Every now and then I wander over to my local library in hopes of finding a copy of that new book I’ve been hearing so much about, but that I’m not yet willing to sink money into. (These trips usually coincide with my pay schedule, would you believe it?) Most days the more trending books are nowhere to be found. But every now and again, I find exactly what I’d been looking for (whether I knew it or not).
Such was the case with Nathan Englander’s collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a direct allusion to Raymond Carver’s classic and readily assigned in MFA programs short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s the sort of Carver-worship we’ve come to expect from the current stars of the literary world (Eugenides, Franzen, the late Foster-Wallace…). But no matter. Like Carver’s characters, Englander’s characters are often struggling to connect with one another, though less on an emotional level and more on a religious one. The common thread running through all of the stories in this collection is the characters’ Jewish faith and/or heritage, which is often at odds with themselves, their society, their family or neighbor.
In the title story (and one of my favorites), two couples — one secular, one hasidic — get high together around a kitchen table (with weed pilfered from the secular couples’ son’s secret stash). The tension you expect to persist throughout the story as ideologies clash and worlds collide takes a turn for the hysterical when the hasidic wife carves a bong out of an apple and then rolls a blunt in a paper tampon wrapper. But then, moving in time with the brewing tropical storm outside, the tension returns when the two couples play the “Anne Frank game,” where they hide in the secular couples’ large, American-style pantry and imagine which of their friends would hide them in the event of another Holocaust.
Such is the tenor of Englander’s stories: flippancy turned sinister. We see it in the elderly Jewish retirees in the story “Camp Sundown,” who become convinced that one of the attendees was a Nazi camp guard and stage an all-out witch hunt to get rid of him. The sinister element mixes with the comical, as in the case of the retiree couple who are terrified of their cabin burning down and satisfy themselves by wearing smoke detectors around their necks on specially-crafted lanyards.
A thought crept into my mind as I was reading “Camp Sundown” that I immediately tried to dismiss because it went against everything I’d been taught in my Ellie Wiesel/Art Spiegelman-dominated literature courses: where were the likable Holocaust survivors in these stories? Take a scene in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” when the secular husband recounts a story he finds hilarious about the time he visited his father at his Florida retiree village. After playing a round of golf, the father and son are changing in the locker room when the son looks over and notices the number on the arm of the old man sitting next to him. The gentleman’s number is just one digit different from his father’s, which would mean they stood in line together at the camp. After pointing the fact out to the two elderly gentlemen, the father sneers: “All that means is, he cut ahead of me in line. There, same as here. This guy’s a cutter, I just didn’t want to say.”
That is, I think, the skill in Englander’s story craft. The subject matter alone is uncomfortable (especially the story “Sister Hills,” which follows the bloody history of two families who establish an Israeli settlement in Palestine in the 1970s), but Englander’s treatment of it goes one step father, putting us at odds with our comfortable American image of the Jewish experience. And that is the moment when we connect the most with Englander’s characters; for a moment we share the pull that his characters feel: between respect and disdain for their heritage, loyalty and rebelliousness, Americanism and Jewishness.
Have you read this collection yet? Will you? Fans of Art Spiegelman’s Maus series will appreciate Englander.