“No matter whether I am occupied reminding my offspring to close the toilet lid, to pick up their socks, or to empty the dishwasher, or obsessing about being liberated among the stars,” Greenberg tells us, “I hustle words.” And does she ever. Once an academic in America before retiring to raise four children (interspersed with “belly dancing, home birthing, herbal medicine making and occasional basket weaving”) and make aliyah, she now produces from Jerusalem a bewildering abundance of novels, poetry and “slipstream short stories” with fearsome energy. For years, up until 2014, she was a blogger for the Jerusalem Post. Greenberg’s facility with words is matched only by her consummate artistic fruitfulness: “Tomorrow, when I wake, I plan to frolic with gelatinous monsters and with lovers of questionable orientation. I want to paint word pictures about the sound of dumpster cats fighting over neck bones and about the color of African parakeets migrating through the Middle East.” Between 2012 and 2014 alone, she published a staggering nine books.
Notwithstanding its subtitle, Word Citizen is a book about writing, or a book about parenting, merely in the same sense that Infinite Jest is a book about Quebec. Indeed, any coherent summary of Word Citizen will inevitably make it sound less gloriously weird than it is. It’s pleasurably clear that every endeavor--including seemingly innocuous institutions like G-rated online fiction written by housewives--somehow becomes startlingly complex when Greenberg starts immersing herself in it. Her work addresses “corporate failures alongside of family picnics, lachrymose space beasts in the same breath as the puddles under my sofa, and cheesecake recipes concurrent with cheesy amusement park prizes.” Even as a child, her voracious appetite for learning is evident: “Our deal, at all of those sites, was that if I could carry it, I could read it. Often my stacks, so my parents claimed, were higher than my head.” On entering college at sixteen, “I lacked the resources to face down reinvigorated bullies, frisky youths, and self-serving roommates. I just wanted praise, grades, and money for my writing, not the responsibilities of ‘grownup stuff.’” Her mind-boggling panorama of careers (and identities) includes “a human communications and sociology professor, a science writer and editor, a tone-deaf oboist, an herbalist, a ghost writer of psychology and sociology college texts, a high school chemistry and geometry teacher, a basket weaver, a student of marital arts, an amateur landscape architect, an editor of technical papers (on literal brain science), a budding ceramicist, and an avid avoider of horrors such as PTA meetings and carpool duties.” As a professor of rhetoric in New Jersey, she is disappointed that her tirades on Central Park ponies and RTS games “converted only one would-be financial despot into a philosophy major”; as a stay-at-home back-to-nature mom, she goes through a phase where she takes “to hunting for lunch among friends’ unsprayed turf and to suggesting to my children that we would only dine on what I could glean from lawns, plus or minus a square of tofu or a handful of mochi.” Then there are the different names: unsurprisingly, Greenberg writes under at least four authorial identities, none of them pseudonyms.
And as life acquires more layers, language itself becomes complicated. A full-fledged teacher of textual analysis before leaving academia, Greenberg’s flamboyant texts are deliciously textured and full of bombastic furbelows. One of her most shocking openings--and much of Greenberg’s literary output is, on a tonal level, indeed shocking--begins: “We groove fallalery. Our society gets down with junk, with fakes, and with inexpensive simulations.” Later in the same piece, she continues, “Whereas matchmaking words like ‘twaddle’ and ‘xylophone’ might not suffice for very special word jocks, for most authors, puttering around with caustic fabrications provides enough release for them to return to facing down: real life social problems, constraining publication specifications, rabid remarks from insensible critics, and shrinking openings for career advancement.” Her intricate argot is a distinctive combination of technical jargon, earnest golly-gee and self-conscious formality: Greenberg is a latter-day Gertrude Stein, oozing characteristic fearlessness about the labels that less perceptive readers might slap on her prose. “Whereas I’m not convinced that I’ve evoked writing that reflects all of my bits and pieces or that I’m sagacious in any manner,” Greenberg intones, “it is the case that I can be found churning out pages about addled monsters or chipmunks high on Novocaine as commonly as I can be found writing about communication theory, about the ethics of rhetoric, and about the history of higher education.”
In an era where we fetishize the appearance of indolence and thirst for that laid-back just-rolled-out-of-bed-and-puked-this-out aesthetic, it’s refreshing to find writing that is unabashedly mannered and sprawling, that indulges in an ostentatious display of hard-fought verbal skill. We were taught always to use a short word where a long one would do, to value a pithy stoner’s six-word grunt over a diligent and thoughtful paragraph. Greenberg subverts the paradigm of the relentless drive towards concise, unwordy cool. And why, when you come right down to it, should we be ashamed of being brilliantly verbose? There’s been a lot of Sheryl Sandburg-generated hype about how we should stop punishing young girls with the word “bossy”; still more insidious is the societal beat-down given to joyously geeky teenaged girls like Greenberg was, who “grew vining peas in Pringles containers and contemplated the relative merit of polyester sweat pants,” “broke countless oboe reeds and fantasized about world travel, and “rubricked boys as ‘interesting commodities’” during debate tournaments. If we think Greenberg’s sentences are needlessly ornate, have too many clauses-within-clauses, then the fault is with us: this is how you speak when the world’s repressive behavioral norms somehow haven’t succeeded in socking you in the face. To write without stinting your words is a feminist act.
The most curiously compelling aspect of Word Citizen is that it sometimes seems written deliberately to obfuscate. For example, it’s impossible to pin down with absolute certainty whether the essay, “The Matchmaker: A Highbrow Comedy Coupling ‘Brief’ and ‘Straightforward,’” is about an actual matchmaking (shidduch) process or a metaphor about freelance editing. To some degree, Greenberg simply enjoys complexity. After all, this is the same woman who devoted an entire 2007 Jerusalem Post column to distinctions between actualities, theories, metatheories, and meta-metatheories (described as “terministic screens offered, respectively, by rhetoricians, and by Jerusalem taxi drivers, which allow us to talk intelligently about the differences, between New World and Old World explanations, about the utility of our neighbor’s rationale, for why our mirpesset is a hot spot for lizard romance”); it is with an almost audible sigh of regret that Greenberg remarks, “Most people find it impossible to conceptualize a fifth level of abstraction, so common academic parlance stops at the fourth level.”
Yet one suspects that there is something more. One governing trope of Word Citizen is that of the Victorian-era “writeress”--the woman whose creative life plays out in womanly, harmonious parallel to a domestic role as a daughter or a wife. Gentle hijinks will invariably ensue when the edges of these two worlds touch ever so lightly; on the whole, however, it’s good clean fun, with a healthy helping of good-humored feminism on the side. The most prominent American “writeress” was probably the incomparable Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame (ironically, an adventurous and unconventional woman who never married). Like Jo March, Ms. Greenberg struggles with the morality of writing “pulp,” with the unresolvable problem of being a professional writer of integrity, and with reconciling these dilemmas with her role as a nurturing female (when deadlines loom, “her kids, her husband, her dog, her lizard, and her emu are all encouraged to wander to her neighborhood’s park” with “their iPods, their PCs, and their cell phones intact and with enough comestibles to feed a reunion of second and third cousins”). A related daily struggle is with the crushing everydayness of everyday life--not just the ongoing round of parenting which “evolved not into unwearied analysis, but into screaming (a little) or into sitting on the sofa and crying (a lot),” but also the humiliation of editor kill fees, publishing scams, and simple rejection. In the 21st century, however, merely to sing the blues is not enough. The true joys and complexities of being a so-called “mommy writer” are expressible only in a roundabout way. To paraphrase grossly the Bulgarian philosopher Julia Kristeva, the “female” storyline is not a blow-by-blow narrative: it’s a cyclical reimagining that transcends the linear, “male” monumental time. Ms. Greenberg’s texts are complex, in part, because they are written in code.
The hard questions posed by Word Citizen--and they can be sensed, if not explicitly set out on paper--have no answer, and do not need one. This is because Word Citizen, despite being completely devoid of religious discussion, is fundamentally a religious book. In an immediate sense, it is a nonlinear, lacunae-ridden narrative of how a communications professor in New Jersey gradually configures and reconfigures her identity until she takes her place among her chosen culture and religion. On a deeper level, however, it is also a meandering account of how an individual finds a measure of inner self-actualization --even fulfillment, even bliss--within the harsh constrictions of a frequently disappointing and confounding external world. In this context, Greenberg’s quest makes for rewarding and deeply satisfying reading.
We hope you buy it (which, incidentally, you can on Amazon and on our website page).