Pho­to: Adam Fos­ter / Flickr

Some­where in East­ern Europe, some­time in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, a man walks his horse through a snowy shtetl. What a mar­vel, he says to him­self, in Yid­dish. What a mar­vel. Upon reach­ing his cot­tage, the man, Velv­el, tells his wife, Dora, that on his way back from Lublin, he encoun­tered a fel­low trav­el­er who claimed to know her: Trai­tle Groshkover. Dora, who has been lis­ten­ing with lit­tle inter­est, ceas­es break­ing up the ice in the buck­et she is hold­ing. God has cursed us, she says. Trai­tle Groshkover has been dead for three years. The man on the road must have been a dyb­buk. There comes a knock on the door. It’s Trai­tle Groshkover, or at least it seems to be. Velv­el invites him in, though Dora is skep­ti­cal. She accus­es Reb Groshkover of being a dyb­buk and stabs him with her ice pick. Groshkover laughs, appar­ent­ly unharmed. Dora takes this as evi­dence that he is not who he claims to be. Just then, blood begins to pool at the site of the wound. Groshkover says that far from being unharmed, he actu­al­ly feels quite unwell. One does a mitz­vah, and this is the thanks one gets? He limps out into the cold. Dear wife, Velv­el says. We are ruined. Dora shuts the door. Non­sense, she says. Blessed is the Lord. Good rid­dance to evil.

One would be for­giv­en for think­ing this the syn­op­sis of an Isaac Bashe­vis Singer sto­ry. It has Singer’s fin­ger­prints all over it: the old-world set­ting, the porous bor­der between the human and the spir­i­tu­al realms, the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with liv­ing a moral life. In fact, it is a sum­ma­ry of the pro­logue to A Seri­ous Man, the bril­liant and under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed Coen Broth­ers film from 2009.

The rest of the film takes place in 1967 and cen­ters on Lar­ry Gop­nik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a pro­fes­sor in Min­neso­ta whose life is crum­bling around him. His wife is leav­ing him for anoth­er man, his broth­er is sleep­ing on his couch, and some­one has been send­ing the physics depart­ment anony­mous let­ters urg­ing them to deny him tenure. Mon­ey is tight.

One would be for­giv­en for think­ing this the syn­op­sis of an Isaac Bashe­vis Singer story.

We have left the world of Singer and entered that of the great Amer­i­can Jew­ish writ­ers of the post­war era. Lar­ry, like Saul Bellow’s Her­zog, is an aca­d­e­m­ic suf­fer­ing an exis­ten­tial midlife cri­sis brought on by a mar­i­tal betray­al. The Hebrew school scenes fea­tur­ing Larry’s son, Dan­ny (Aaron Wolff), call to mind Philip Roth’s short sto­ry The Con­ver­sion of the Jews,” in which Ozzie Fried­man threat­ens to jump from the roof of the syn­a­gogue. There is a faint visu­al echo of this moment else­where in the film, when Lar­ry, sent by Dan­ny to adjust the TV anten­na, climbs onto the roof of his sub­ur­ban home. Up there, he is clos­er to God, but as befits a Roth sto­ry — or bet­ter yet, Leonard Michaels’s Mur­der­ers” — Lar­ry can also glimpse his neigh­bor, Mrs. Sam­sky (Amy Lan­deck­er), tan­ning top­less in her backyard.

We see shades of Singer in 1967, too, when Lar­ry seeks the coun­sel of his rab­bis. Rab­bi Scott (Simon Hel­berg) gives an uncon­vinc­ing speech about learn­ing to see Hashem in the world around him (“Look at the park­ing lot, Lar­ry!”). Rab­bi Nacht­ner (George Wyn­er) deliv­ers a para­ble, the sto­ry of the goy’s teeth,” whose mean­ing is unclear. (“What hap­pened to the goy?,” Lar­ry asks. The goy?” says Nacht­ner. Who cares?”) These ses­sions with the rab­bis could be tak­en as a send-up of a cer­tain type of sto­ry best embod­ied by Singer’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal col­lec­tions, In My Father’s Court and More Sto­ries from My Father’s Court. Before World War I, Singer’s father, a rab­bi, presided over an infor­mal tri­bunal in his War­saw house. He had no legal author­i­ty and could not enforce his judg­ments. Still, neigh­bors vis­it­ed No. 10 Krochmal­na Street to air griev­ances and set­tle dis­putes. Larry’s vis­its to the rab­bis are rem­i­nis­cent of Singer’s snap­shots of trou­bled peo­ple seek­ing guid­ance, jus­tice — or, like Lar­ry, a divine expla­na­tion for their suffering.

Inex­plic­a­ble suf­fer­ing is the great theme of A Seri­ous Man, whose pri­ma­ry lit­er­ary influ­ence is not Singer, Roth, Bel­low, or Michaels, but the Book of Job. Lar­ry is a good man, a seri­ous” man, who hasn’t done any­thing wrong. (Indeed, this is his refrain, repeat­ed often through­out the film: But I haven’t done any­thing!”) Like Job, he los­es every­thing he holds dear — his wife, his house, pos­si­bly his career — while fac­ing temp­ta­tion in the form of sexy Mrs. Sam­sky and a stu­dent who attempts to bribe him for a bet­ter grade. In his search for answers, Lar­ry finds none.

In the end, Lar­ry caves. Just as things begin to look up for him — Danny’s bar mitz­vah is a suc­cess, and it appears that Lar­ry will receive tenure after all — he accepts his student’s bribe to help cov­er his lawyer’s bills. The moment Lar­ry changes the F to a C‑, his doc­tor calls, ask­ing Lar­ry to come in to dis­cuss his X‑ray results. We can’t dis­cuss them over the phone?” Lar­ry asks. The doc­tor replies, I think we’d be more com­fort­able in per­son.” Across town, a deus ex machi­na in the form of a tor­na­do creeps toward Danny’s Hebrew school. As soon as Lar­ry fails the moral test of bribery, God exacts his punishment.

A Seri­ous Man suc­ceeds as both an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal work, rich with peri­od detail — the Coens grew up in a Mid­west­ern milieu much like Larry’s — and as an homage to Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. The affairs and crack-ups of (male) Jew­ish aca­d­e­mics in the late six­ties have already been doc­u­ment­ed by some of the great­est writ­ers Amer­i­ca has pro­duced, but the Coens rean­i­mate now-tired tropes (the neb­bish pro­fes­sor, his over­bear­ing wife, their cryp­tic rab­bi) by draw­ing on the Old Tes­ta­ment in addi­tion to the lit­er­ary lions who shaped the cul­tur­al land­scape of their youth. In tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from both Bel­low and the Book of Job, A Seri­ous Man posi­tions itself in a lin­eage of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture that may have reached an apex in the Amer­i­ca of the 1960s and 1970s but which dates back much, much earlier.

So what of the pro­logue? What do we make of Reb Groshkover? One inter­pre­ta­tion is that the cou­ple in the shtetl are Larry’s ances­tors, and that he is pay­ing for the mur­der of Reb Groshkover. But Joel Coen has stat­ed explic­it­ly that the folk­tale at the begin­ning of the film doesn’t have any rela­tion­ship to what fol­lows.” This is fit­ting for a work about the fruit­less search for answers and the prob­lems of inter­pre­ta­tion. Just as Lar­ry strug­gles to under­stand the course his life has tak­en, so too must we wres­tle with the link between the pro­logue and the rest of the film. What does it mean, exact­ly? Like Lar­ry, we’ll nev­er know.

Andrew Rid­ker’s debut nov­el, The Altru­ists, was a New York Times Edi­tors’ Choice, a Paris Review staff Pick, and the Peo­ple Book of the Week. A Die Presse Book of the Year, it was trans­lat­ed into more than a dozen lan­guages. He is the edi­tor of Pri­va­cy Pol­i­cy: The Anthol­o­gy of Sur­veil­lance Poet­ics and his writ­ing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Le Monde, and Book­fo­rum, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He is a grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Workshop.