Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" by Nathan Englander

These kinds of books really get on my nerves. Not in that they are undeserving of any kind of attention, but in how they are always lauded with praise for doing something that has been done before and done better. While Nathan Englander is not very famous, I can see his books becoming the kinds of books that are picked up by pseudo-intellectuals who have little experience reading anything outside their comfort zone and find it more important to have everyone think you have read a lot than to actually do the work of reading. While fun, it is not nearly as sexy an act as some hipsters make it out to be, and they treat it rather superficially. With that said, Nathan Englander falls into a certain category of those kind of writers where, at times it seems that the only interesting thing about them is their Jewish heritage, and being such makes them more interesting than anyone who isn’t. Jonathan Safran Foer is probably the best example of this, someone, along with Cormac McCarthy, I find to be one of the most over-rated writers in modern America. They define themselves to heavily by their Jewish identity that it can, honestly, make some people reading it feel left out from such unique and wacky lifestyle that is fraught with as many weird rituals and people along with a greater amount of heartache and despair than any gentile could imagine. Reading these stories, I felt bombarded by a sense of self-inflicted martyrdom that made me constantly roll my eyes and laugh out of frustration. This brings up another aspect of these books that really bothers me: their obsession with the Holocaust and how they still try to create stories around it. I do not think it can affect them this much, especially sense the writers I am talking about are at least two generations removed from the events. I can understand a passionate interest in the subject, but to define themselves by these horrible events that happened to their relatives almost thirty years before they were born is a little unhealthy, and annoying. Not to sound too insensitive, but it is literally hitting you in the face as you are reading these stories, and how hard they are trying to build a story around an event that has been overwritten about. Two stories in this collection actually imagine situations where a certain kind of Jewish person is sent to a concentration camp. One has a group of writers and the other has circus acrobats. It is actually very laughable, which is sad, because Englander is actually a good writer at his best. He is way too derivative of Malamud, but still, he has chops that I cannot ignore, it is just his subject matter that is tiring. Final verdict: I am sure some people will like it, but it is too cliché for me and of a certain genre that I don’t think can be mined for creative juices anymore.
Rating: 2/5

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