Reading Between the Lines: You are not a stranger

Lovers of Nathan Englander's 'For the Relief of Unbearable Urges' awaited his novel with baited breath.

nathan englander 88 (photo credit: )
nathan englander 88
(photo credit: )
In 1999, Nathan Englander published his short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Critics loved it; readers loved it; and then they waited for the follow-up. And then they waited some more. Over the years, it was revealed that Englander was working on a novel, which raised two questions: When would Englander publish the book? And would he be as skilled a novelist as he was a story writer? While we don't know what kept Englander up at night between 1999 and April 2007, when he published his novel The Ministry of Special Cases, this second question may have been the most burning. Indeed, when we await a first novel from a celebrated story writer, we wonder not, "Can he do it again?" but, "Can he do it all?" Which is all by way of saying that this month marks the fifth anniversary of Adam Haslett's story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. While Haslett's book may be less known than Englander's, it was rapturously received by critics. You Are Not a Stranger Here was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. There are few books that this critic recommends more often. As you may have guessed, Haslett has yet to publish a follow-up (though we're told, unsurprisingly, that he's working on a novel). So this half-decade anniversary of You are Not a Stranger Here is a time to remember this modern classic and to look to Englander as a reminder that patience can pay off. More or less. You Are Not A Stranger Here contains nine stories that defy the conventions of contemporary American short fiction. Though Haslett did attend the esteemed Iowa's Writing Workshop, his stories are not written in the spare, quiet style that's come to be associated with university writing programs. Haslett's stories feature strong characters and strong stories. Stuff happens. From a plot standpoint, Haslett's stories are unique, but there are two common themes: homosexuality and illness (usually mental illness). The first story, "Notes to My Biographer," addresses both of these. "Notes" is nearly perfect in its construction. The first sentences set the stage for Franklin Singer's condition. "Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age." Yet while we are clued in to Singer's psychological problems early on, we also experience him as a funny, self-confident narrator. But then Haslett slowly reveals the extent to which Singer's life and his family's life have been affected by his mental illness. Haslett's pathos and, most importantly, pace are so exact that the tragic truth of Franklin Singer's life is both surprising and utterly in character. "Notes to My Biographer," like many of Haslett's stories, is heartbreaking. His characters experience moments of reprieve, but never redemption. Nowhere is this more true than in my favorite story, "Devotion." Here, a middle-aged brother and sister prepare to receive a dinner guest, Ben, whom they have not seen in 15 years. Hillary and Owen are in many ways like an old married couple, going about their domestic duties mechanically, with a pinch of passive aggression. But there are no incestuous undertones to the relationship - partly because Owen is gay, but more so because their awkward closeness is more easily explained by past traumas. And no trauma is deeper than the ones related to Ben. "Devotion" is written in a subdued style, one that reflects the British politeness of the characters, which makes the surprise ending - the revelation of one sibling's horrific betrayal of the other - explode so much more. Yet, as the story's title suggests, this is ultimately a tale of love and commitment, devotion in spite of everything. The confluence of themes - illness and homosexuality - may seem odd at first, as if Haslett is somehow conflating the two. But this is clearly not the case. If Haslett intends any thematic similarities, it is the ways in which homosexuality and mental illness are misunderstood. The beauty of Haslett's work is that he catapults us so deep into the minds of his characters that he mitigates these misunderstandings without resorting to voyeurism, without rejecting the mystery of the human psyche and soul.