Algonquin Books, 2010
Reviewed by Deb Steckler
How do you deal with pain? How do you document what is true? In Joshua Braff’s Peep Show, the author sets out a formal arrangement of polar extremes as a stretching rack – a sort of torture device to manifest the pains and responses of his character, a young high school age boy-man named David Arbus. In so doing Braff allows the reader a peek into two otherwise hermetic and exotic-seeming New York City cultures: the worlds of Orthodox Jewry and pornography. Anyone having experienced even the briefest of encounters with these may have paused (often) to wonder about the cultures and the people who inhabit them. While these worlds exist simultaneously in real life, the two collide for David, a Holden-Caulfield type character, reinvented circa the mid-1970s, by Braff.
David Arbus, a high school-aged student, has the usual desires of a young man, and a certain moral code all his own, like Caulfield. As his name suggests, he has aspirations of becoming a photographer. The formal device of pulling David between two opposite ends manifests itself in the lives that each of his parents have chosen. They no longer live together, separated by a divide that is ideological beyond physical. The love that David has for his family, his sister especially, becomes David’s touchstone. While his mother has become an Orthodox Jew to seal her own fate (as well as – or as much as to – run from her past), David’s father lives on the seemier side – he runs an adult entertainment theater on NY’s 42nd Street. Growing up, David and his sister had been told the theater was a ‘real estate’ venture, one of the lies parents tell their kids.
A bildungsroman that takes us all the way on the PATH from NJ to metro NY, the author manages to allow his character to grow through the pain, as an artist and as an emotionally more mature person. David does become a photographer for whom the names he gives to pictures are as important as the images themselves; he entitles as he snaps them, solidifying the moment in image and name. Whether secular or religious, names are important to the smoke and mirrors effect of the illusions cast in the novel. Nearly everyone here has a stage name: the orthodox religious have changed their given names (so that David’s sister Debra is now Dena, and his mother, formerly Mickey, is now Miriam). David remains steadfastly his own self. Though his self-identity may be in crisis, he eventually learns that he is neither his mother nor father, neither religious jew nor secular flesh-peddler, but his own, complicated person – one who can reject the mores of his own family yet still appreciate the powerful bonds he shares with them. For David, the learning process is painful and comical, and the author draws us through the extremes in a fast-paced read that is both entertaining and insightful.