Monday, December 20, 2010

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

I abandoned this book after page 7 because I didn’t like the narrator. In some books a narrator’s voice is imperceptible, but other times the voice is more present, inserting itself into the reader’s consciousness, shading the reader’s interpretations, leading the reader astray, even, or in the case of this book, just irritating the reader.

On the top of page 7 this book’s narrator describes a woman named Lila Finkel as having "a cunt of pure gold." Wow, that’s pretty extreme. We are only on page 7. I barely know this narrator; this is our first conversation, and the first I’ve heard of Lila. If I met a guy at a party who described his friend Lila that way, I’d get away from him as fast as I could, and think “what a creep.”

Now if that description of Lila had emerged from a character’s mouth instead of from the narrator my reaction would have been entirely different. I would have sailed right over it, and internalized the intended message “the person speaking is crude and uninterested in whether or not he offends.” But it came from the narrator’s voice and it said to me that this narrator doesn’t care if he offends me, and in fact, he probably isn’t even talking to me. He is probably picturing his reader as a man, his frat brother, his drinking buddy, someone with whom he can casually toss around a word like that with no thought of giving offense. Or maybe I am being too nice, maybe he pictures his reader as a woman too, and he wants to offend her, he wants her to be shocked. What’s going on with that?

Either way, I’m not going to listen. Yes, I am offended (what of Lila’s lips, her voice, her attention to detail, her excellent golf swing?). And really I just want to get away from this weirdo who describes women using crude names for their sexual parts. I’m not going to keep talking to him just to be polite, and I’m not going to keep reading this book just because someone else thinks it’s good. Maybe this narrator is an okay guy, and can tell an interesting story, but his utter disregard for my sensibilities (or his deliberate attempt to shock me) just put me off completely.

This was my book club’s December selection, and I complained about it in this post. I skipped the meeting for reasons unrelated to my dislike of the book. But what did the book club think, you might wonder. When I asked Elana how the meeting went, she replied that she thought it went well, though they “spent a lot of time talking about whether there was any redemption or if the book was just utter darkness. “ Whoa, utter darkness AND creepy weirdos. Get me out of there.


~Tessa~Scoffs said...

I couldn't get past the first page.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of book review I really appreciate as it saves me from wasting precious reading time on something so unworthwhile. Some book bloggers never post 'negative' reviews, their argument is that they only write about books they would recommend. Fair enough. However your review wasn't negative per se, it was well thought through, giving clear reasons for why you disliked the book so much that you abandoned it early on. I think that is far more honest, and more constructive.
It will be interesting to see if any other readers comment and say they thought the book was a good read.

Judy said...

I'm sorry you didn't stop and re-read page 7. I have the feeling you were reading too quickly to realize that the narrator had been discussing the sad and unsavory lives of some Jews--the prostitutes and that it was young "Lila Finkel--whose mother, Bryna the Vagina, was said to have an incisive perspicacity as well as a cunt of pure gold--who took it upon herself to set Kaddish straight." The narrator has described the prostitute mother, not Lila. And the narrator does this throughout the book. The descriptions cut to the core and are very direct.
The main characters Kaddish and his wife Lillian are described just as bluntly, with both their good and bad qualities given simply and directly.
The story told is heartbreaking. And although it describes events in Buenos Aries in 1976, it could as easily be discussing events happening today in Libya.
I hope that you will go back and read this book. Sometimes a narrator is blunt for a reason. We don't have to like a 'character' in a book to learn from it.

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