Quantcast

The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com

You Say

  • Mike: I agree with much of this discussion, though I'm not sure wh
  • S: This outpouring has been pretty wide-spread indeed. To be ho
  • Will: Salman rushdie is a microscopic crapule on the asshole of th
  • Henry: I think the fireworks may come from the fact that these auth
  • Paul: Vanessa Place's 'La Medusa' seems like an American authored
  • Lance: I agree with you about the state of American fiction and I b
  • Lance: Any idea on the schedule for The Body and The Right WIng? Al

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

cover

The Ministry of Special Cases is not a great novel. It is, however, a pretty good novel that could have been great and certainly shows signs of greatness. It’s author, Nathan Englander, is worthy of your attention.

Let’s try, for instance, this passage from page 93. Here’s the set-up: 1976, Buenos Aires. The military has just taken power, and in true paranoid style it’s been rounding up teenagers. Kaddish has been having intense arguments with his son, Pato, over burning his books before some Fascist decides they’re subversive. Now Kaddish has up and decided to do what he thinks is best while his son’s out of the apartment.

For Kaddish, the [book]shelves were a sign of what he’d done right with his son. And this is where Pato misunderstood him. The books made Kaddish proud. He loved that Pato was educated. It was Pato’s educated attitude that made Kaddish want to wring his neck. He could dump them all if he wanted, every last book. Simpler. But he wasn’t an animal, he wasn’t being cruel. As always, as forever, Kaddish was trying his best.

First pause on the irony embedded in the two sentences "He loved that Pato was educated. It was Pato’s educated attitude that made Kaddish want to wring his neck." You can laugh at (or pity) Kaddish for thinking he could educate his son and still control his attitude. Or you can simply admire Englander for elegantly making the fine distinction between a son’s education and the resultant attitude.

Alternately, you can step back and note that Kaddish’s thoughts about Pato’s education are tellingly similar to those of the Argentine fascists who Kaddish fears might kill Pato, and whom Kaddish is trying to preempt by burning Pato’s books.

Or simply appreciate the distillation of the paradox that is a father-son conflict into this fine moment: the proud father attempting to protect his son by secretly, guiltily burning the emblems of the very thing that makes him a proud father.

Here, Englander is doing what good authors do: he’s making a story his own. This isn’t the first description I’ve read of a fascist-inspired book burning, but I’ve never read one quite like this. What’s special here is how Englander herds so much of this novel through this tiny flashpoint. The book burning not only encapsulates Kaddish’s conflict with his son; it is also a major point in the development of Kaddish’s tragically sad, try-hard aptitude for failure; it’s also the beginning of the fascist half of this book; it’s also taking the theme of erasing history into a new direction; it’s also . . . well, you get the idea.

Of course, there’s more to this scene than just the above-quoted paragraph. Though I’m not going to quote them to you, the three pages that sandwich this paragraph are equally beautiful. They are characterized by the kind of lean, smart writing that makes our paragraph so thoroughly enjoyable to read into. Together, these three pages mark a definite turning point in the novel, one that follows a certain amount of hard-won optimism on the part of Kaddish, Pato, and Pato’s mother.

You can find many other instances of superior construction like this throughout The Ministry of Special Cases; that’s why I’m calling it a very good book that might have been great. Here’s another good example of Englander’s art:

Lillian stood and leaned her forehead against the window. She couldn’t herself believe it. Her husband with his handsome new nose, the face after a lifetime finally right, and now, the final touch, his proper boundaries had fallen into focus. The man coming toward her was sharper, more defined, more perfectly and painfully her Kaddish than any she’d set eyes on before.

It was the closest to him she’d ever felt, the clearest he’d ever been. Kaddish stepped between cars and onto the sidewalk. He craned his neck to look up into their window, as if remembering something, as if he’d sensed he was being watched. Lillian waved with both hands, sliding them back and forth across the glass. Kaddish gave a sad half smile. He raised a hand and waved back to his wife. He paused for a second before disappearing into the building. Her husband, her dear Kaddish, a perfect fit. Kaddish Poznan, father to a missing son.

Look how Englander calmly sets you up and then drops that last line, neatly reversing everything that had come before. There are hints, that "perfectly and painfully," Kaddish’s "sad half smile," but still, at this point in the story (now that Pato is missing and Kaddish’s marriage is falling apart) you are hoping for something positive. You really do want to read it as praise of Kaddish, and you are believing that perhaps there is some cause for hope that Englander hasn’t revealed yet. But then, that last line forces you to read all of Lillian’s thoughts as sardonic commentaries on her impotent husband and her hopeless situation.

This is what Englander, at his best, is doing in The Ministry of Special Cases. He’s creating nice little labyrinths of prose that take two very familiar plotlines (the father-son battle; life with a Kafkaesque fascist government) and turn them into something that bears a very definite Englanderian style. He reminds me a bit of Michael Chabon—not because they’re both Jews writing about Jewish characters but because The Ministry of Special Cases has a definite genre tilt to it, and also because of Englander’s fantastic plotting and for his somewhat distant yet nonetheless compelling characters (on which more later).

There’s are some things not to like about this book. Though Englander is often wonderfully subtle and intelligent, balancing exactly between "too much" and "not enough" information, at other times he falls into the trap of interpreting his book for you.

Also, though Englander’s book is full of period details about Buenos Aires in the 1970s, I never really got a sense of place. (This is somewhat like Pynchon, who does the same thing with the details, but the difference is that in Pynchon it’s more of a stylistic affect than an authentic attempt to recreate place, all of Pynchon taking place in a wacky, hyper world that no one has yet convincingly named.) Except for a few noteworthy pages narrated from the perspective of a disappeared teen, there’s rarely enough intimacy to the prose to tie it to this particular novel, this particular place and time.

Despite these flaws, I think Englander has done a lot of good here. I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Kaddish. All of Englander’s characters are more described than embodied, and this leads to some problems, but in Kaddish’s case Englander has, by the novel’s end, nonetheless made a compelling character. Kaddish had become one of those tragic, almost epic, suffering characters. Tragic suffering may be Kaddish’s one defining characteristic, and yet, Englander creates a singularly Kaddish version of it, in kind of the way that Pynchon makes Benny Profane’s one characteristic indisputably his own.

I think what makes Kaddish work as a character is that in The Ministry of Special Cases Englander isn’t afraid to follow his novel’s logic right to the bitter end. Englander manages to do this for the book as a whole, and that counts for something. (What also counts for something is that Englander does it without belaboring the point, without feeling the need to drone on for a couple-hundred unnecessary pages.) Englander carefully takes his premise in every direction worth taking it, one by one he leads us down each path, until, at last, he has exhausted them all. In so carefully doing this, Englander’s structure displays a definite taut elegance, and, as with his carefully developed paragraphs, this construction provides much food for thought. By the time Englander has taken us down that final path he has filled us with the possibility of everything else that will happen to Kaddish once the novel ends, he has given us a sense of the absurd questions that resist Kaddish’s best efforts to answer them, and at this point Englander wisely brings his novel to a conclusive but nonetheless troubling end. His story is one that, despite the familiar contours, has stayed with me.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Ministry of Pain Dubravka Ugresic’s new novel gets reviewed over at The Guardian. Sounds good. The Ministry of Pain is a brave, accomplished, cultured novel, sombre and witty....
  2. Bookforum Pynchon Issue Several prominent postmodern writers thoroughly discuss Pynchon in Bookforum. Yeah, get the fuck over there son. (Thanks to Ed via Maud) ...
  3. Pynchon at 13 Pynchon enters The New York Times best-selling fiction list at #13. This link also includes an artist’s extrapolation forward from a high school yearbook photo...
  4. When You Have Too Many Books Consider this a service from one reader to another. Although in the abstract the concept of too many books may seem nonsensical (like "too much...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

3 comments to The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

  • bert

    I am now reading this book and for me the most touching seen so far is:
    when Lillian laments for her old nose. this is after Pato is gone and looking in the mirror she longs for the conncetion their two familial faces provided BUT now her old nose is gone and she can no longer recognize her sons face within her own reflection.

  • One of the best reviews I’ve read about this book – thank you, Scott Esposito.
    Would you happen to know whether the name Pato has any meaning or connotation?
    Thanks
    Suzannah

  • Suzannah,
    “Pato” means “duck” in Spanish. It’s a common nickname used in various Spanish-speaking countries (Argentina included). It’s possible that Englander meant for it to serve some figurative purpose–it’s also possible that it was just a bit of authentic flavor.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>