During a cocktail party at a museum, Benjamin Ziskind, a legally blind quiz-show writer, grabs a Marc Chagall painting, stuffs it under his coat, and walks out the door.
Such is the delicious premise of Dara Horn's new novel. Ben - divorced, depressed, and socially awkward - is about as far from Hollywood art thieves like Pierce Brosnan as "The World to Come" is from a heist novel. Instead of following Ben as he eludes the police (who are remarkably blasé about the million-dollar theft), the book jumps back in time to explain how the painting came into the possession of Ben's family, and how they lost it. In between Soviet pogroms and the Vietnam War, Horn, a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, stuffs in as many Yiddish tales as the book will hold. Chagall himself makes an appearance, as does a writer named Der Nister, who nearly shanghais the novel through the force of his creative insanity.
Barring a few contrivances (notably a tacked-on romance with a pretty curator), the first two-thirds of the novel are a real pleasure, but Horn stumbles in the last few chapters. To put it baldly, the book has no ending. This is no doubt intended to be wise; in practice, it's infuriating. In writing, as in Olympic figure skating, you've got to nail that landing. Grade: B