A Parisian Jew who dies in 1773 reappears in the 21st century as an angel, fluttering gently down to Earth — or, so he thinks. He imagines himself as "a fully formed Christian seraph, a Viking with blond hair, a beautiful chiseled torso, hairless feet, and eyes the color of whiskey." So imagine his shock when he realizes he's no angel — he's actually been reincarnated as a common housefly.
That unlikely insect is the narrator of a wild new novel by Rebecca Miller. Miller's mother was photographer Inge Morath, her father was playwright Arthur Miller and her husband is actor Daniel Day-Lewis. On top of writing, Miller is also a painter, an actor and a film director. Her new book, Jacob's Folly, veers between 18th century Paris and a present-day Long Island family of Orthodox Jews.
The fly, formerly Parisian Jewish peddler Jacob Cerf, has supernatural powers. He can read minds and can actually will people to do what he wants them to do.
"He realizes the scope of his powers gradually in the narrative," Miller tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And then, once he realizes he's a fly, he's so angry at the form of his reincarnation that he decides to sort of get back at God."
Jacob wants to punish God by taking good people and turning them bad. But Miller says she wouldn't call her protagonist an "evil character": "He's mischievous and sometimes malevolent, but he has his own transformation through the arc of this story."
On the joy of creating Jacob
"I had to work really hard for this book, but there was a gift and it was Jacob's voice that seemed to kind of come through my fillings in some way. Once I heard how he sounded inside of my head, I was able to figure him out. And yes, writing him was a joy because he's so free. And he's not somebody who's controlled by guilt at all."
On writing about Orthodox Jewish life
"I was interested in the allure and also freedom and also pitfalls of assimilation; and in the hidden beauties of actually belonging to a community, which is much more certain than our more secular world. So I came into it really not understanding very much at all about the Orthodox Jewish life ... and ended up seeing as well as understanding more firmly why I couldn't be part of it, [and] understanding the beauty of their community."
On researching the history of Jews in 18th century Paris
"I did go to Paris and went to the museums and walked the streets. But before that, I found a wonderful researcher named Max McGuinness. Together we really had to try to crack the case of Jews in Paris in the 18th century, because there were so few. There were about 500 of them. Most of the evidence for their lives is the police reports, because there was a particular policeman who was the inspector in charge of Jewish affairs at the time whose job it was to really record the comings and goings and, in fact, the character and occupation of every single male Jew in Paris. And sometimes, if they had families, who they lived with in their apartment, whose apartment they lived in, what they sold, if they had been arrested for being in Paris without a passport. They were very strictly monitored. And so those police reports really were like a gold mine for me. And in fact, I used a lot of the actual names of the Jews; I used the name of Inspector Buhot, which was in fact his name. So I grounded my writing in reality."
On imagining Jacob's Folly as a film
"It's tempting. It's very visual and it could be funny, but I think I need distance. In the past I always had the technique that I would not let the scab form. I would write the book, and then immediately, if I was going to write the screenplay, write the screenplay. I always had this feeling that you can never go back. You're not the same person five years [later]. You might not even understand it anymore, what you wrote. But with this one, I have a feeling that if I ever do it, it would be better if I have a little distance."
On how much her artistic background (as a painter, actor and film director) and artistic lineage come through in her writing
"I think certainly I'm a very visual writer. I tend to try to communicate emotion and ideas through visual means so that you see it in your eye of your mind. And I think I have an ear for dialogue, which, I remember listening to my father read his plays out loud all the time, and I think I might have inherited certainly a fascination with dialogue and character. But it's always difficult to know where everything comes from."