexplained properties and thus, in their uncanny mixture of the mechanical and the unimaginable, seem tinged with magic.
The Organs of Sense, too, turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. Sachs has written a misdirecting novel about the pleasures and perils of misdirection, and the contraption works exquisitely, proving that it is impossible to be a person on whom nothing is lost. I must be one of those cat-lovers discomfited by existence, because after uncountable moments of frustration, by the novel’s end, I was actually charmed to feel that I, like Leibniz, was the butt of some cosmic joke. The Organs of Sense invites us to wander around in Sachs’s head; of course it’s messy and annoying. On the verge of throwing the book across the room, I would reach an unanticipated reprise or an incredible morsel of history or the end of a deftly completed feedback loop, cackle gleefully, and fall back in love. The people around me might have felt their constituent monads twinge and wondered, if only for a moment, what was going on in my head. - Henri Lipton

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Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Inherited Disorders:

Stories, Parables, and Problems


"Darkly glittering gem[s] of compressed neuroses...illustrate the astounding range of resentments and misunderstandings that exist between fathers and sons."—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

"Brutal, comic, and exhaustive."—Karan Mahajan, The New Yorker ("Books We Loved in 2016")

“In Inherited Disorders, Sachs displays a rare kind of genius: storytelling that’s humorous and absurdist, but also slyly compassionate and layered. There’s much wisdom about father-son relationships to accompany the intricate and sometimes laugh-out-loud literary fireworks. And in the process, Sachs captures the true richness and strangeness of the world—something of a classic in the making and a favorite read of the past few years.”—Jeff VanderMeer

"Inherited Disorders is just plain funny...Sachs has a finely tuned sense of humor and an economical writing style that gives each story plenty of punch...Inherited Disorders is crammed full of smart turns of phrase, clever twists of logic, and plenty of laughs."—Michael Patrick Brady, The Boston Globe


"Darkly funny...The mania that pushes [Sachs's] stories to their logical extremes retains a uniquely puckish, joyful irreverence...Inherited Disorders makes a certain kind of anxiety so comically debilitating that the full extent of its uselessness is revealed."—Miranda Popkey, The Awl

"Sachs's stories...feel like Saturday Night Live sketches written by Kafka. Each is poignant and absurd, and all are told with an exceedingly light touch that floats, skips, and hops into a punch line. Don't miss out on this one."—Matthew Zeitlin, Buzzfeed

"Adam Ehrlich Sachs's debut marks the arrival of a major humorist. If Kafka and Louis CK were to join forces, they might produce something like Inherited Disorders: absurd, wise, and extremely funny."—Simon Rich

Sachs’s stellar debut collection comprises 117 very short stories about fathers and sons: an assortment of absurdist scenarios from a Harvard-trained intellect with the timing of a borscht belt comedian. In the first story, an Austrian nature poet writing about ferns and creeks despairs when critics see in his work nothing but references to his notorious Nazi father. In “Siegel’s Shoes,” both sons of the owner of Chicago’s oldest shoe store aspire to scientific careers. The older brother takes over the family business, while the younger becomes a physicist fixated on a theory of alternate universes defined by different choices. Other protagonists include a samurai warrior, a labor historian, a historian of the Ottoman Empire, a chairman of the Federal Reserve, and a sweeper for the Canadian curling team. Whether it’s a biologist obsessed with nematodes or a philosopher taking a New England vacation, these unfortunate fellows find themselves self-destructing under the weight of their paternal relationships. Metaphor becomes literal reality when a father’s cryogenic head plagues a failed screenwriter, the philosopher son of a chimney sweep contemplates what he calls “the philosophical flue,” and sons of ice climbers search for fathers who have fallen through the cracks. Among the most haunting images are the last two living speakers—father and son—of a dead Finnic language, figures thought to be father and son buried at Pompeii, and a Cleveland assisted-care facility’s surrogate-son program. With his humor, wit, and imagination, Sachs proves himself a perceptive observer of human nature and a distinctly promising talent. -Publishers Weekly


“I am my father’s father,/ You are your children’s guilt”: I’d be willing to bet that Adam Ehrlich Sachs has read these lines and savored their bitter irony. For Sachs, in his darkly hilarious new book Inherited Disorders, sets out to be the encyclopedist, the poet laureate, of dysfunctional father-son relationships, particularly of the Jewish variety. Schwartz, a first-generation American Jew, felt that he carried the hopes and responsibilities of all his ancestors on his back: It was for his sake that they had suffered, and it was up to him to justify their sacrifices. Sachs, writing in a new century, does not have quite the same acute sense of historic obligation and resentment. But father-son rivalry, the game of expectation and rebellion, what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”—these themes are alive and well, he shows.
In fact, they are so vital that Sachs can’t possibly do them justice in a single story, or 10, or even a hundred. Part of the joke of Inherited Disorders is structural: The book is made up of 117 separate tales, every single one devoted to the subject of fathers and sons. It is like a spoof of the idea of “closure”: Rather than get to the bottom of what drives fathers and sons, Sachs reenacts the compulsive nature of the relationship, finding more and more ways to dramatize it. It is a testament to his wit and ingenuity that the reader only occasionally gets tired of the sameness.
A blurb on the back of the book compares Sachs to a cross between Kafka and Louis C.K., and that sounds about right. Like Kafka, whose story “The Father” is the classic treatment of Sachs’ theme, he captures the feeling of hopeless entanglement in family and history; like a deadpan stand-up, his jokes start out straightforward and then swerve or collapse into absurdity. Take “Diving Record,” which is a single paragraph long:
A Florida man died Monday while trying to surpass his father’s record of deep diving without the aid of oxygen or fins. Thirty years ago, in the Gulf of Mexico, the father famously dove 225 feet without using oxygen or fins. On Monday the son made three dives in the same location, all without using oxygen or fins. His first dive was 167 feet. His second dive was 191 feet. On his third attempt the son managed to dive down 216 without oxygen or fins, but his lungs burst on the way up and he died aboard his diving vessel. At the funeral, his father tearfully admitted that in his record-setting dive he had actually used both oxygen and fins.
At first this could almost be a news story, except that the repetition “oxygen and fins” starts to sound excessive, absurd. The pay-off comes at the very end, when we learn that the father’s heroic deed, the one the son risks his life to match, was a lie. In fact, the father too was human, limited, in need of oxygen and fins. Yet the father was complicit in building up his own legend, thus creating in his son a sense of inadequacy and rivalry so deep that only death can cure it. It is like a Greek myth shrunk to the size of a newspaper clipping.
In story after story, we meet a father of legendary stature whose son spends his life trying to match up; or else it’s a father whose enormous generosity and self-sacrifice become their own kind of impossible challenge. Sachs gives these tales a variety of settings that is itself comic. In “The Family Shiraz,” a winemaker tries to get a better score from the wine critic Robert Parker than his father did; in “The Flying Contraption,” a son kills himself trying to prove that his father’s flying machine is a fraud. Even the sons who resolutely refuse to follow in their fathers’ footsteps end up ensnared, as in “Regret,” where the son of a “dog obstetrician” finds himself unaccountably drawn to the sight of pregnant dogs.
Yet sons don’t come off any better, since it is their misunderstanding and projection that turns their fathers into insoluble problems. A good example comes in “The Stipulation,” about a famous performer whose contract specifies that he can take the stage only if his father is between 30 and 300 feet away from him: The son needs his father close, but not too close. A similar ambivalence is found in “Betrayal,” where a son performs a one-man show designed to “destroy his father, devastate his family”—only to find that the show comes across as so tender and loving that his father leads a standing ovation. Are we to pity the son who can’t communicate his anger, or the father who loves his son so much that he can’t recognize it? Or perhaps this is simply the rare family story with a happy ending, in which love prevails despite everything? Either way, we are left with admiration for Sachs’ insight and his restraint, the way he uses comedy to banish sentimentality. His father must be very proud. -Adam Kirsch


Sachs, who recently turned thirty, tends to describe books of fiction as sets of problems that beg to be worked out in definite ways and with consistent procedures. The third-person narrator of his short prose piece “A Writer’s Justification” (not included in this collection) makes the radical and mischievous claim that “one can read an entire novel, even a canonical novel, even all canonical novels, without coming across any actual writing, just puzzle after puzzle, formulated and solved.”
The stories in Inherited Disorders aren’t sorted in a subject index, but they would have lent themselves well to one. There are many deathbed scenes: a nasty fable in which each successive scion of a food dye fortune learns from his dying father that the family product “explodes hearts,” then chooses to cover up the secret; a cautionary tale about a dying Norwegian playwright who wrongly assumes his unpublished manuscripts will start a family feud; a story about three terminally-ill philosophers determined to prove their career-validating theories to their skeptical sons. Elsewhere we find stories about artists who copy their famous fathers, and several stories in which characters swap roles. In “The Inverted Pyramid,” for instance, an acrobat and a mathematician trade their dynastic duties, with fatal outcomes for both families.
There are even stories about sons who make their own compilations of father-son confrontations. In “In a Vat,” a crazed scientist keeps feeding new father-themed memories into a floating brain. It would come as a shock to his actual father, who “lives literally right around the corner,” that “his son actually uses his brain-in-a-vat to simulate thousands of encounters between fathers and sons.” Writing fables gives Sachs, like the neuroscientist in that story, a certain freedom. In an interview with the New Yorker, he described his experience trying to write a more conventional novel: “I would start with a father and a son arranged in some extremely ironic configuration, as in these stories, but then I would make the son sort of amble over to the father, in a realist mode, and say something, and the novel would fall apart.”
As Sachs imagines it, sons are practically predestined to justify or emulate their fathers: an architect father produces a negligibly different architect son; a passive “fernpoet” nonetheless can only write about his father’s war crimes; an actor’s one-man show, which he insists will “destroy” his dentist father, inevitably is received as “an extraordinarily tender portrayal of a skilled dentist and loving family man.” Much of the book’s comedy is in Sachs’s way of treating these fraught relationships as if they were systems with rule-governed outcomes to be modeled and graphed—“puzzles,” as he put it in “A Writer’s Justification,” “that admit of solutions.” - Max Nelson

“I am my father’s father,/ You are your children’s guilt”: I’d be willing to bet that Adam Ehrlich Sachs has read these lines and savored their bitter irony. For Sachs, in his darkly hilarious new book Inherited Disorders, sets out to be the encyclopedist, the poet laureate, of dysfunctional father-son relationships, particularly of the Jewish variety. Schwartz, a first-generation American Jew, felt that he carried the hopes and responsibilities of all his ancestors on his back: It was for his sake that they had suffered, and it was up to him to justify their sacrifices. Sachs, writing in a new century, does not have quite the same acute sense of historic obligation and resentment. But father-son rivalry, the game of expectation and rebellion, what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”—these themes are alive and well, he shows.
In fact, they are so vital that Sachs can’t possibly do them justice in a single story, or 10, or even a hundred. Part of the joke of Inherited Disorders is structural: The book is made up of 117 separate tales, every single one devoted to the subject of fathers and sons. It is like a spoof of the idea of “closure”: Rather than get to the bottom of what drives fathers and sons, Sachs reenacts the compulsive nature of the relationship, finding more and more ways to dramatize it. It is a testament to his wit and ingenuity that the reader only occasionally gets tired of the sameness.
A blurb on the back of the book compares Sachs to a cross between Kafka and Louis C.K., and that sounds about right. Like Kafka, whose story “The Father” is the classic treatment of Sachs’ theme, he captures the feeling of hopeless entanglement in family and history; like a deadpan stand-up, his jokes start out straightforward and then swerve or collapse into absurdity. Take “Diving Record,” which is a single paragraph long:
A Florida man died Monday while trying to surpass his father’s record of deep diving without the aid of oxygen or fins. Thirty years ago, in the Gulf of Mexico, the father famously dove 225 feet without using oxygen or fins. On Monday the son made three dives in the same location, all without using oxygen or fins. His first dive was 167 feet. His second dive was 191 feet. On his third attempt the son managed to dive down 216 without oxygen or fins, but his lungs burst on the way up and he died aboard his diving vessel. At the funeral, his father tearfully admitted that in his record-setting dive he had actually used both oxygen and fins.
At first this could almost be a news story, except that the repetition “oxygen and fins” starts to sound excessive, absurd. The pay-off comes at the very end, when we learn that the father’s heroic deed, the one the son risks his life to match, was a lie. In fact, the father too was human, limited, in need of oxygen and fins. Yet the father was complicit in building up his own legend, thus creating in his son a sense of inadequacy and rivalry so deep that only death can cure it. It is like a Greek myth shrunk to the size of a newspaper clipping.
In story after story, we meet a father of legendary stature whose son spends his life trying to match up; or else it’s a father whose enormous generosity and self-sacrifice become their own kind of impossible challenge. Sachs gives these tales a variety of settings that is itself comic. In “The Family Shiraz,” a winemaker tries to get a better score from the wine critic Robert Parker than his father did; in “The Flying Contraption,” a son kills himself trying to prove that his father’s flying machine is a fraud. Even the sons who resolutely refuse to follow in their fathers’ footsteps end up ensnared, as in “Regret,” where the son of a “dog obstetrician” finds himself unaccountably drawn to the sight of pregnant dogs.
Yet sons don’t come off any better, since it is their misunderstanding and projection that turns their fathers into insoluble problems. A good example comes in “The Stipulation,” about a famous performer whose contract specifies that he can take the stage only if his father is between 30 and 300 feet away from him: The son needs his father close, but not too close. A similar ambivalence is found in “Betrayal,” where a son performs a one-man show designed to “destroy his father, devastate his family”—only to find that the show comes across as so tender and loving that his father leads a standing ovation. Are we to pity the son who can’t communicate his anger, or the father who loves his son so much that he can’t recognize it? Or perhaps this is simply the rare family story with a happy ending, in which love prevails despite everything? Either way, we are left with admiration for Sachs’ insight and his restraint, the way he uses comedy to banish sentimentality. His father must be very proud. -Adam Kirsch


Sachs, who recently turned thirty, tends to describe books of fiction as sets of problems that beg to be worked out in definite ways and with consistent procedures. The third-person narrator of his short prose piece “A Writer’s Justification” (not included in this collection) makes the radical and mischievous claim that “one can read an entire novel, even a canonical novel, even all canonical novels, without coming across any actual writing, just puzzle after puzzle, formulated and solved.”
The stories in Inherited Disorders aren’t sorted in a subject index, but they would have lent themselves well to one. There are many deathbed scenes: a nasty fable in which each successive scion of a food dye fortune learns from his dying father that the family product “explodes hearts,” then chooses to cover up the secret; a cautionary tale about a dying Norwegian playwright who wrongly assumes his unpublished manuscripts will start a family feud; a story about three terminally-ill philosophers determined to prove their career-validating theories to their skeptical sons. Elsewhere we find stories about artists who copy their famous fathers, and several stories in which characters swap roles. In “The Inverted Pyramid,” for instance, an acrobat and a mathematician trade their dynastic duties, with fatal outcomes for both families.
There are even stories about sons who make their own compilations of father-son confrontations. In “In a Vat,” a crazed scientist keeps feeding new father-themed memories into a floating brain. It would come as a shock to his actual father, who “lives literally right around the corner,” that “his son actually uses his brain-in-a-vat to simulate thousands of encounters between fathers and sons.” Writing fables gives Sachs, like the neuroscientist in that story, a certain freedom. In an interview with the New Yorker, he described his experience trying to write a more conventional novel: “I would start with a father and a son arranged in some extremely ironic configuration, as in these stories, but then I would make the son sort of amble over to the father, in a realist mode, and say something, and the novel would fall apart.”
As Sachs imagines it, sons are practically predestined to justify or emulate their fathers: an architect father produces a negligibly different architect son; a passive “fernpoet” nonetheless can only write about his father’s war crimes; an actor’s one-man show, which he insists will “destroy” his dentist father, inevitably is received as “an extraordinarily tender portrayal of a skilled dentist and loving family man.” Much of the book’s comedy is in Sachs’s way of treating these fraught relationships as if they were systems with rule-governed outcomes to be modeled and graphed—“puzzles,” as he put it in “A Writer’s Justification,” “that admit of solutions.” - Max Nelson


The subtitle of Inherited Disorders, the debut collection by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, promises an eclectic stew of “Stories, Parables, & Problems,” but really, each piece is all three. These are stories, from a few lines to a few pages: stories about fathers and sons, and the tensions and pressures that come with the territory. They are parables: they illustrate the comically repetitive lesson that it’s hard to do right by dad. And finally, they pose problems: how can a son do justice to his father’s legacy but still build his own? Or should he ignore his father? Destroy the legacy? Undo his father’s work? And what should he do with the inheritance? We’re not just talking money. In this collection, inheritances come in all shapes and sizes: unfinished scholarship, aesthetic doctrine, talking parrots, bodily features. The delivery method varies as well: a father might lovingly bequeath his legacy, or inadvertently pass it on, or unload it with spite. Such legacies and inheritances are rarely welcome; they are unwieldy, daunting — disorderly. An inheritance, then, is just another way by which fathers and sons disappoint and misunderstand each other. Still, though these stories seldom end merrily, this is not a cynical collection. For the most part, fathers love their sons, sons their fathers, forgiveness and near-reconciliations abound, and intentions are generally good. But patrimony is complicated, slippery, and fraught. And funny, too.
Take story #109, “Unfinished Things,” in which a son visits his father on his deathbed. The father asks him to finish what he started: Gibbon’s six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The father read five volumes but never got to the sixth. “Of course! cried his son. I will! I promise!” When the father also asks him to write a physical treatise on the atom, and a biography of Gibbon the historian, the son’s response is more tepid: “Um, said the son. Okay.” When the father also asks him to write a symphony that begins with “La,” and solve the three largest puzzles in the world, the progressive logic of the joke becomes apparent. The father’s dying wish coopts the son’s life. The punchline comes after the father loses consciousness but revives with a final request: “Reforest the Earth.” It is a lovely joke — absurd yet logically terminal, silly and bittersweet. It conveys a fatherly heap of unrealistic expectation and longing, a lament for the bygone world, and, even if only in small measure, a warm note of affection for the son—the vessel of hope for the future.
Sachs draws humor from the generic tropes of father-son relationships. Disappointment, expectation, pride, ambition, competition: Sachs calls upon these themes with a gentle, knowing summons. In fully embracing his animating conceit, Sachs has excluded—or spared—women from this collection. Their absence is a lingering joke, one that flirts with self-reproach: the pressure on fathers and sons is of their own making. They are prone to male self-seriousness, a particular strain of ridiculousness that is not so different from peacocking, or machismo, or bro-ing out, or putting one’s head up one’s ass. Males are vulnerable to male solipsism, and Sachs gleefully enumerates the contingent punishments men earn by caring so much, and so exclusively, for male lineage. As I read each story, I imagined a female figure — a mother, sister, wife or partner — waiting in the wings, rolling her eyes, wondering if she should keep watching, or shoot to kill. As the stories accumulate, an abiding pity takes hold: men, who are fathers, sons, or both, have to contend with the inanity of maleness.
There are 117 stories in this collection. One of the shortest, “Shimura’s Robot,” is 93 words about the invention of a robotic father to be used as a surrogate in orphanages. The invention is a failure—or, rather, a resounding success at embodying a distant father figure: “Mostly he ignores the orphans. Every fifteen minutes he raises one of his robotic arms and violently hushes the entire orphanage.” The sharp, dry humor of this brief story also contains a dark undertone. A rude robotic dad is funny; neglect, less so. The best jokes take on the serious substance of life; the best laughs contain at least the shadow of a cringe. Shimura’s robot is a proxy-dad for orphans, just as a son might be his father’s proxy, a replicant of the patriarch. The story also demonstrates the collection’s remarkably consistent tonal pitch, a repertorial aloofness that establishes the narrator’s distance from the subject matter. The story’s final sentence, “Shimura seems baffled by the negative response to his robot, which has led to speculation about his childhood,” again sounds that darkly comic note, this time about Shimura’s past and his relationship with his father. The pseudo-journalistic, nearly clinical narrative voice creates an illusion of objectivity. The joke here and elsewhere is that no objective narrator would ever assemble such a book; he himself must be equally embroiled. Like many of the stories, “Shimura’s Robot” reveals that behind that journalistic façade is an empathetic narrator who, in his exclusive attention to fathers, implicates himself as a troubled son. The collection is a comic convening of all those sons struggling with the weirdness, difficulty, joy, and sadness of having a father. It reassures them that they’re not alone.
In “Exhaustion,” a painter endeavors to finish a final painting on the subject of his father before he moves onto new and more external subjects—the Holocaust, in particular. But the painting grows and grows, becomes protuberant, protubes some more, demands evermore of the painter’s brushstrokes. In “Strassberg & Strassberg,” a team of songwriting brothers write beautiful love songs, but only ever on the subject of their father, a large Hungarian Jew with a big beard. In another, a son makes only unflattering paper mache dolls resembling his father. Sachs presents numerous iterations of fixation and obsession. Often in these stories, the obsessed attempts to purge himself of his preoccupations by indulging them fully. The goal is to use it till you lose it —exhaust the obsession to stop it from contaminating work and life. For the most part, these are artists, scholars, and craftsmen, as Sachs seems most interested in those who have committed themselves to single, consuming, somewhat esoteric occupations. This raises the stakes of the legacy: the more knowledge, skill, or specialization a father has, the more will be lost when he dies. The son, who holds the promise of carrying forward his father’s work, is also the father’s final hope for canonization. The collection makes light of how insubstantial a life can be, and how work treated with the utmost gravity and seriousness is still made trivial by death. Ripe for ridicule is the hope that lineage can preserve one’s ideas, and that future generations will substantiate one’s accomplishments. The book suggests that artists and intellectuals, with their penchant for myopic self-scrutiny, are more prone to suffer the disappointment of legacy. Here, legacy is a weak consolation for the disappointments of life, and the sons want nothing to do with it. But Sachs observes an equality of doom: fathers may be damned to the hell of obscurity, but they’re bringing their sons down with them.
Sachs sets these stories all over the world. It’s another running joke: the eclectic locales attest to both the doggedness of the narrator’s reporting and the global diversity of his Troubled Sons Society. Lithuania, Italy, Czech Republic, Japan, Tunisia—these settings create the sense of a worldwide epidemic and validate the narrator’s endeavor to collect these stories. The international sprawl also speaks to the collection’s influences. In interviews, Sachs has cited Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator as a seminal influence, and from Bernhard’s book he borrows both an aloof, globetrotting narrator, a narrow conceit, and a concise form. But whereas Sachs is obsessed with fathers and sons, Bernhard is obsessed with political corruption and madness. His collection, with its wry meditations and lofty narrative perch, is very cynical: his narrator gives the impression of a man watching crabs scrabble in the sand, but from the safe height of a lifeguard chair. Sachs has mentioned other great projects in this vein: J Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, and Joy Williams’s 99 Stories of God, in which God really is just one of us, an omnipotent joe just muddling along. Take this excerpt from Williams’s 99 Stories, #62:
The Lord was trying out some new material.
I AM WHO I AM, He said.
It didn’t sound right.
Sachs’s collection also recalls Janet Malcolm’s essay “41 False Starts,” a collage of attempts at writing a profile of the painter David Salle. Malcolm’s essay is proof that sometimes a subject matter is best served by a bumpy compilation of tries. Sachs’s collection is fine proof of that, too, and he himself has called this project a collection of false starts, the various beginnings to his novel about fathers and sons. Sachs has situated himself in an intriguing genre, among remarkably good company. But his book stands on its own as an exhaustive comic project, one that knows its ancestors and has selectively inherited the moves of those projects. Bernhard complained of writers who manufacture and painstakingly chronicle fictional lives. To him, writing was not meant to mimic human experience, and the writer was a thing apart, not a fellow traveler. Sachs’ collection seems to borrow that narrative distance and similarly eschew the come-along camaraderie of character-driven work. But Sachs admits far more warmth to his collection, and despite the dysfunction on display in these stories, and despite Sachs’s comedic mandate, the book is suffused with an odd compassion. No one is entirely to blame: it’s no single father’s fault that fatherhood is a monolithic difficulty. There are bad dads, yes, and bad sons. But everyone is, to different degrees, trying. Judgment, too, is a thing this collection avoids. Take those songwriting brothers, who never could shake their obsession with their bearded father—a weird obsession, and sad, too. But is it weird? Is it sad? The story’s last line informs us, “They seemed happy.”
Despite the humor and morbidity and missed connections, there is reverence for parentage as both a rickety bridge between generations and an odd relationship defying comprehension or simplicity. In general, Sachs avoids the simple answer; though this is a book well aware of its animating problems, it is, thankfully, not intent on solving them. Sachs does not undermine the complexity of family ties to get at easy humor. Humor is in abundance, and accessibly so, but it merely augments the rich oddities of paternity, and the book manages to achieve a simmer-state of poignancy. The collection conveys that anguish and comfort coexist in family matters. A final example: in “Utterly Inscrutable,” the son of a serial killer is asked how he could live with his father and not know his true nature. “‘Perhaps the closer we are, the more ignorant we are,’” he says. Another joke is playing out: the son continues to claim ignorance even though he found human femurs in his father’s sock drawer, human heads simmered in cauldrons on the stove, and the father wore “a necklace made of toes.” “‘Another person’s mind is always a mystery to us,’” the son repeats. Despite the story’s joke-structure and morbid content, there are real and complicated ideas at play: the limits of intimacy and familiarity, the inscrutable interiors of the mind. It’s the quintessential Sachs story: readily funny but oddly touching, seemingly simple but with an odd and bewildering depth. - Walker Rutter-Bowman
The American author Willa Cather once claimed, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” If writers are required to draw from some predetermined well of archetypal stories, then one of these stories is most certainly about a father and his son. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hamlet, Turgenev—countless examples illuminate some aspect of the complicated bond between generations of men in a family. Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ debut novel, Inherited Disorders, explores the father/son relationship in a unique form: 117 stories that range in length from a single paragraph to several pages.
Readers expecting warm, fuzzy tales of paternal and filial bliss should look elsewhere. These tales are parabolic, often absurdist, each seeming to shine light on yet another way misunderstanding can flourish in a family. And they are cleverly funny, full of ironies about legacy and its pressures, about expectations misunderstood and over-emphasized. Take, for instance, the story “Diving Record,” quoted here in its entirety:
A Florida man died Monday while trying to surpass his father’s record for deep diving without the aid of oxygen or fins. Thirty years ago, in the Gulf of Mexico, the father famously dove 225 feet without using oxygen or fins. On Monday the son made three dives in the same location, all without using oxygen or fins. His first dive was 167 feet. His second dive was 191 feet. On his third attempt the son managed to dive down 216 feet without oxygen or fins, but his lungs burst on the way up and he died aboard his diving vessel. At the funeral, his father tearfully admitted that in his record-setting dive he had actually used both oxygen and fins.
The wry humor of the ironic ending, the distanced, reportorial style of the prose, the inherent pressure felt by the son of the high-achieving father—these facets recur throughout Sachs’ stories. In “Legacy,” the son of an atonal composer suffers a lifetime being referred to as “the son of the famous atonal composer” until he exposes himself on an airplane in part, we imagine, to change this primary association. The son of a winemaker in “The Family Shiraz” tries to improve on his father’s winemaking process; meanwhile, the son of an influential wine critic takes over his father’s job, changing the rating system so drastically that the winemakers can never know which wine is superior. “Concerto for a Corpse” tells the story of the Czech pianist who loses, in questionable accidents, first one finger, then another, then an arm, then another, while his father, the composer, continues to compose concertos for him, even after his death.
The characters in Sachs’ stories are scholars and artists, scientists and craftsmen, and the tales are set in locations all over the world; this inclusiveness of range parallels the universality of the theme. Sachs attended Harvard, where he studied atmospheric science and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. These two biographical notes fit perfectly with the flavor of Inherited Disorders, as does the fact that Sachs’ own father was once voted one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Sachs’ dedication reads simply “for my father.”
The stories that deal with a character failing to reach another are perhaps the most melancholy. In “The Fourth Sonata,” a composer struggles to reach his father through his art.
A German composer whose earliest songs and sonatas had been dismissed as trifling and derivative, and whose father had begun to suggest, in his exceedingly gentle way, that he look into business or the law, went in 1924 to live in a timber hut beside a lake in the north of Finland, where over the course of several years, in perfect solitude, he pioneered an ingenious method of composition, very, very different from Schoenberg’s chromaticism, if superficially of course somewhat similar to it.
When the composer returns in triumph to play the piece for his father, he finds that in his absence, his father has gone completely deaf. The son spends the rest of his life trying to create a form for his sonata that his father can access, only to be thwarted by his father’s subsequent loss of sight, taste and speech; his goal is unattainable.
In “Utterly Inscrutable,” the son of a serial killer is unable to recognize his father’s crimes, despite tangible evidence. When interviewed, he gives vague, noncommittal answers.
‘I think,’ he replied, ‘the people closest to us are sometimes the most opaque to us. Perhaps the closer we are, the more ignorant we are.’
Early in the trial it emerged that the son had once discovered four human femurs in his father’s sock drawer. He granted another interview. ‘Even the people we love are, in the end, utterly inscrutable to us,’ he said.
Sachs sites Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, Borges, Beckett, and Lydia Davis as influences, and says he came to the form for Inherited Disorders through trial and error. In a recent New Yorker interview, he claims that form followed theme, which was there from the start. “First I tried to write a more conventional novel about fathers and sons. I would start with a father and a son arranged in some extremely ironic configuration, as in these stories, but then I would make the son sort of amble over to the father, in a realist mode, and say something, and the novel would fall apart.” So he went back to his original impulse, the ironic stories, and let them stand alone.
The danger of exploring a theme over and over—say, 117 times—is that a sense of inevitability or even boredom might surface during the reading experience. This is not the case with Inherited Disorders, which is endlessly sharp and engaging from start to finish. There is something almost rhythmically musical or mathematical about the form, like Monet’s water lilies.
Artists often fixate on certain themes. All of Willa Cather’s best known short stories are about home and the process of leaving it; she explored the immigrant experience and being an outsider throughout her entire writing career. Sachs’ debut is a welcome addition to our collection of writing about the father/son relationship, and it tackles this multi-faceted, universal theme in a unique, compulsively readable, and entirely modern form. - Mary Vensel White


For all intents and purposes and according to its back cover, Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s debut book Inherited Disorders is a work of comedy. Because it is broken up into aphoristic, joke-like vignettes, from a solitary flip-through it might even appear to be a novelty item or a bathroom book. It is certainly amusing throughout and even provides a few belly laughs, but as the little stories accumulate and the jokes add up, Sachs’s book reveals that it also has real meat. It deals explicitly with philosophical issues like repetition, inheritance, and authenticity and offers a refreshingly ironic critique of patriarchal society.
Sachs’s stories are variations on the theme of patrimonial inheritance, written in sharp prose and cast with an eclectic, typically erudite bunch of caricatures, and through them, Sachs unspools the many tropes that constitute our understanding of the father-son relationship. The two most common of these themes are the need to escape one’s inheritance and the impossibility of doing so.
Sachs lets the logic of this dilemma play out in diverse ways. In a memorable parable, published by n+1 last year, Sachs tells the story of the son of a chimney sweep who becomes a world-renowned philosopher, famous for “a kind of logico-linguistic chimney sweeping.” We are told that “over time [he] construed this metaphor in an increasingly literal fashion,” eventually sending students up onto their Oxford roofs to sweep the chimneys. “For a time in his early career it really did seem that Fowler had torn himself root and branch out of his own past,” the story begins. By its end, Sachs writes that half the philosopher’s colleagues
thought his escape attempt had, belatedly, failed. He was, in the end, still a chimney sweep. He was not so much wielding his past as being wielded by it, less seizing upon a metaphor than being seized upon by one, they said, and he would, in due course, cause a number of students to die of suffocation.
There are stories of refused inheritance, such as the pianist son of a composer who severs his own fingers and then his limbs to discourage his father from writing sonatas for him to perform; stories of desperate attempts at communication: as with the composer-son who learns to paint in order to convey his artistic vision to his deaf father, who then goes blind, so the son learns to cook; stories of filial devotion and of fatherly devotion; stories of competition: the artist-father who imprisons his infant son in a woodshed to prevent him from becoming an artist and surpassing him, only to wonder if somehow his son’s inarticulate wails and scratchings might by some definition be the most transcendental art.
Inherited Disorders is not a psychological farce, however, but rather a kind of metaphysical comedy of errors. As with the chimney sweeping, which begins as physical labor and morphs into intellectual doctrine before returning to the material world unchanged. The dominant philosophical operations of the book, as well as its comedic structure, turn on the ideas of substitution and singularity: the material and intelligible phenomena that can be interchanged with one another and those that cannot.
In a way, comedy and philosophy grow from the same confusion. That a word does not necessarily represent the thing it is meant to signify opens the possibility of wordplay as well as the possibility of metaphysics. A philosopher doesn’t know what anything is, which puts him in a preposterous and hilarious position. Where philosophy tries, and typically fails, to clarify our fundamental linguistic confusion, however, comedy has the good sense just to laugh.
The attempts we make with words to order the psychological and historical drives that animate our lives are ultimately futile and thus comedic; these drives almost always concern inheritance in one way or another: biological reproduction, artistic or political legacy, the longing to transcend death by transferring our being into something that will outlast us. But this desire denies the fact that the singularity of each life cannot be substituted for anything else, while each of our products—even children—always can be substituted, and thus fails to capture our singular being.
In the final variation of the book, called “Unrest,” not more aphoristic than many of the others, Sachs delivers almost a summary of the book as a whole and highlights the finality of death and the indeterminateness of intellectual legacy. It reads, in full:
One winter evening in 1905, on a street corner in Moscow, a radical who was carrying a bomb toward his tsarist father’s home happened to bump into an acquaintance, a painter who was carrying a Symbolist painting toward his realist father’s studio. On the far corner they spotted, purely by chance, a philosopher friend who was carrying an idealist manifesto toward his materialist father’s office. The radical planned to kill his father, the Symbolist to surpass his father, and the idealist to refute his father. But when the radical, kneeling in his father’s bathroom, armed his bomb, it went off prematurely and he killed himself instead. What happened to the other two is unknown.
The point, of course, aside from the inevitability and risk of filial rebellion, is that only material facts, such as explosions, are known with certainty, and the clashes between words like Symbolist or Realist are waged wholly on a shifting linguistic battlefield.
Just as our lives are shaped by our biological and historical forebearers, our legacies, too, are guided by forces beyond our control. We toil furiously to achieve autonomous and authentic selves, but this work becomes comical, for the actions we take according to our personal possibilities are infinitesimally small compared to the forces of biology and history. All we have that is perfectly our own is our death, which is, ironically, exactly nothing. The whole edifice of patrimonial inheritance and legacy sinks in the quicksand of language and metaphysical pretension.
Sachs has not only a brilliant sense of the fluidity of meaning, but also where that fluidity stops and hits the real. In another story, which winks at the idea that the fury and futility of the game of inheritance is specifically male—and which is appropriately, though anomalously, self-referential—he writes:
The author of a book of anecdotes or jokes about his father—not this book—got a phone call from him just minutes before he planned to send the book to an agent. The phone call was so pleasant, so unusually effortless and intimate, that the author had second thoughts. . . .
At the last minute, the author pressed Shift-Command H to open the Find and Replace window in Microsoft Word and replaced every “father” with a “mother,” every “dad” with a “mom.” He figured his truths about fathers were basically transferrable to mothers—who also, after all, come before us and create us and mold our thoughts and who are also disappointed and confused by us when we distance ourselves from them in order to work out which of our thoughts are our thoughts and which of our thoughts are their thoughts, a project which, if we’re completely honest with ourselves isn’t even our project to begin with because we learned it from our literary and philosophical mothers and fathers.
Yes, he told himself, this is about parents . . . He sent the document to the agent. “A book about my mother,” he wrote.
But the fundamental noninterconvertability of mothers and fathers was brought home to him moments later when the agent asked if he intended to refer three times on the first page to his “mother’s penis.”
That’s just funny. And if here I’ve treated a comedy book as though it were a philosophy book, maybe that’s kind of funny, too. -Jeremy Butman

Fathers haunt us, inspire us, reject us, and even unintentionally destroy us with their legacies. The relationship between fathers and sons is one of the less fully explored in literature—less than that between siblings, between spouses, or even perhaps between mothers and sons. It’s a relationship about which its participants seem so unsure of themselves and for which many writers have shared, or at least perpetuated, that uncertainty.
Inherited Disorders is a series of reflections on the father/son relationship delivered in 117 “stories, parables, and problems,” as the book is subtitled. Through the 117 shorts, Sachs gives us lessons, plenty of humor, and ample warnings about one of the most misunderstood and most silent familial relationships. Disorders is a beginning, in bits and pieces, of real literary talent.
Some of the shorts seem like little more than synopses for what might have been novels. Others, like the subtitle suggests, have the flavor of modern-day parables and seem best suited for the format. It’s an undeniably mixed bag but that’s hardly to say it’s uneven. With only a handful of exceptions, it’s clear each piece has something important to say and ends at just the right moment. In fact, other writers—and perhaps other publishers—would do well to share the confidence that Sachs has in knowing exactly when he’s said enough.
The shorts are wide-ranging. Some are heartbreaking in less than 500 words; others are unexpectedly hilarious whether outright or with a darker flavor to their humor. Disorders is a contemporary stable of parables not only about fathers and sons, but about the everyday struggle to live one’s life in another’s shadow and about the failure to meet another’s expectations.
Reading these 117 parables of fathers and sons back to back, it’s easy to ignore the skill that clearly went into each one. Many of the stories intertwine around the same themes like the DNA that so many of the characters either seek to escape or fatefully come to embody in mirroring or living contrary to their fathers. But despite the variations on themes, the stories don’t come across as repetitive. In fact, each story’s brevity can help relieve the repetition. For a book subtitled “Stories, Parables, and Problems,” there are undoubtedly plenty of the first two, and given a book about the complexities of father/son relationships, there’s no doubt few immediate solutions to the problems therein.
Some stories do stand alone, as much as can be said about a book like this. Others seem to stitch together a larger sermon. No story embodies this better perhaps than “Siegel’s Shoes,” in which brothers take two different life paths (one fulfilling their father’s wish by giving up his career, the other continuing his career in their mutual discipline). The son who continues to study physics comes to see the universe as infinitely spawning son-universes based on these decisions in which “any interaction between family members brings forth at least one … universe,” because after all, “fathers are not the only world creators.” - Matthew Snider

Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables, and Problems is an assemblage of 117 witty and imaginative vignettes that examine the relationships between fathers and sons. You’d think this familiar territory well covered by Odysseus and Telemachus, Abraham and Isaac, Prince Hamlet and the ghost of King Hamlet, among countless others. You’d think the subject would be tired, that we needn’t go further than Oedipus killing his father at the crossroads. But in these 117 snippets—none of them spanning more than a few pages—Sachs puts the fun in dysfunctional with prose that seems familiar yet magical, reminiscent of Borges, Balano, or Hrabal. 
Formally, these vignettes could stand alone as pieces of flash fiction. But when viewed as a collage, the book’s sheer abundance of fun, of story, of imagination, of verve, takes on the feel of a novel. The insistent focus evident in the book’s curation is a quality that no small number of the book’s characters also possess. Take the first son we meet, the son of a Nazi officer who is a nature poet enamored with ferns. Critics interpret all of his work—poems explicitly about nature—as his attempt to reconcile his father’s horrific past. It’s not until he writes about the Holocaust that a critic interprets his work literally: as descriptive of a fern. While the character is enamored with ferns and wishes to capture them in words, the world is obsessed with reading his work through a lens that fits its needs. The result is comical, perhaps absurd. 
Some of Sachs’s vignettes explore the nature of influence as it relates to inheritance—but not necessarily as it relates to hereditary connections. In one such vignette, a group of artists choose to nail their scrotums to various surfaces. One of the artists asserts, “We all come from somewhere,” a suggestion that none of us—perhaps especially artists and writers—exists in a vacuum, free of influence, imitation, or, yes, inheritance. Rather, we exist in a matrix of expectations, imitation, and roles that oddly and circumstantially come to define us. 
The pace with which Sachs’s novel-slash-collection moves is bracing. Much of the book, if read in a sustained period, feels like a series of “bits” in one stand-up comedian’s set. Take, for example, Sachs’s back-to-back vignettes “Explanation” and “Vindicated”:
A philosopher famous for his gnomic aphorisms was found stabbed to death in his Paris apartment. Beside the body his aphorisms were found explained to death. His son, a proponent of clear thinking and clear writing, has confessed to stabbing his father, whom he called an obscurantist, and explaining his aphorisms, in both cases to death. According to Paris police, the son stabbed his father eleven times in the back and then typed up long, lucid explanations of each of his aphorisms. An erudite coroner pronounced both the father and his aphorisms dead at the scene.
This scene—one of many featuring a dead father—does call to mind Oedipus killing his father at the crossroads, but we’re left with a Wes Anderson-esque sense of cleverness rather than Harold Bloom’s sense of the anxiety of influence. A quarter rest later, and here is “Vindicated”:
A father’s fears were vindicated in the worst possible way when his only son—whom he had always admonished for “eating too quickly”—choked to death on a salmon roll at a New York sushi bar. The father immediately set to work on a eulogy. Observing the zeal with which he set about this terrible task, his wife became concerned. Her concerns were vindicated in the worst way when he delivered, to a packed synagogue, a eulogy entitled: “My Son, the Speed Eater.”
In Sachs’s mini-stories, nothing is sacred except the ability to appreciate the absurd. After 117 snippets of fathers and sons, there is no sense of closure, no neat resolution in this brisk tour of familiar yet situationally specific dynamics. But Sachs’s debut is adventurous in its form and distinct in its voice. In the book’s smart humor—more so than in its deep, probing questions (“What are a son’s duties to a father and vice versa?”)—we’re reminded of language’s ability to reveal moments of the absurd in relationships usually addressed as purely sacred. The stories are grounded in an appreciation of the specific as well as the absurd. The absurdity of the specific. Familiar yet fresh. - DOUGLAS RAY

EVEN IF YOU didn’t assume that Adam Ehrlich Sachs is Jewish (and, I confess, I didn’t, and I still don’t know for certain, although his famous economist father, Jeffrey Sachs, is filed under “American Jews” on Wikipedia), there is something about his new book, Inherited Disorders, that feels incredibly Jewish. It isn’t overt — though there are many Jewish-sounding names, as well as quite a few characters who are referenced as Jewish — but there are underlying neuroses that feel like bad Jewish jokes (which are also, in my experience, the best Jewish jokes), and a kind of prevailing sense of “oy vey” to the entire thing.
The book, as its subtitle indicates, is a set of stories, varying in length from a paragraph or three to several pages at the longest, and they all tend to tell the same few stories in different configurations. There is always at least one son and always at least one father, and there is either perfect agreement or perfect discord between them. Each story revolves obsessively around the father-son relationship and the way a son will or won’t inherit the skills, illnesses, talents, or woes of the father.
In one story, three professionally athletic men — a mountaineer, a sea kayaker, and a skydiver — all died trying to achieve their greatest goal (a climb, a sea journey, a skydive), which their sons then feel obligated to attain, even though each hates the activity in which his father was involved, and even though others assure them that they needn’t complete these final goals. It is an innate feeling they have, one that they know is ridiculous but that isn’t less true for that. Another man introduces the three sons to one another, and they all agree that they will each complete the task of one another’s fathers, thus fulfilling their obligations but not needing to take the same journey their fathers took. The punchline to this story is that the mutual friend who introduced them “has taken pride in orchestrating all this. His father was also known as a great connector of people and facilitator of conversations who was always putting interesting people in a room together.” In other words, this mutual friend is the only one who truly does take after his father.
The stories parody themselves at times, or describe what they’re doing within the setting of a particular story. In “The Stipulation,” for instance, a famous performer requests that his father be kept between thirty and 300 feet from him at all times, and that he also mustn’t remain stationary but rather be moved about within that range. The narrator of the stories — who begins to crop up more and more often as the book proceeds, making it seem as if Adam Sachs is coming out of the woodwork as an observer of sorts — says that “Men — at least in the comment threads I have seen — have been largely sympathetic, many noting their own shattering realization as adults that they could exist neither near nor far from their fathers and would spend the rest of their lives moving cyclically towards and away from them…” This seems to be exactly what the narrator is trying to do in all these stories: looking for the ideal distance between sons and fathers.
Although most of the book isn’t political, it does foray into some issues and acknowledges how the conceit of the stories could be read as such. A startlingly funny example is in a story called “Peace Plan,” in which the “insane son of the Israeli prime minister and the insane son of the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization […] have agreed on a peace plan for the Middle East.” A story like this, in which these men spend shake hands and recite the “demented terms” of their plan, makes one think of the old idea about insane asylums wherein perhaps it is those inside who are sane and everyone else who isn’t. In a way, the book is asking that same question: Is its obsession sane and are we, the readers, the ones who are delusional in thinking that the fathers and sons who morph into one another, have one another’s decapitated heads, or place huge responsibilities on one another through generations, are preposterous?
Sachs takes the theme he plays with and pushes it to an extreme, making the repetition part of his gleeful game. The book isn’t boring for this repetition, not at all. It is heavy-handed, but quite purposefully and inescapably so. After all, there’s nothing boring about anxiety when you’re in it, and this is something Sachs manages to simulate and raise in the reader: the agonizing worry and anxiety about how much one is like one’s parent and how much one is like oneself, and whether the latter is at all possible. - Ilana Masad



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