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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Phantom Pain

Arnon Grunberg

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To purchase Phantom Pain

Title: Phantom Pain
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 286 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Phantom Pain - US
Phantom Pain - UK
Phantom Pain - India
Phantom Pain - Canada
Douleur fantôme - France
Phantomschmerz - Deutschland
Dolore fantasma - Italia
  • Dutch title: Fantoompijn
  • Translated by Sam Garrett
  • Awarded the AKO-Literatuurprijs, 2000

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining, off-beat tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 24/2/2001 .
FAZ . 12/3/2004 Dirk Schümer
The Village Voice . 28/12/2004 Darren Reidy
Die Welt . 14/2/2004 Guido Graf

  From the Reviews:
  • "Fantoompijn is Mr Grunberg's most complex and accomplished novel to date. It works in several registers at once. (...) In Mr Grunberg's disenchanted world people are commodities and identities are roles. The grimness is alleviated by absurdist humour, grotesque situations and snappy rejoinders reminiscent of Saul Bellow or, rather, Woody Allen." - The Economist

  • "Im kunstlosen Hintereinander solcher Kürzestdramen kümmert sich der Autor nicht sonderlich um eine ausgeklügelte Romanhandlung. Wie Mehlman einfach nur draufloszuleben scheint, so wuselt sich auch die Story immer weiter, bis man merkt, daß dieses Leben nicht auf eine Katastrophe hinsteuert, sondern selbst bereits eine ist, der hat diese an schlechten Lachern überreiche Welt heldenhaft überwunden." - Dirk Schümer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It's not light, but funny in a retch-in-the-gutter sort of way: It sours, like real literature." - Darren Reidy, The Village Voice

  • "Grünberg, gerade mal Mitte Dreißig, besitzt Witz, kann zynisch sein und gibt gern Weisheiten von sich. Sein Erzähltempo macht schwindelig und ist doch so angemessen für all die Lebens- und Liebeshungrigen, die nicht genau wissen, wo sie mit sich hin sollen." - Guido Graf, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Phantom Pain begins and ends with short sections narrated by Harpo Saul Mehlman, the son of a writer. It was Dad's idea to name the poor boy Harpo (Mom added the Saul, so he'd at least have something of a normal name as well), and Harpo isn't exactly grateful -- after all: "That it is absolutely inhuman to name your child Harpo goes without saying." The father-son relationship isn't helped by the fact that Dad left the family when the boy was only twelve -- though when the novel begins he's back in the grown-up Harpo's life. And, besides the man himself, there's a manuscript, the unpublished The Empty Vessel and Other Pearls; it is this that makes up the bulk of the novel.
       Robert G. Mehlman was a successful writer, rocketing to early fame with a novel about his own father, 268th in the World (referring to the highest ranking his tennis-playing father achieved). Unfortunately, he wasn't able to duplicate that success: a bibliography is helpfully included at the end of the novel, and among his later works is the all too accurately titled collection of poems (now out of print), All My Readers Fit in One Cab. The Empty Vessel is an autobiographical account of the years before Harpo's birth, Mehlman describing his relationship with his wife and, especially, the woman she called The Empty Vessel, Rebecca, who hooks up with Mehlman. Rebecca doesn't exactly become his muse, but it's with her he finds a sort of inspiration -- and becomes successful once again.
       The Empty Vessel shifts back and forth between various times, Mehlman describing his early days, before he was a successful writer and still worked at an all-night deli. He describes courting (more or less) his future wife -- and then the later years, when success (and money) has come and gone and the credit card companies all want their money and there's barely a trickle of royalties coming in from his books.
       Grunberg's characters have their quirks, but the novel thankfully doesn't try to live off of being simply quirky. Harpo's mother is a successful psychiatrist, but a surprising number of her patients show a penchant for committing suicide -- something that is repeatedly mentioned, but not made too much of. Rebecca and some of the other characters crossing Mehlman's path are also slightly unusual, but Grunberg doesn't play that up excessively: the novel is literally off-beat -- just that one, slight shift from normalcy -- and he does that very well.
       Asked by his future wife to explain the title of the book he is working on at the time (268th in the World), Mehlman admits: "Every answer is a lie." Pressed again to explain, he tells her he'll give her the prettiest answer; after all:

If everything's a lie, one should choose for beauty, don't you think ?
       With his career floundering and huge debts everywhere there eventually aren't many pretty answers left to give, but Mehlman still lives the lie. He lives it up as he courts Rebecca, though he's in no position to; his wife is fortunately away in Europe, but he's constantly reassuring her that everything is just fine, even as his world comes close to collapse.
       Rebecca is unfillable as an Empty Vessel, but it's with her that Mehlman again finds success. Driven to the absurd, he signs a contract to write a cookbook -- and soon is desperate enough for cash that he tries to actually write and deliver it. It's an exercise that turns out to be phenomenally successful -- though, of course, one that is hardly satisfying to the writer in Mehlman. Living with it turns out to be no easier than living with his earlier failures.

       Phantom Pain is a novel full of small incidents, Mehlman (and then his son) describing his life by picking pieces from it. Absurdity dominates, and yet it generally feels grounded, close enough to the real to be plausible. (The suicides of Mehlman's wife's patients, for example, are among the less believable aspects of the novel, Grunberg trying just a bit too hard off stage.) Mehlman as writer is particularly successful: actual literary creation is largely glossed over, only the finished products discussed, but he's constantly writing letters, many of which (including some he never sent) are reproduced here, his flailing efforts at communication and creation. But he's not a good correspondent, it seems: he's not a letter-answerer, only a letter-writer: he wants to offer himself -- so also in the self-revealing The Empty Vessel -- but is unable to accept much in return (from his son, his wife, his lovers, etc.).
       It's a novel of amusing incidents and genial, if often melancholy, tone. The lives described are unusual, but believable. True-life complexity is mirrored in the uncertainty and doubt that surrounds and plagues them.
       Phantom Pain doesn't offer fake, full satisfaction -- no grand, unifying catastrophe or movie-of-the-week redemption, for example. In fact, it generally withholds it: what becomes of Mehlman is near pointless, and even then doesn't allow for simple, abrupt finality. But Phantom Pain offers good entertainment and some food for thought. Grunberg's story and characters aren't always sympathetic, but he writes well and engagingly and he does have something to say.

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Phantom Pain: Reviews: Arnon Grunberg: Other books by Arnon Grunberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Arnon Grunberg was born in 1971 and has won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2004-2023 the complete review

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