‘If the laws of economics apply to anything, then it’s to emotions,’ is one of Robert Mehlman’s many one-liners. Mehlman, the central character in Phantom Pain, is tormented by writer’s block, his only successful publication being a cookery book called The Polish-Jewish Kitchen in 69 Recipes, which he wrote purely for money. He briefly became world famous when his book was interpreted as a positive take on coming to terms with the Holocaust – only Arnon Grunberg, or perhaps Woody Allen, could come up with a joke like that.
After Mehlman’s death his son, for whom he never showed much concern, receives a package containing unpublished fragments of a novel. They tell of hilarious episodes from Mehlman’s life, portraying a man seeking to escape from himself. Sheltering behind cynical humour, incapable of genuine contact, all that matters to him as a writer is the question: ‘Is there a story in it?’
The title refers not only to the pain Mehlman thinks he can feel in his paralyzed limbs but the pain caused to the son by his father’s tragedy. It also symbolizes the dilemmas and fears of the writer, described so effectively by Grunberg in this absurdist novel about a failed author.