For the Relief of Unbearable Pressure: A Profile of Nathan Englander

Frank Bures
From the May/June 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Not long ago, Nathan Englander looked up at the ceiling in his twelfth-floor apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and saw something he hadn't noticed before. Another huge crack had spread across the plaster. It looked like the roof might give, like the water pooled up there might start dripping in, then pouring down, drenching him as he lay in his bed. How long had it been there? He had no idea. For years he had been sitting at his writing desk, looking out at the wooden water towers, the anonymous faces of buildings, the city that stretched into the distance, but he'd really been someplace else entirely, someplace far away.

After reading his fiction, you might expect Nathan Englander to be a quiet soul, old on the inside, with his arms wrapped around the world's tragedies. But that's not the case.

As his ceiling cracked, as his phone was shut off, as letters to him went unanswered, and as old friends started to wonder whatever happened to Nathan Englander, the thirty-seven-year-old writer was living in a place that both existed and did not exist, a country that he both knew and did not know, and a time he both imagined and could not really imagine. He had been lost in a fictional world in Argentina—stomping around whores' graveyards in Buenos Aires, trying to track down the disappeared. He had been meeting with generals. He had been banging on government doors. He had been living in a country and a city and a community that had betrayed him. It was an ugly time. Argentina had become an ugly place, one that required a dark humor, a sense of the absurd and tragic, and a kind of hope that is woven through all of the worlds Englander creates.

It wasn't just his friends and the phone company who wondered where Englander had gone. The author burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, published by Knopf as part of a rumored six-figure, two-book deal. That first book was a collection of nine stories about Jews, Orthodox and not so Orthodox, and the lives they forge for themselves within their religion and the modern world.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was a national bestseller, exhaustively reviewed: Newsweek compared the young author's wit to Philip Roth's and Saul Bellow's, the Boston Globe mentioned Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the Village Voice noted similarities to Flannery O'Connor and James Joyce. The collection went through some thirteen printings in hardcover alone; it was translated into a dozen languages. All of this has led to high expectations for Englander's new book, about the Jewish son of a whore and his family living through Argentina's Dirty War in 1976; a book he started working on before his other collection was even finished; a book he spent his advance (and then whatever grants, loans, and teaching gigs he could patch together) to take the time he needed to really finish it. And now that it's finished, the world is waiting. They are asking about it in Germany. They are waiting for it in Italy. They are no doubt expecting it in Argentina. And this month, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf) has arrived.

The reception of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was "beyond my wildest dreams," Englander says now. "You know, it was nine short stories, a collection of literary short fiction about Hasidim, and no, I did not expect…I couldn't have asked for more. People were very kind to me. I was just happy to have that kind of readership and kindness across the board."

All that kindness started a few years earlier, when he was studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and was sent to the airport to pick up Lois Rosenthal, editor of the now-defunct Story. "I had a clean car, and I was polite, so they used to send me to pick up the visitors," Englander says. During the ride, they were making conversation about the usual things when Rosenthal asked if he had any stories. "I handed her an envelope with three stories from under my seat. And she took two right then, and [later] published the third. So she ended up publishing everything in the envelope."

That first story, which would become the title story of his collection, appeared while he was still in graduate school in the Spring 1996 issue of Story alongside other then-unknown writers like Chuck Palahniuk (Rant, Doubleday, 2007) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love, Viking, 2006).

It was around that time that Englander also started to meet agents. Before long Nicole Aragi had snatched him up, and a few years later she would sell his collection to Knopf at auction for a reported advance of $350,000. While Aragi calls that sum exaggerated, she says, "It was a large advance, larger than is typical, simply because lots of publishers fell in love with the stories and could see how strong and individual Nathan's voice was.… There's always a lot of competition for big voices."