Withholding Information in Nathan Englander’s “Reunion”
By David Saltzman •
As students of fiction, we’re often taught that in crafting a story, the writer should rigidly mete out information, ensuring that a reader is always, without exception, situated as to speaker, scene, and story. When Nathan Englander withholds information, however, what would generally lead to unproductive ambiguity in the hands of lesser writers can instead generate mystery, curiosity, and even narrative momentum.
Instead of viewing ambiguity as unequivocally negative, Englander parcels out isolated details such that readers find themselves suspended—for a word or a paragraph or a page—in the absence of crucial information: speaker, scene, setting. The stuff we’re supposed to put up front often, well, isn’t. The technique tends to manifest as a sense of unease in me, but his prose is so confident that, as a reader, I have faith that what I seek will come in time. When it does, placed precisely in the wake of the mystery created by its absence, it carries more weight than it otherwise could, leaving readers constantly grounded less by specific details than in Englander’s authority. He does this throughout his work, but the short story “Reunion,” in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, contains several instructive examples.
The story begins:
The house has an odd smell to it, an odor. The rabbi’s got thirteen kids and that’s the smell…. But it’s not white like on the ward. Not sterile and faked. It’s real life over there with the smells that go with it.
Marty is saying this himself, explaining it to another patient in the dayroom as he grinds out a cigarette and picks a bit of tobacco from his tongue.
This is all backward, writing-lesson-wise. You can almost hear voices from some workshop crying out for clarification: who’s speaking, and where? Both tidbits are buried in the second paragraph. Rather, Englander intentionally situates readers incorrectly in the house, where eventually the story will reach its climax. Close reading could reveal the speaker is “on the ward,” but that’s only—let’s be honest here—obvious in retrospect. For a full paragraph, readers are actively misled as to location, and never given a hint as to who’s speaking.
The effect is somewhat unmooring, and were the technique limited to this story, I’d be tempted to argue that Englander was looking to further the feeling of being in a psychiatric hospital. But it isn’t. And so we must look elsewhere for reason, if one is to be found, perhaps in how the feeling of confusion—of constant questioning and doubt and resolution—perfectly fits his themes and voice. It is a productive and constant ambiguity that pervades his work, not an empty fog.
Later in the story, Englander again omits the expected foundation before throwing us into scene, opening with how “[t]he children, Leah and Sammy, had beat him home from services. Marty had taken his time…thinking to himself all the things he should have said.” This is part of a slow reveal of the events leading to his hospitalization, but we don’t know that yet. We do not know when this is, or even whose children they are. Again, somewhere, an imaginary workshop howls in offense. But as readers, we don’t care. Because he makes it work.
A third example comes near the end, as Marty is returning home from his stay at the hospital. We know by this point that there had been serious stress between him and his wife, and that she’d threatened to leave him if he didn’t get help. (Hence, the hospital.) Englander paints the scene of Marty’s arrival such that readers cannot tell whether anybody still lives at his family home. As it turns out, his wife and children have fled—leaving nothing so much as a note—but Englander only hints at this in the last line of the paragraph, when Marty finally admits that one detail in particular could be “[s]omething [his wife] might have done instead of saying goodbye.”
Should a writer less in command of subtlety be in charge of this story, the scene might have opened with, “She was gone,” or, “He raced through the empty house,” or some other such dramatic flourish. But by withholding the information and nurturing the reader’s unease, Englander forces a deeper level of engagement, since the opening sentences clearly support his family still being present: “The house is there when Marty pulls up, no potatoes or parking lots, no wrecking crew tearing down walls. It’s evening and all the lights are on. There’s a dish on the dining room table and a half-full half gallon of milk—still cool.” Everything has been cleaned and stacked and prepared, details from which Englander lets readers draw our own conclusions. Only at the very end of the next paragraph does he make it absolutely clear that Marty’s family has gone, when, dejected, the man sits on the stairs and lights up a cigarette. Our belief evolves with his, and solidifies only in tandem with Marty’s own crush of resignation.
Finally, in a more trivial instance of the same impulse, Englander writes the sentence: “There was finagling involved, a call for the manager, some trained, disgruntled-customer-style indignation, and Marty succeeded in getting his Brooks Brothers account reinstated.” Aside from the way he curates this information, it’s just a funny sentence—there’s a sort of bait-and-switch about it—but, again, the context of his finagling would generally come before the action of it. One does not, after all, finagle in a vacuum. Although it makes no substantial difference in the story as a whole, it’s another example of Englander not quite allowing the reader to paint an accurate picture from the start. The details are filled in at his pace, not mine.
The lesson of all this seems to be that while absolute clarity may not be necessary, absolute confidence certainly is. Earning a reader’s trust in turn earns us writers the freedom to play with how we curate information, leaving them to dangle in uncertainty for a moment, as long as we take control again—firmly, intentionally and in due course. Englander’s confidence manifests throughout his stories, both in voice and, as here, in his delicate management of information. His stories unfurl before us bit by bit, exactly as he intended, progressing in such an intentional, measured, precise fashion that you can’t help but trust him, even if you don’t yet understand.
DAVID SALTZMAN is a 2017 graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. He currently directs a coworking space in Boston, MA, where he lives with his wife and dog. This is his first published piece.