Nathan Englander and the Problem of Ethnicity

Yeah, I said it. It’s a problem.

Nah, it’s not really a problem. It’s what makes our country and lives great.

It’s just a problem when people try to talk reasonably about books like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Which yes, is mostly about strictly observant Jewish characters. So I understand the desire to say HEY! This is  JEWY JEWY BOOK!

But the blurbs on the book are a little suspicious. Like, people can’t talk about it without putting on a gag beard, hat and peyes attached to some Groucho Marx/Woody Allen glasses that turn everything you see into caricature.

His blah blah great stories “open a window on a fascinating landscape we might never have known was there.”

Or he “invites comparison to some of the best storytellers—Gogol, Singer, Kafka and even John Cheever.”

Or the stories are filled “with vivid life.”

I mean, even John Cheever? EVEN? Like, Russian, Jew, Jew, and even this white American guy that has a little in common with this writer but is also great.

And also, never have known that the Orthodox Jews were there? Or, like, never would have known that observant religious people also have problems, some of which have almost nothing to do with religion?

Which brings me to what I actually want to say about this book.

Which is that, actually, it’s hard to figure out the role of Judaism in it.

My impulse, driven by my loud and proud Alice Munro fangirl thing, is that she’s a more obvious influence. Most of these stories have that Munro-moment: the moment when the slightly historic or pastoral setting—doing laundry without a machine, treating mental illness by putting patients permanently away, or displaying them at a circus—suddenly resolves into an ordinarily heart-rending tragedy. Crying about a woman on a train.

So if Englander is a master of the Munro moment, then the ethnic setting is just a setting. It’s not the theme. Even strictly observant Jews have hollowly quotidian marriages that slowly erode their lives. Even strictly observant Jews are unhappy.

Every unhappy Jew is unhappy in his own way, say.

So, in the title story (my favorite,) there’s the man whose rabbi writes him a special dispensation to see a prostitute. Once the man relieves his eponymous urges, his wife will start to want him again. When she thinks it’s her idea, instead of her accommodating or acquiescing to him.

Or in another story, a woman has separated from a miserable marriage and her husband won’t grant her a divorce. So he can continue to torture her from afar.

Or in another story, a woman whose job it is to make other women beautiful is confronting the fact of her own aging, and finds herself confusing sexual desire with financial exchange.

Nothing particularly Jewish about these quandaries. It’s just salad dressing. The first man, yes, needs permission to cheat because it’s a grave sin. The second man, yes, is refusing the religious divorce, which the woman cannot get independently (though, I must interrupt myself to say that in the ketubah, the ancient religious marriage contract, the groom promises to give the bride a get if she asks: a legal innovation that is seen now as remarkably feminist for its time.)

And in the third story above, that woman’s job is to make wigs. For the married women who cannot show their hair in public.

So how relevant is the Jewishness in these stories? On the one hand, not much. It’s just about the moment these characters recognize their tragedy, and we recognize it with them. Their everyday trappedness.

On the other hand (this is in a Jewish spirit, after all,) there is just so much Judaism that it’s hard not to think, as Kakutani does, that these characters are “forced to try to come to terms with their problems within the framework of tradition, or make a rash and radical break with all they have grown up believing.”

That is, that Judaism is the problem. Not the color or tone of the problem, but the problem itself.

Which, to me, is an interpretive problem.

It’s, to borrow from Englander’s dynamite new story, what we talk about when we talk about ethnicity and literature. The question of the “universal” versus “local” perspective. How can we read about the lives of the marginalized without taking that perspective? And should we try?

How Jewish is Jewish literature? And how Jewish should it be?

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7 thoughts on “Nathan Englander and the Problem of Ethnicity

  1. Melissa says:

    E, what an interesting review. This makes me wish I had picked the book up yesterday when I was perusing. Instead, I just bought an Elephant & Piggie book for Miles, inspired by your little human’s literary tastes. Overall, should I be reading this? I mean, after Lolita and Eat the Document? And BTW, which Munro should I read next if I’ve read only Runaway.?

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I do love the Elephant and Piggie. Should I Share My Ice Cream? and I Am Going! are my current favorites from them.

    To be honest, Englander’s latest collection may be better than this one. The title story, referenced in the post, blew my head off. But I haven’t read the whole collection yet.

    Hateship Loveship Courtship Marriage would be well worth your while. But Runaway’s still my favorite, maybe because it’s the first I read.

  3. Matthew says:

    I tend to think in terms of “both” when it comes to universality. That is, there are ways in which we are all universally human, but there are also ways in which our lives and experiences are different and unique, whether it’s due to ethnicity or gender or any other identity category.

    And it’s nice to note that there are still books out there in the world!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for your comment, Matthew! The thing is, “universal” is a loaded word in western lit. It usually refers to the dominant perspective/position and isn’t universal at all.

      The paragon of this is the use of “he” for a general singular pronoun. We aren’t doing that anymore because we recognize that “he” isn’t a universal or general position. Be we have replaced it with “they” which drives me nutsobananas.

      That said, it isn’t supposed to be an insult to say that Englander’s book feels remarkably human. It’s supposed to give it cred, the way you are implying–we are all alike in important ways, and this book gets at that heart of human experience. But when you examine literature of race and ethnicity, those kinds of statements start to seem much less meaningful. They start to sound more like WOW! These are crazy exotic religious freaks, and yet i relate to them ANYWAY!

  4. […] made two exceptions to my pseudo-schtick this year: Nathan Englander’s first collection, because I was in the mood, and Dave Eggers’ latest novel, because it was hanging out in my […]

  5. […] I made a few exceptions: Nathan Englander because I was excited about his new story collection. So I read his old one: go figure. Dave Eggers […]

  6. […] it down: do we review “ethnic” literature’s specificity? The way that Dissident Gardens is, in fact, a novel about Jewish American experience? Or do we […]

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