Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”

Nathan Englander applies for your readership, offering his new work What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. He tenders the following readers for reference: Michael Chabon, Téa Obreht, Jonathan Franzen, Colum McCann, Jennifer Egan, Geraldine Brooks, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Richard Russo, Gary Shteyngart. A list of highly regarded blurbers so exhaustive that The Millions felt compelled to research the very history of the blurb.

It’s quite surprising to see such praise for a collection that offers few genuinely new stories—most of them appearing in various forms in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, or The New Yorker before 2011. Chabon, Franzen, Egan, et al. probably had no trouble blurbing pieces they had read over the course of a decade.

You’ll forgive me, I hope, for focusing so much on these blurbs—there’s a point here. The praise for Englander, I thought, might inoculate me to whatever true greatness exists in “What We Talk About…”

But that wasn’t the case here, not at all. And now that I’ve got that out, I feel comfortable enough to say that I agree with the capital-W Writers on the back cover: “What We Talk About…” is hilarious, brave, energetic, and downright original. Instead of rolling my eyes at the blurbs, I feel compelled to go down the list, putting check marks and page numbers where I agree. (Jonathan Lethem…hilarious, √, p. 162; McCann…provocative, √, p. 89.)

The title story might serve as an example of what’s good about every story in the book: layered tension, unrestrained wit, and a desire on the part of Englander to go one step further than the reader expects or even wishes.

As a not-so-subtle homage to Raymond Carver’s (and, sigh, Gordon Lish’s) masterpiece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” “…Anne Frank” has the obvious similarities: two couples drinking vodka (Carver used gin) as the day passes, having a jocular conversation that eventually turns serious. And Englander even adapts Carver’s (and, sigh, Lish’s) best line: Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. (I’ll let you read Englander’s version yourself.)

The story offers very much in the way of humor. Two Jewish couples, an ultra-orthodox pair visiting their secular friends in Florida, drink, smoke marijuana, and argue about culture–mainly Jewish culture, and its status as a culture: the ultra-orthodox husband (formerly Mark, and now Yerucham) offering that Judaism is a religion first and foremost, and must be respected as such. The secular husband, our narrator, is wary of what he perceives as ultra-orthodoxy–but not necessarily in some grave, serious way. He can be turned off by the righteousness of those who think they’re ultra-righteous, but also poke fun at the righteous by calling them by their secular names. It is a serious story with serious conversation that does not hide from its own earnestness; a highly entertaining and difficult-to-pull-off piece.

The earnestness is shed when the two couples begin to play the Anne Frank game–which, of course, I thought might actually be a game, but is really from Englander’s life (apparently “invented” by his sister). The gist of the game being: would X hide us or turn us in? An ultimate test of gentile character. But the four Jews–now sequestered in a pantry in Florida, tearing open food, praying that it’s Kosher–play the game with each other; husband wonders if wife would hide him and likewise.

The tension here is packed in layers, and absolutely enthralling. It is the ultimate compliment to be told that, yes, I believe you would risk everything by hiding me from the Nazis. It is the ultimate doubt of character to be told that, no, I believe you would turn me in to the Nazis, knowing full well what would happen, you would cower to protect yourself.

What more it must mean for Jews to wonder this about themselves–let alone ultra-orthodox Jews! And what it says about trust, or a lack of it, between husband and wife, if the latter thinks the former would not hide her. And what it says about love, or a lack of it.

When those four Jews from two completely different worlds sit down and talk about Anne Frank, what they really talk about is love.

There are misses in this collection, which is inevitable. “Sister Hills” was not my cup of tea. “The Reader” is an interesting try, but seems too much like a tribute to warrant placement here. “Peep Show” is surreal, but a little too delirious.

But then there’s “Camp Sundown,” a piece about old Survivors out for revenge that had me scrawling different variations of this is really messed up and is this really happening? and where is he taking this next? and oh, shit he took it there! in the margins. “How We Avenged the Blums” is dark and funny, but mostly dark.  “Free Fruit for Young Widows” poses an unanswerable ethical question, all the while crafting an interesting story around it.

There is a feeling had when reading these hits and misses, the feeling that Franzen, Egan, McCann, et al. are absolutely right. And gratitude. For being able to read something this powerful and funny and stark or read at all.

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