Like many psychological novels, Nathaniel Popkin’s Everything is Borrowed uses the perspective of an artist to explore the human condition’s bedrock frustrations. But Popkin’s antihero isn’t a writer, as we so often find in inward-looking fiction, but an architect.
Nicholas Moscowitz’s dual journey of urban and internal exploration begins when he discovers that another, slightly differently-spelled Moskowitz – Julius, an immigrant from Eastern Europe – was connected more than a century ago to the Philadelphia parking lot where Nicholas has won the commission for a new apartment building.
Plagued by indecision about the project’s design, he continually puts off committing to anything, to the endless frustration of his devoted assistant Nadia, not mention their client. Faced with this artistic/professional crisis, Nicholas veers off, almost involuntarily, into obsessive archival research into his anarchist predecessor’s life and times.
Simultaneously he’s trapped in guilty memories of his long-ago, blazingly intense relationship with a college girlfriend, Eva. So the novel also becomes a study of how a sense of having wronged someone long ago can twist us for a lifetime.
The story is sometimes rewarding, sometimes frustrating. As Nicholas scurries through census records and historical city maps pursuing ever more detail about the lives of Julius, his family, and his comrades, we get bogged down in the minutiae along with him. In the parallel narrative of his own youth, Nicholas’s memories of studying Kierkegaard with Eva may be off-putting to readers who have little familiarity with the philosopher’s work.
On the other hand, as the book effectively evokes Nicholas’s obsessive state of mind it also gives us vivid snapshots of the anarchist movement of the late 19th century; a glimpse into the lives of poor Jewish immigrants of the time; and a sensitive rendering of the hyper-reality of the college-age mind. “The neighborhood, far west of our university, might be a world apart. Living here makes us feel authentic and original, as if we, who are merely transient, are part of something real.”
That feeling of being “merely transient” sings through the whole narrative. As Nicholas scans the history of the blocks and buildings associated with his predecessor, he observes the impermanence of even the most solid-seeming structures. The story provides a fascinating, if narrow, window into the brain of an architect with an artistic temperament. Perusing an image of the long-gone prison where Julius and his anarchist cohorts spent some time, he reflects:
The prison is a flight of visual fancy. The Temple of Amenhotep III, on the Nile, inspires Walter’s design of the debtors’ section. What possesses the architect’s mind? Amenhotep III is the artist of the desert. He dresses Egypt in statuary. He delights in the colossal…I look again at the engraving…How romantic County Prison appears on my computer screen! A gentle breeze, a fair day. A building emits conflicting gestures.
Of course it does. What are buildings after all but shelters, containers, suits of armor for the tragically pliable bags of protoplasm that construct them? Stories have a similar function, the book seems to say. The title, Everything is Borrowed, takes on a dual meaning: artists build their new creations out of borrowed pieces of others’ past work. But in the end our lives, too – our relationships, our activities, even the places in which we ride it all out – must go back out with the tide of history. Nicholas’s assistant Nadia learned as much as a child when a bomb turned her into a refugee and birthed her “practical impulse, her attraction to ideas extracted from facts.” But facts are elusive; everything is borrowed.
Everything is Borrowed (New Door Books) by Nathaniel Popkin comes out May 9. It’s available for pre-order now.