Sometimes a book begins before its opening pages.
Just as Dara Horn’s acclaimed novel “A Guide for the Perplexed” is being published in paperback, she is offering a short novella in ebook form that is a prequel to her most recent novel. “String Theory: The Parents Ashkenazi” provides the backstory.
“Perplexed” tells of two sisters and their rivalry; one sister has created a software program that catalogs memory, and the other is more ordinary and envious. “String Theory” goes back a generation, to their parents: The mother left the ultra-Orthodox world of her childhood to become a leading physicist; the father is a mathematician beginning to question his atheism. Their ultimate dispute about the nature of the universe, and then the disaster of their marriage, influences their daughters’ lives and anticipates the struggles to come.
Horn explains in an email interview that in each of her books, she’s had a tendency to write more than she should. In fact, she had written the story of the Ashkenazi parents and thought it would somehow fit into the already complex novel but, as she tells The Jewish Week, “I just ran out of room.”
“I wanted to explore the kinds of hope and doubt, faith and disappointment, that shape the next generation, whether consciously or not,” Horn writes. “I suppose in all of my work I’m always going back in time.”
As in her other novels, she plays off a classic work of Jewish literature in her title, this time referring back to I. J. Singer’s “The Brothers Ashkenazi.”
Horn had never considered doing sequels or prequels before because that would have entailed another novel and living with the same characters for several years more. But she realized that she could do it in a much shorter format digitally. The ebook is about 50 pages and priced at $1.99. “Less than the price of bag of potato chips,” she adds.
“Digital reading is changing the possibilities for genres of literature, just like the printing press made serialized novels practical (because newspapers made them cheap) and the transition from scroll to codex made books with chapters on different topics practical (because it was suddenly easy to only read chapter 5),” she says. In the past, she could have published a short story as part of a collection of stories, but that would have taken much longer to assemble.
Now we can wait for the prequel to the prequel.