Give Nathan Englander credit for chutzpah. The title of his new book of short fiction, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank draws on two iconic antecedents: the young diarist killed at Bergen-Belsen and the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Each, in its way, informs the collection; each, in its way, helps to set the terms. And what are those terms? The tension between the religious and the secular, between the American setting of much of this work and the more elusive textures of Jewish life.
For Englander — a self-proclaimed “apostate” raised in an Orthodox community in Long Island, now living in Brooklyn by way of Jerusalem — this is a defining issue. “But what do you do,” he (or a character very much like him) asks in a story called “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side”, “if you’re American and have no family history and all your most vivid childhood memories are only the plots of sitcoms, if even your dreams, when pieced together, are the snippets of movies that played in your ear while you slept?”
The triumph of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is Englander’s ability to balance one against the other, to find, even as he’s calling it unfindable, the deeper story, the more nuanced narrative. “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is a perfect case in point: Broken into 63 numbered sections, it is a story about the search for a viable story, in which the disconnected pieces come together to make a kind of sense. “What you do is tell the stories you have, as best you can,” the protagonist’s girlfriend tells him although, almost immediately, she backtracks: “I don’t mean that. … You find better stories than that.”
At times, this means a fluid interplay between memory and invention; the main character here shares Englander’s first name. And yet, that only engages us even more. “Do you want to know what I felt?” he writes. “Do you want to know if I cried? We don’t share such things in my family — we don’t tell this much even. Already I’ve gone too far.”
There it is, what stories have to offer: a way to shape experience, even when experience is not quite clear. Englander makes this explicit by constantly changing the details, the more his narrator learns. Did his grandfather’s brother die of a brain tumor or was it an infection after being struck by a car? Did his cousin-in-law Theo really shoot a dog with a .22 handgun when he was three years old?
The answer, as with all stories, is that it doesn’t really matter, that the myth bears more meaning than any fact alone. “I guess I handled it,” Theo declares, “because I still remember the feel of the shot,” and that phrase, “the feel of the shot,” brings the anecdote into focus, making it resonate with the weight of truth.
For Englander, this weight of truth is significant, since he can tilt toward the magical realist or, more precisely, toward the tradition of Jewish fable writing as embodied by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem.
Several stories in his first collection, 1999’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, are marked by such an aesthetic, and here, he returns to it with “The Reader”, about a once-famous novelist who reads every night to the same diminished audience of one, or “Peep Show”, in which a lawyer goes to a Times Square sex club, only to find, one after the other, his childhood rabbis, his wife and his mother posing before his confused and guilty gaze.
More to the point, the best stories here function as fables of their own. “Sister Hills” describes a West Bank settlement, founded before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which even as it develops into a city cannot get out from under the shadow of a deal made between its two original families, which gives the story the relentless irony of a parable. In “How We Avenged the Blums”, Englander turns his attention to the American suburbs, although this story, too, has an almost biblical subtext, as a group of yeshiva boys learns to defend itself against a bully known only as the anti-Semite.
“It’s curious,” the narrator tells us, “that the story most often used to inspire Jewish battle readiness is that of Masada, an episode involving the last holdouts of an ascetic Israelite Sect, who committed suicide in a mountain fortress. The battle was fought valiantly, though without the enemy present. Jews bravely doing harm to themselves.” Here, Englander highlights the pull between new and old world, reminding us that history is always present, no matter where we are.
“Do you know which countries have no anti-Semite?” the boys’ self-defense instructor, a Soviet refusenik named Boris, asks them. “The country with no Jew.”
Nowhere is this evoked more vividly than in the title effort, which channels Carver as deftly as it does Anne Frank. Built around two couples, one secular and the other Hasidic, it takes place, like the Carver story before it, around a kitchen table, as they drink and smoke dope and talk. There’s a sense of genius about the juxtaposition, taking a situation from that most American of storytellers and subtly transposing it, until it begins to tell us something we didn’t expect.
The couples here are very different, linked because the wives were high school friends, but over the course of a long afternoon, the distance between them waxes and wanes, as they discuss family and friendship, and argue over identity. “Judaism is a religion,” declares Mark, now Yerucham, who has moved from the United States to Israel. “And with religion comes ritual. Culture is nothing. Culture is some construction of the modern world.”
And yet, as the story progresses, it is he who must confront his limitations as the couples play “the Anne Frank game”, wondering who will hide them — and who might betray them — were a second Holocaust to come.
What Englander is saying is that we know ourselves, or don’t, on different levels, that we exist individually and as part of a heritage. As in “How We Avenged the Blums”, there’s no escaping history, although there’s no certainty either about what any of it means. Who will hide us? Who are we, really? How do ritual and culture intersect?
Such questions exist at the heart of this accomplished collection, in which stories are what make us who we are.