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
  • Two PansTwo Pans

    Another high-profile pan for David Mitchell's newest. I think Mitchell is pretty seriously overrated, but most people in the... »
  • ThoughtcrimeThoughtcrime

    There are a lot of really obvious takes on this that you are probably already thinking of. To me, the interesting/scary thing... »
  • Wood on MitchellWood on Mitchell

    For the record, James Wood's take on Mitchell is pretty much my own. Dude can write for days, but I rarely feel that there is... »
  • M&L on Ann QuinM&L on Ann Quin

    Music & Literature unearths a sroty of Ann Quin and publishes it. If the name is new to you, have a look here.... »
  • The Potato EatersThe Potato Eaters

    Nice interview with Bela Tarr's cinematographer, Fred Kelemen, discussing the film The Turin Horse (which I recently watched,... »
  • 35 Worthy Independent Books35 Worthy Independent Books

    All publishing this fall. Pretty nice list. Good on Publishers Weekly.... »
  • The new DostoevskyThe new Dostoevsky

    Been a while since I read Crime and Punishment. Sounds interesting. Several earlier translations tended to smooth over... »
  • Golden HandcuffsGolden Handcuffs

    The current issue of the Golden Handcuffs Review has my essay "The Eclipse; Or, The Vulva," which is part of a series of work... »
  • The Translation Is HotThe Translation Is Hot

    While I tend to lump blockbusters into an outlier category regardless of what language they were originally written in, I do... »
  • LRB on Robbe-GrilletLRB on Robbe-Grillet

    Nice that there are still places like the LRB that publish things like this: By the time he was elected to the Académie... »

You Say

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.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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>