- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

ANGELICA

By Arthur Phillips

Random House, $24.95, 384 pages

THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES

By Nathan Englander

Knopf, $25, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

Two of the best American writers to have arrived at the turn of the recent century are already established masters at the art of blending smoothly articulated literary influences with enviable originality.

Nathan Englander, a Jewish American who has also lived, worked and imbibed rich traditional ambience in Israel, created a sensation in 2000 with his debut story collection “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” Its propulsive, borderline-surreal explorations of Orthodox and renegade Jews, who struggle to adapt to patchwork cultures that neither respect nor comprehend the values of their own, throb with rhetorical energies reminiscent of Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Babel and Sholom Aleichem.

Arthur Phillips, a brainy cosmopolitan who seems to be one of those people who have been everywhere and done everything (including becoming a five-time “Jeopardy!” champion) in an outrageously minimal number of years, made his mark with “Prague” (2002), a wry and winning composite portrait of ingenuous, hopeful young Americans and Europeans enmeshed in the promises and distractions of wise old Europe — as well as their varying infatuations and conflicts with one another.

It was Vicki Baum’s romantic warhorse “Grand Hotel” as that venerable potboiler might have been reimagined by Nabokov. And, as if to confirm such comparison, Mr. Phillips followed his widely praised first novel with “The Egyptologist” (2004), a brilliantly researched and tautly constructed comedy of discovery and scholarship metamorphosing into illusion, duplicity and the very edge of madness. This defiantly eccentric romp marks the closest approach any subsequent writer has made to the aforementioned Russian-American author’s masterly narrative house of mirrors “Pale Fire.”

Mr. Phillips’ third novel, “Angelica,” is a symphonic exercise in suggestiveness and misdirection, presented in four increasingly revelatory and also obfuscatory “movements.” It is — and, perhaps, also isn’t — a conventional ghost story. Its setting is a late-19th century London bedecked with hansom cabs and fog and broad social contrasts, and its narrative both borrows from and neatly reshapes the tricky contours of Henry James’ classic supernatural novella “The Turn of the Screw.”

An initially unidentified omniscient narrator begins with an emotionally charged depiction of the unhappy marriage of former shopgirl Constance Douglas and paternalistic research scientist Joseph Barton (born Bartone). When Joseph’s “domineering” manner extends to barring their four-year-old daughter (Angelica) from sleeping in her parents’ bedroom, the overprotective Constance panics, “disobeys” Joseph’s order, and succumbs to paranoid fantasies of invasion or violence. Or so it seems.

Constance enlists the aid of consulting “spiritualist” Anne Montague, a self-important amalgam of psychologist, teacher, medicine woman and exorcist, who promises to rid the Barton’s gloomy old house of dark forces she declares it inherited from its evil past. The novel’s second “movement,” focussed on Anne, deepens the mystery by ratcheting up suspicions that Joseph may be cruelty incarnate, Constance insane and Angelica far less innocent than she appears.

We are then made privy to Joseph’s personal history (rife with hints about the origins of his sensual nature and tyrannical bent), before Mr. Phillips rounds off this four-part display of ambiguity with a later, more revealing picture of Angelica afterward, in which the identity of the story’s narrator is disclosed, and both its characters’ and its readers’ “childish appetite for conclusions” are adroitly mocked.

Obvious comparisons to the “madness” of the governess — who tries and fails to protect the ostensibly endangered children in her charge — of “The Turn of the Screw” aside, this is an elegant example of homage paid to a masterpiece that amounts to very much more than virtuosic pastiche.

Mr. Phillips keeps us guessing about the veracity and sanity of each of his four principals with a juggler’s dexterity, and he enriches the pleasures of the game thus played with the reader by introducing at well spaced intervals sinister new characters, carefully buried expository information and alarming plot developments. The result is an enigma that might well have pushed Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine addiction off Dr. Watson’s charts. This ineffably sly, irresistibly smart whodunwhat is one of this year’s choicest reading pleasures.

Nathan Englander’s abrasive and disturbing first novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” aims to do a good deal more than charm and entertain (though it neglects neither of those essential functions), and it is its fervent ambition that generates both its ominously gathering narrative force and a somewhat forced symbolism that makes the reader feel at times all too aware that literary tactics are manipulating what is otherwise an absorbing and harrowing reading experience.

Its setting is Buenos Aires in 1976, several years following the coup that ousted President Juan Peron and placed power in the heavy hands of a junta that assigned military police to investigate possible “subversives.” The resulting campaign of terror — the “dirty war” of 1976-83 against the Argentine populace — is subtly dramatized as an increasing cacophony of rumors and threats, incessant gunshots and the overhead roar of airplanes carrying out “death flights” (that is, dumping the bodies of the numerous murdered into the ocean).

Mr. Englander tells his story through the shared ordeal of Lillian Posner, a life insurance agent, her husband (the somewhat ponderously named) Kaddish and their bright, rebellious, doomed teenaged son, Pato.

The novel’s plot has a shapely, seemly inevitability. Kaddish’s secret job — which entails entering the segregated section of the local Jewish cemetery and chipping away from gravestones the family names of notorious criminals and prostitutes — becomes his family’s ruin.

If you buy this not-quite-unpreposterous premise, virtually everything else in the novel works thrillingly. Acting on behalf of the vainglorious Society of the Benevolent Self, Kaddish courts malevolence and violence. Working in the cemetery by moonlight, he and Pato discover the body of a murdered boy. Panic seizes him. He and Lillian engage a plastic surgeon and undergo “nose jobs” that may make them look “less Jewish.”

Kaddish burns Pato’s inflammatory and proscribed “revolutionary” books and earns his son’s bitter enmity. Adrift and distracted, Pato is seized by police and thrown into “the system,” and he effectively disappears — despite the Posnans’ frenzied appeals to the eponymous Ministry (“This was the place the parents, the husbands and wives, the children of the missing went”).

It’s a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that grows more frustrating, surreal and terrifying with every page. Late in the book, chapters grow shorter, as if to emphasize the brusque, truncated quality of the Posners’ fruitless searches and encounters with “officials” who have erased and reconfigured social and private histories with a skill their rhinoplastic surgeon might envy. All possible solutions to their dilemma are ruthlessly closed off, save one — a high-risk final solution that sends Kaddish back to the cemetery.

Orwell, Kafka, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and other European writers too numerous to name have trodden this bitter path before Mr. Englander. Few of them have rendered the experiences of what Dostoevsky called the insulted and injured and whom a later age named “the disappeared” with such passion and clarity. Nathan Englander’s brilliantly accusatory fiction reveals the horror and indignity as vividly as one might expect — and, in the ingenious quality of its compassion and empathy, suggests once again that even the art of outrage may hold in its clenched fists the seeds of eventual healing.

Bruce Allen, who lives and writes in Kittery, Maine, reviews new and classic fiction for the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews and several other publications.

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