Executing the Un-Executable


Nathan Englander is the George W. Bush of literary novelists. Like our faith-based president, he bends and melds reality to his whims. Because he avoids research—crimps the imagination—he writes the kind of set-pieces that impress readers more than fact-checkers.

So it’s not shocking that two scenes from his new book—both surgeries—are described in technical detail, but aren’t technically accurate.

“I had somebody check it, and they were like: ‘totally wrong,’” Englander recalled recently. “And I was like, in my heart it’s right; I know you’re wrong.”

So he ended up getting… a second opinion.

“This is so embarrassing to say—but I sometimes believe things have to be true if you’ve dreamed them enough.”

Englander’s imagination tends to move faster than his pen. For the last nine years, he’s been hacking away at a novel, the follow-up to his bestselling collection of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Now that the novel (The Ministry of Special Cases) is finally finished, Englander—who tends to see things categorically, and mixes jokes with an undergraduate earnestness in person—is about to resurface. For the next few months, he’ll be everywhere his readers are: cafes, bookstores, even online. Which explains, perhaps, the YouTube clip he recently posted.

“I hope you’ve all had a good decade,” says the clear, nasal voice on the screen. “I was in my room, writing you this novel.”


Writers often miss deadlines for their second books. Englander missed his by six years, most of them spent in coffee shops in Manhattan, where he’s lived for the last six years since returning from Jerusalem.

“Nobody knows I’m alive yet,” Englander says, tucking into a lung-sized steak at an Argentine restaurant on the Upper East Side. True enough, at a recent reading at Hunter College, no one recognized him until he was introduced. And no wonder: Englander barely resembles the photo on his first book’s jacket, taken when he was 29. (His old hairstyle—think the biblical Sampson, or a Mötley Crüe drummer—has been tamed into a three-inch ziggurat of dark curls.) Though he’s known largely for his first book, expectations are even higher for his second.

“It’s like asking people to the prom,” Englander goes on. “If you get rejected, you can’t say, ah, I didn’t care. I’m trying not to see it that way, but there’s a lot riding on this.” That goes for Englander and his publisher, Knopf, which printed 62,000 hardcover copies—a large number for a debut novelist, but not for one whose first book cracked the Amazon.com Top Ten.

That his novel took so long isn’t surprising. Even by novelist-standards, Englander is a perfectionist, a “ruthless cutter” of chapters and words. “I always tell him: you’re my craziest writer,” says his friend and agent, Nicole Aragi, whose stable includes Junot Diaz and Jonathan Safran Foer. “I remember watching him mark up a short story, and I sort of realized, he’s marked every word, he’s going to reconsider every word and try 45 different possibilities. This sentence will take him six weeks.”

This time around, Englander wrote nearly 1,000 pages before pruning his manuscript to a compact 352. That includes a dense first chapter (150 pages of aborted prose), and a particularly troublesome scene in which a main character stirs a glass of lemonade with his finger.

“I wrote that like 10,000 times!” Englander says. “I had those lemons out, I had the glasses out. I wrote that line 50,000 different ways, it was so important to me.”

That same compulsiveness informs Englander’s day-to-day life, which hasn’t changed since he graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1996. Englander writes all day, almost every day. (“I’m basically a monk,” he told an interviewer in 1999, when he only wrote six days a week.) For years, his garret was a coffee shop in Jerusalem, where he wrote chunks of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Today it’s an Upper West Side apartment where he keeps his old writing desk, schlepped back from Jerusalem in 2001.

The hideouts serve a dual purpose. After his first book, Englander absorbed a barrage of praise from reviewers, fans, and writers like Ann Beattie, who compared him to Denis Johnson and Richard Ford. Not since Philip Roth was heckled at Yeshiva University in 1962 had a Jewish author gotten so much attention for his stories. “I was very thankful, but it’s overwhelming,” says Englander. “To work privately, and then get all this feedback. It’s very alarming.”

The book’s success is still something of a mystery (“We’ve spent the past nine years trying to figure that out,” says an editor at Schocken Press, a sister imprint of Knopf), but its effect on Englander was profound. Nowadays, he tends to avoid parties, panels, praise—anything that would pollute his mind or affect his ego. “It’s an easily corrupted space,” he says, tapping his temple. “If 1,000 people tell you you’re handsome on the street today and then one person screams out the window, ‘Hey, ugly!’ you’re going to forget the rest of the day.”

For his part, Englander can play the tummler, but he’s not so easy to pigeonhole. “You meet Nathan and you think, this is a really funny, lighthearted guy who finds craziness and strangeness in everything,” says Aragi. “Then you read his books, and you think, there’s something much more serious—unnervingly serious—going on.”

True enough, no one gets off easy in his fiction. Along with slapstick, there’s a strong dose of horror. Englander’s characters can be triaged into the shame-ridden, the out-of-luck, and the poor suckers stuck with them. And then there are the Orthodox, men and women—though mostly women—chafing against the strictures of religion. Englander doesn’t simplify or exotify their dilemmas, though his style of revelation-without-judgment is more forceful for its restraint.

“The view of the repressive, almost medieval mentality that they have—it was quite remarkable,” says Ilan Stavans, an author and editor who shared an office with Englander at Columbia University, where they were both visiting faculty. “To my mind, they embraced a very courageous approach to understanding Orthodoxy.”

Englander grew up on Long Island, in an Orthodox township that vaguely resembles the one in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. He was raised halachically, or, as he puts it—“to be a little zealot.” In one of his stories, Jews drink 12 glasses of wine on Passover, rather than the usual four. In another, a recent convert purges his kitchen of anything vaguely treyf.

“We were all that way,” Englander says today. “If you were gonna have Seder with regular matzo, you’d say, 'I’ll starve to death—I need shmura matzo.' If a friend was gonna make you drive on Shabbos you’d be ready to throw yourself on the highway, or you’d get out of a rest drop and not get back in.”

Englander’s background is still an object of fascination. At 37, he still fields questions about apostasy. (At Hunter: “I too, am fascinated by your background, because I know so many young people who have gone to Jerusalem and found religion. You seem to have lost it. I wondered what provoked that.”) His answer tends to be an anodyne version of the one he gave the Atlantic Monthly in 1999: “I grew up in an Orthodox home in New York, where I had a right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, fire-and-brimstone, free-thought free, shtetl-mentality, substandard education. And so I began to look elsewhere; I began to read literature. Simple as that.”

For the record, Englander forgot God in Jerusalem, of all places, as a 19-year-old college junior. Prior to that, he had never watched TV after sundown on Shabbos, or eaten unkosher food. “Jerusalem is a city of opposites,” Englander said at Hunter. “Whatever you go there as, you’re leaving the other way. But yeah, it was like I just didn’t understand the world at all. People do find themselves there, and they find their true selves.”

Englander may have channeled his energy away from Orthodoxy, but the rigidity, the absolutism—most of all, the belief in the power of stories—persists in his adult life. At events, Englander reads quickly and carefully, almost rabbinically; he could be chanting. He parries compliments with, “You’re a kind man,” and gives Talmudically complex answers to yes-or-no questions. “I’m not in that world anymore, but I was raised so that there is no other world,” Englander says. A religious tendency to see the world in almost Manichean terms inflects his writing, which favors characters caught between extremes: the secular and the sacred; their true selves and the selves they try to project.

“This is something I’m obsessed with,” Englander says. “I want a black-and-white world, and I’ve got all this gray.”

Given his penchant for polarities, it may not be surprising that Englander’s new book is set in mid-1970s Argentina, following the ouster of Eva Peron. All over Buenos Aires, suspected dissidents are being rounded up and “disappeared”—tortured, often killed. The plot pivots around the abduction of Pato, the 19-year-old son of Kaddish and Lillian Poznan. One moment he’s in his apartment, fighting with his father, who wishes he’d never been born; the next, he’s being led away by men in suits. The banality of the event is meant to underscore the horror of it, and the horror of what follows: his parents’ anguished search through the tangled bureaucracy of Buenos Aires, a quest that wends through the eponymous Ministry of Special Cases.

The seed for the novel was an experience Englander had in college. It was in Israel (his first trip) that Englander met a clique of young Argentines. As he remembers it, he was struck by how profoundly Argentina’s politics had affected them. “In every single aspect of their lives, the way they trust, the way they talk, the way they dream: it’s all politics-based,” Englander says.

That sparked, or perhaps nurtured, an obsession with injustice, one of many that animates his book. There is shame (a main character is hijo de puta—son of a whore). Fate (he’s named Kaddish, which speaks for itself.) And the idea that powerful forces—in this case, a military dictatorship—are really in control.

Because of the long gestation, there may be more suspense surrounding the book than inside it. (Which is saying something, given the plot. An Oprah pick, this is not.) Ministry is also one of those novels that, while firmly rooted in the past, still feels topical. Broadly limned, the novel is set in a time of suspicion, with an unelected government fighting an unconventional war against its worst enemies, real or imagined. “It’s a global tightening of security,” observes a character. “There are things that are done to ensure victory. Right things,” rationalizes another. Habeus corpus is just a memory.

“That’s the strangest element,” Englander says, “because I’ve inadvertently been given a political position. I was using habeus corpus as a metaphor, and then I’ve ended up finishing this book after a decade, and being like, oh, I guess we’re going to touch on these things, which I consider the most basic part of democracy.”

No one suffers in Englander’s stories—at least not in a viscerally affecting way. Yet Ministry often seems to be about suffering, and the question of how you stay centered, or just sane, during a tragedy. Which raises a problem for a fiction writer: generally, characters need to stay “in character” to be coherent. But what about when something happens that changes them fundamentally?

Englander’s response all but distills his last decade.

“This was the hardest thing I ever did,” he says of his novel. “But if you’re gonna spend ten years of your life on a book, it should be about executing the un-executable.”