Rare Stuff is a Jewish-American ecofictional novel about planetary and oceanic precarity, about words unsaid while difficult people are still alive, about love and being afraid to love. A photographer living in the East Village in 1995, Sidney Zimmerman is in love with (but also separated from) her boyfriend, André, a Blewish Melville scholar from Guadeloupe. Sid trawls around the village, producing portraits of interracial couples and wallpapering her apartment with them. In Chicago, alone in an ambulance, Sid’s father, the novelist Aaron Zimmerman, dies unexpectedly; Sid flies out to scatter Aaron’s ashes in Lake Michigan and discovers two life-changing objects in his chaotic apartment: a suitcase packed full of mysterious clues (a lone red high-heeled shoe, a paperweight, a matchbook, a pendant in the shape of the Torah, a sculpture) to lead her to the discovery of what happened to her mother, Dorothy (a Canadian linguist), vanished since Sid was a child and thus marooning her in an endless mystery. Sid also finds her father’s newest novel, Slobgollion, completed the day before his untimely death. (A Canadian linguist), vanished since Sid was a child and thus marooning her in an endless mystery. Sid also finds her

father’s newest novel, Slobgollion, completed the day before his untimely death. As Sid and André trace each clue and read the manuscript they come closer to the strange truth about Dorothy and closer to each other. Slobgollion forms a novel-within the novel and the chapters interleave the two closely related stories. In Slobgollion, the thirteen-year-old narrator, Solange, discovers that her father, Ishmael, who had been missing without a trace for a year, has been taken into protective custody in whale-designed oxygenated glass rooms by the whales of the world because an evil corporation with genocidal intentions wants to silence him. Why? Because Ishmael knows that the corporation and its greedy CEO, Drake Barents, has tried to steal the whales’ crucial energy source, causing mass beachings. But Barents also urgently needs to silence Ishmael because, as president of the National CetologicalSociety, Ishmael understands that whales of the global oceans have been attempting to communicate with humans since 1905 when they learned Yiddish. Solange and her dog confront head-on dread-Drake, in his all sparkly white re-fitted Hancock Tower in Boston. Yet Drake has no idea that his dastardly plans will be foiled by an elaborate plot concocted by whale engineers. Alternating between the intertwined story of the mysteries in the suitcase that encompass Sid and André’s interracial romance, “interviews” with Aaron Zimmerman, “book reviews” of his diverse novels, and chapters of Slobgollion, Rare Stuff is both melancholy and playful. André narrates the outer novel so it’s spiked with references to Moby-Dick and other literary treasures. My hope is that the book will offer quirky hope in these strange times.​

Thinking behind the writing

I began writing the whale sections, which, thanks to the wonderful Jamie Jones, received the name Slobgollion (from Melville’s Moby Dick) about two years ago, in a notebook. Many people have asked me how I came up with the whales as characters and the answer is, honestly, I don’t know. I have always loved and admired whales (and am donating 100% of all author royalties to Whale and Dolphin Conservation) and, as I wrote those sections, I began to research whales more fully. They are utterly fascinating and I am convinced they communicate across vast distances. I discussed the plot of this novel within-a-novel with my daughter, Anya, many, many times and she contributed super ideas. Then, in November 2018 my father, Ralph J. Kaplan died very suddenly. It was a huge emotional blow to me. My father wrote many, many novels, he wrote every day, for like fifty years. When he died somehow the notebook full of the “whale book” became the novel that the fictional version of my father, Aaron Zimmerman, wrote--it became a novel within a novel and the structure then is the daughter writing the father in the outer novel and the father writing the daughter in the inner novel, both of them searching. I gave my father, in the fictional version of Rare Stuff, the life of a published novelist and I made up all of the novels that he wrote--for some reason I have been unable to read my father’s manuscripts. I preserve them all in a big box, labeled “Ralph Kaplan’s novels.” 

 All of the photographs were taken by Melia Kaplan-Hartnett, except for 12 Nazi Concentration Camps taken by James   Friedman in 1981.