The Ministry of Special Cases
By Nathan Englander
(Alfred A. Knopf, 339 pp., $25)

IN ONE OF the best-known stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, the collection of short stories that shot Nathan Englander into the literary stratosphere seven years ago, a middle-aged WASP sitting in a taxi cab has the sudden and inexplicable revelation that he is Jewish. The next day he visits a rabbi in Brooklyn, who informs him that he is a gilgul, or reincarnated soul, and sends him off with a copy of The Chosen. But it isn’t easy being transcendent: the “gilgul of Park Avenue” must face various hurdles on his path to the truth, including a maid who prepares creamed chicken dinners (forbidden!) and a petulant wife who wonders why “people who find religion always have to be so goddamn extreme.” The story ends with him looking out his apartment window: “He had not read that far into the Bible and still thought God might orchestrate his rescue.”

In a genre that lately has seesawed between the cool restraint of Alice Munro or William Trevor and the anything-goes exuberance of the McSweeney’s hipsters, Englander seemed to have landed from an alternate universe. Mostly set in the fictitious neighborhood of Royal Hills, Brooklyn, his stories offered a knowledgeable, ironic, and sympathetic vision of Orthodox Jewry, populated by men and women seeking deliverance from spiritual or emotional anguish and generously laden with authenticating details. In “The Wig,” a middle-aged wigmaker catering to the religious community coaxes a young delivery man into selling her his flowing curls for an unconventional headcovering of her own. The title story tells of a Hasid who, deprived of sex by his wife, receives a special dispensation from his rabbi to seek the services of a prostitute.

Critics ate up Englander’s persona as an “insider outsider” unafraid to cast a cold yet compassionate eye on the insular world of his childhood. Readers were charmed by Englander’s yeshiva-boy-turned-rebel personal history, which made his fictions into documents of (somewhat ambivalent) alienation. But Englander’s fans seemed not to notice, or perhaps not to care, that he too was a kind of gilgul, although the reincarnation in question is literary rather than spiritual. Questions of influence, of discipleship, even of mimicry, loomed large and unanswered in his work. A gilgul, of course, is the very antithesis of an original.

Some of the tales in Englander’s first book seemed to have been not so much influenced by past writers—Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz,and especially Isaac Bashevis Singer—as actually to channel them.Consider “The Twenty-seventh Man,” inspired by Stalin’s execution of a group of Yiddish writers in 1952, which delineates the proceedings with a series of perfectly calibrated vignettes. A drunken poet must be carried out of a whorehouse by its employees, “a sight [he] would have enjoyed tremendously had he been conscious”; a sententious elderly lion is still waxing philosophical on his way to jail. Once the writers are all assembled in prison, the talk— literary gossip, mostly—grows so heated that they must be separated into smaller groups. The drunk and the lion find themselves locked up with writer number twenty-seven, who has never published a word but has not skipped a day of writing since childhood. Denied pen and paper in the cell, he composes a story in his head, which he recites to the others just before they are all led to their deaths. With minor adjustments, this story would be impossible to pick out of a collection of early Singer.

Of course, this is a considerable compliment. Formally, “The Twenty-seventh Man” is a marvel; each sentence is perfect. And Englander maintained this control through the majority of his collection. His writing was seductive, his insight into human nature mature, his humor perfectly pitched. But if the writer’s first obligation is to “make it new,” this he failed to do. The Singer- ness of Englander’s colorful stories was even more pronounced, and more banal, in the ones that purported to discover—as if for the first time, with almost a whiff of scandal—that believing Jews, too, seek pleasure and love; that the observance of the law does not quite banish unbearable urges. Who knew?

ENGLANDER’S NEW novel rounds up a different selection of ghosts, but the effect is similar. The Ministry of Special Cases is set in Argentina in 1976, at the start of the “dirty war,” although—as with the stories—the location is peculiarly non-specific. In For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, we recognize Royal Hills not by its scenery or its smells, but by its inhabitants: the wigmaker, the rabbi in his study. Yet those people, by virtue of belonging to a deliberately anachronistic community, seem themselves to exist out of time— nobody carries a cell phone or watches HBO. Likewise, the characters in Englander’s novel occasionally eat a steak or drop a Spanish word, but there is nothing necessarily Argentine about this book. Although its plot hinges on the fate of a boy who is “disappeared” by the government—he is escorted out of his parents’ apartment one night and literally ceases to exist—it could be set in any totalitarian regime, at any point in history. The place and time, though specified, is curiously generalized, even generic.

The disappeared boy’s father is the picturesquely named Kaddish Poznan, who proudly identifies himself as an hijo de puta, a son of a whore: his mother was a prostitute who catered to the Jewish underworld of Buenos Aires, headquartered in the Society of the Benevolent Self—known as the “pimps’ shul”—and populated by characters with names such as Talmud Harry (the synagogue’s main macher), Hezzi Two-Blades, and Bryna the Vagina. The story behind Kaddish’s name is explained thus: a sickly baby, he was named by a rabbi who had been summoned by his mother, the aforementioned puta, for a blessing and then refused to cross the threshold. “His judgment was instant. ‘Let his name be Kaddish to ward off the angel of death. A trick and a blessing. Let this child be the mourner instead of the mourned.’”

SOME BLESSING. A generation later, the descendants of these “Benevolent Self toughs” have established their own shul and built a wall to separate the new graveyard from the tombs of their disreputable ancestors. (As the old joke goes, every Jew has a synagogue he doesn’t go to.) Kaddish, who has spent his life pursuing one money-making scheme after another, has finally hit upon a useful service: he sneaks into the old cemetery at night and chisels the names off the tombs, erasing the evidence of ties between the now-prosperous Jews of Buenos Aires—the son of Pinkus “Toothless” Mazursky has become a plastic surgeon—and the corruption of the Benevolent Self. (“What I offer,” he tells the surgeon, “Is a face-lift for the family name.”) The symbolism of Kaddish’s acts does not go unrecognized. “Which man is better off,” Bryna’s daughter asks Kaddish, “the one without a future or the onewithout a past?”

This strange question hovers hauntingly over the crisis at the novel’s center. Pato, Kaddish’s teenage son, is rebelling in all the usual ways: smoking pot, staying out late, reading left-wing tracts. After the coup establishing military rule takes place, early on in the novel, Kaddish burns some of Pato’s books as a precaution. Pato is furious and storms out of the house, intending never to come home. But he is arrested at a concert, together with a group of young people: the rest are released, but Pato, who was not carrying ID, is held at the police station. After Kaddish picks him up, the two pick up their fight where they left off. “Fuck you,” Pato says. “I wish you were dead.” And Kaddish responds: “Fuck you. I wish you’d never been born.” At just that moment,” while the curse still hung in the air between them, there was, most clearly, a knock at the door. And Kaddish went to get it. And Kaddish got his wish. It was, in an instant, as if his son was never born.”

Before either of them fully realizes what has happened, Pato is being led away:

A man in a sharp gray suit walked out the door into the darkness ofthe hallway, a book tucked under his arm. A second man followed, two books, like dead weights, one hanging from each hand. A third and a fourth man walked out the door with Pato, Kaddish’s son, standing between them. They held him very firmly by the elbows, grasping tightly, so that his arms were bent and his hands straight in front. As he passed out of the apartment he smiled at his father, who hadn’t moved from his place by the heavy door, holding it open (needlessly) with a foot. He said to Kaddish, “A very poor note to end on,” and for this comment grips tightened and hands pointed higher in the air. They were not walking fast; Kaddish heard it all clearly. He also heard the elevator gate open and the hum of the old motor in the dark, since no one pressed the button for the hallway light. The gate to the elevator slid back, teeth caught gears, and then, along with the motor, there was the click of the release as the car lowered and the five bodies started to descend.

THE TRAGEDY (or, more precisely, the crime) of the desaparecidos, as Englander has imagined it, is not primarily the political tragedy of a government’s irremediable atrocities against its citizens (many of them children), nor the emotional tragedy of parents who have lost their only child and would do anything to get him back. It is more like a metaphysical puzzle. What are the consequences when a person is deemed no longer to exist? In parts two and three of the novel, Kaddish and his wife Lillian, searching more and more desperately for Pato (a search that is doomed from the start, though Lillian is the only one who does not know it), pursue this question in all its ramifications.

Not surprisingly, these sections are thoroughly indebted to Kafka, another of Englander’s heroes. At the police station Kaddish, having been informed that Pato is not there, tells the officer to prove it. “We really don’t do that, sir,” comes the response. “Proving is frowned upon.” The Ministry of Special Cases— “a bureaucratic dumping ground, a loony bin for those with no redress”—is a pit of governmental corruption and inefficiency, where officials demand documents that don’t exist, insist on habeas corpus when there is no body, and send Lillian on fruitless chases down never-ending corridors. A crush of people throng the door every morning, only to wait again in another line to take numbers from a machine; on her first day, not understanding how the systemworks, Lillian draws number 456, only to learn that the line starts again with number one the next morning. A powerful general to whom she finally takes her case tells her maddeningly, “I can’t undo what’s not been done.”

No figure epitomizes grief more than a mother who has lost her son; and there are moments—Lillian refusing to eat dinner until Kaddish has set a place for Pato; her continual vigil by the window of their apartment, willing him to turn the corner—that make this grief painfully real. But the novel’s tone shifts so abruptly between the tragic and the absurd that it is hard to know what is intended to be serious and what is not. In one particularly bizarre subplot early on, Kaddish and Lillian accept nose jobs as payment from Dr. Mazursky, who is running low on cash. “Happiness is contained in the nose,” Mazursky tells Kaddish.

This is why Jews, as a people, are dysthymics. In those ample noses happiness moves around like a firefly in a jar. It must be contained more exactly. One must keep it in place. Like a butterfly pinned to velvet, happiness runs through. We can cure you, Poznan. We can liberate the man trapped inside the Jew.

Indeed, when Kaddish’s bandages are removed, his new nose is gorgeous. But a student has botched Lillian’s nose, and in the initial shock of Pato’s disappearance, she cries so hard that it falls off. Is this supposed to be humorous? Shocking? Surreal? It is impossible to tell. (Before this scene, I thought all the business with the noses was Englander’s attempt to sample Gogol, not Monty Python.) But the effect of any absurdity like this is todistance the reader from the characters: if things happen to themthat are bizarrely unreal, then empathy is disrupted, and it never really recovers from the disruption.

In the wake of such an episode, how can one take the tragedy of the Poznans—or, by extension, this novel—entirely seriously? Yet apparently Englander intends it seriously, because the alteration in their noses becomes one of the novel’s leitmotifs. (Pato, whodeclined Mazursky’s offer, has the biggest nose in the family.) “This kid didn’t come from either of you,” says an officer who looks at Pato’s photograph. Later, Lillian weeps to look at her reflection, saying, “I want my big nose back, Kaddish. I want to see Pato when I look in the mirror. Go find me my old nose.”

FOR A metaphysical fantasy to succeed philosophically, it must be plausible on a realistic level. One could honestly read, say, The Plague, a book for which Englander has repeatedly professed his admiration, as a novel about a plague. But nothing about The Ministry of Special Cases (an oddly bad title for the novel, as the ministry neither functions as metaphor nor figures in more than a few scenes) is quite real enough to support the book’s heavily allegorical aspects. Aside from a couple of throwaway references to streets or neighborhoods, Englander offers little texture of Buenos Aires, nothing to help us see the city in which these people supposedly live and suffer. The particulars of plot, too—all the attributes and the histories that novelists are expected to lavish happily upon their characters—are strangely lacking. (Why do we never find out what any of Kaddish’s hare-brained schemes were?) And the rhinological angle aside, we are never told what anyone looks like. This absence of tangible detail gives the novel a feeling of slightness, of ephemerality, which is of course at odds with the gravity of its themes.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was similarly lacking in narrative flourishes, but the effect was to spotlight the characters, nearly all of whom were completely, if economically, drawn. Yet psychological realism is also strangely absent from this novel. Lillian is the book’s most affecting figure, but we rarely see her doing anything other than searching for Pato; she exists only as the Bereaved Mother. We learn nothing—nothing—about Pato’s personality, other than that, like any teenager, he wishes he were having sex and he likes to hang out with his friends. Even Kaddish, who is intended to be a thoroughly singular character—by virtue of his name, his outsize nose, his existence at the margins of respectability—comes off as little more than a representative of Jewishness. Even in a novel about Jews, Jewishness is not enough.

The trouble seems to be one of tone. The book is narrated from Kaddish’s perspective and in his voice, which is ironic, aphoristic, and flecked with the lilt of Yiddishisms: “Kaddish’s clients were the ones who had what to lose, the respectable, successful segment of their community that didn’t have in its families such a reputable past.” But gradually it becomes clear that this voice is not unique to Kaddish; most of the other characters speak in similar aphorisms. It’s not that he sounds like everyone else, but that everyone else sounds like him. Take the plastic surgeon’s pronouncement that “happiness is contained in the nose.” Or the general, who tells the Poznans that the only way they will bring Pato back is to “go to the river and mix him from clay. People from nothing is a Jewish affair.” Even the priest to whom Lillian appeals as a last resort talks like a rebbe: “You [Jews] get yourselves mixed up in politics and the newspapers. It’s either the heart of the city or the heart of the matter. What doesn’t make sense to a bystander is this Jewish hunger, this compass like a pigeon’s for putting yourselves in the center of things.”

This lack of modulation is all the more disappointing in comparison with the many moments of splendid writing. The unforgettable passage depicting Pato’s arrest, for instance, with its chilling final sentence: “The gate to the elevator slid back, teeth caught gears, and then, along with the motor, there was the click of the release as the car lowered and the five bodies started to descend.” Or this thoroughly original description of Kaddish’s nose job:

Kaddish blinked quickly. At least he thought he had, the view was so wet and fuzzy, he wasn’t sure if his lids had moved. Again there was the question of tears. Kaddish still wasn’t sure if he was feeling anything, though he thought maybe his head had split in two. He felt a line up the middle of his forehead, a soft separation or something like. It made the oddest noise, so very distinct—an internal sound. He wondered if this was what deaf people heard, if, with the world around them turned off, they got such wonderful sound from within. It was like an egg cracking. And that’s what Kaddish saw. It was as if his eyes were in backward, peering into the blackness of his empty head, and in its very center floated a large white egg, so white as to be throbbing in its whiteness, so that against the blackness its edges seemed to glow.

But there are also instances of writing that is simply weak, when scenes that ought to have profound emotional power are ruined by abrupt changes of mood or by amateurish explanations. At one point Lillian is told that her petition has at last been granted, but when she receives the papers supposedly providing for Pato’s release, a different child’s name is written on them. Assuming this is some kind of trick, she shows up at the police station anyway, only to be granted custody of a teenage girl:

Lillian grabbed the girl’s elbow and gave her a shake. “Tell them,” she said. “Tell them you weren’t taken from my house, from my block. Tell them it’s a lie, that we’ve never met.”
“It was your house,” the girl said. Lillian drew back, startled by the claim and by how sharply the girl smelled of pee. “From the top floor,” the girl said. “Your house. And a bakery. There was a bakery and a beating in a car.”
Lillian first believed the girl meant it and, thinking her somehow bewitched, she pushed her away.
This was surely a nightmare that Lillian was having. To prove it, Lillian crossed her arms and pinched at her biceps as hard as she could. When Lillian did this she also tried to turn the girl into Pato. If it was a dream, let her see her son.
The girl wouldn’t change, and Lillian knew this wasn’t anything but another disappointment. All she’d be getting was this child, with her sallow face and her cracked lips and a hollowness to her eyes that only got worse when Lillian saw them straight on. This child was empty inside. Lillian let her hands drop. What the girl had said wasn’t a lie. Certain things at certain times are always truth.

The inherent drama of the scene is squandered through the intrusive narration (“This was surely a nightmare ... Lillian knew ...”) and the jarringly oracular turn at the end. Lillian is no philosopher, and no mother being handed the wrong child could believe that “certain things at certain times are always truth.”

The awkward dance between tragedy and farce continues through the book’s final pages, as the truth of what happened to Pato subtly unfolds and Kaddish endures the unintended consequences of yet another desperate scheme. In the end we are left, again, with the image of a figure at the window: this time it is Lillian, who does not actually believe that God might orchestrate her rescue, but hopes for it all the same. Is the gilgul of Grub Street waiting for his own divine intervention?