By Nicholas Fonseca
Originally published on Advocate.com June 24 2009 12:00 AM ET
Chandler Burr is pissed off. And if you give him a minute -- or three hours -- of your time, he'll explain why in a manner so erudite, so insistent, and so maddeningly scattered that the force of his words will leave you feeling like you've been hit in the face by a very heavy two-by-four. Words mean something to Burr -- labels, identity, and literature are obsessions for the 45-year-old New Yorker. But his first novel, You or Someone Like You , as Burr will tell you, is more than just a sensuously written piece of fiction. It's catharsis on paper, the last word (for now) on an incident that happened to the author when he was 23, a life-changing moment that upended everything he thought he knew about himself.
"Part of the reason that I write is that I'm really angry at people who say unbelievably stupid shit," Burr says. He's seated in the mezzanine of the New York Times cafeteria, his voice effortlessly rising above the corporate clip-clop of high heels that threatens to break his concentration. While the Times is housed in this midtown skyscraper, the majority of his work as the Times ' official scent critic is done from his home in Murray Hill. (Two of his previous books centered on the perfume industry: 2003's The Emperor of Scent and 2007's The Perfect Scent , which partially follows the creation of Sarah Jessica Parker's first fragrance, and wherein we learn that the erstwhile Carrie Bradshaw likes body odor.) Burr doesn't want to talk much about his job, a strange-sounding position that drew snorts of derision when it was created in 2006. And when he starts to explain the enormity of the encounter that prompted him to write You or Someone Like You , a discussion of base notes and aroma compounds seems utterly irrelevant anyway.
In the late 1980s, just before beginning graduate school, Burr set off on a worldwide backpacking adventure. The trip took him through the southern rim of Asia and eventually to Israel, where he attended a yeshiva for the first time in his life. Burr's father, Ralph, is a Russian Jew by birth; his mother, Nancy, was reared as a Christian Scientist. By the time Burr was born, both his parents had turned to Christian Science. Neither of them ever sat down to explain to their son that, according to halakic rules (Jewish religious law), he is not considered Jewish because his mother never was. "There was always this tension with my Jewish family [about my not being a Jew]." Burr says. "You learn it through osmosis. You learn that there is this problem and you learn not to talk about it in the same way that you don't talk about homosexuality. You hide it."
At the yeshiva, however, Burr was sitting at a table with a young man who started to ask about his upbringing. "I let drop that my mother was a Protestant," Burr says, adding that that's when all hell broke loose. "The blood literally drained from his face. He gets up and turns me in. Immediately. And two big Israeli guys come in within 30 seconds, take me to the rabbi's office, and he says to me, 'You are racially impure. You have polluted my yeshiva. You have caused us to sin by teaching Torah to a non-Jew. And your father is engaging in the ongoing Holocaust of Jewish people.'" Burr spits out his words with eloquent force, as if willing the brazenness of those comments to sink a little deeper. "That's extremely sick."
Burr has spoken of his encounter for two decades, but he has now also written about it. You or Someone Like You tells the story of Anne Rosenbaum, the British-born wife of high-powered Hollywood executive Howard, who inadvertently becomes the grand pooh-bah of a book club that quickly develops into the hottest kaffeeklatsch in town.
The novel is peppered with references that will delight devotees of Variety and IMDb.com -- everyone from J.J. Abrams to L Word creator Ilene Chaiken pops by the group to share their views on literature and life with Anne. The strange, looming subplot -- the decision of Howard and Anne's son, Sam, to explore his Jewish lineage via a trip to Israel -- becomes the novel's fulcrum. Burr reimagines his own long-ago incident in the yeshiva through Sam Rosenbaum's eyes, and when the 17-year-old returns to Los Angeles, bewildered and emotionally wounded, Howard -- a lapsed Jew -- undergoes a spiritual crisis that leaves his marriage in tatters. Sam also comes out of the closet at this point (but Burr views this revelation as tangential).
Though previously tolerant of her husband's Judaism, Anne begins to adopt a sharp, take-no-prisoners view of religion, and it's no accident that her take mirrors Burr's. "I am an equal-opportunity opponent of all religions," says Burr, an atheist. "All religions, I believe, are fundamentally flawed. I don't believe in any of them."
He's also no fan of gray areas, and that goes double for people who espouse one tenet or another of a religion without acknowledging the whole. "Religions mean something," he insists. "These identifications are not infinitely elastic. As a matter of fact, they are incredibly inelastic. If you are a Jew, you had better believe that everybody who is not a Jew is not as important to God. If you're Catholic, you'd better believe that everybody who is not a Christian is going to hell. And you can't just say that you are a Muslim and leave it at that. No. All your [non-Muslim] friends are in the House of War and must be converted to Islam and submit to Allah. That's what it's about! You don't get to pick and choose."
"I wanted Anne to be in a very Jewish world," says Burr, "a world that could become a cult. I can't imagine [this novel taking place] anywhere else. It's so perfect. Los Angeles is so utterly otherworldly."
Burr has spent a considerable amount of time in the offices of Hollywood talent agents, producers, and studio muckamucks. He's written seven screenplays, taken scores of meetings, and even collaborated with überproducer Brian Graden on a three-month project that -- like 99% of all showbiz endeavors -- ultimately fell apart. Choosing Los Angeles as the setting for a novel that so trenchantly examines literature and Judaism was therefore a no-brainer. "I can't tell you how many times I've actually had an industry person say to me in total seriousness, 'I read the coverage and/or review of the book. It's a masterful work.' But they haven't even read the book! And they are completely unembarrassed by it!"
Many of the most powerful passages in You or Someone Like You have nothing to do with religion or identity. They're the vignettes -- often painfully uncomfortable, sometimes totally charming -- that portray the Rosenbaums' existence as a married couple. They're written with a keen and thoughtful eye for the nuances of a longtime relationship, so it's a little surprising to hear Burr say that he's never even had a serious boyfriend. "I've been in love numerous times, but it's always -- I'm terrible at dating. I meet a lot of psychos, a lot of damaged people...I think I would be a terrific husband."
Burr says the Rosenbaums are broadly based on his married friends, especially his agent, Eric Simonoff, and his wife, whose name is also Anne. "It's weird because I don't have the direct experience of having a wonderful marriage. But I do in my mind. I have always wanted to be married and have children. And I just keep hoping that someday it will actually happen to me."
For all his righteous anger, Burr is brimming with optimism. Listen carefully to his harsh, sometimes shocking opinions about religion, and it's clear that they're merely a cover for his unwavering hope that someday, we can create a world where no young man would be kicked out of a yeshiva for being impure. "My people," he says, "are those who believe, as I do, that we need to be good to each other and we need to be good to the planet. We must be free to think and feel." And, of course, to be pissed off.