I didn’t quite know what to make of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander’s first collection of short stories since the excellent For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and his first book since the novel The Ministry of Special Cases. My first reaction was: people really need to leave that Raymond Carver title alone now. It was cute when Haruki Murakami did it. But these things get old fast. My second was to wonder if the book would be too Jewish for me. My third was to worry if it was anti-Semitic to worry about whether I would find a book too Jewish or not (my worry was that there would be language and experiences that did not translate to a wider audience). This feeling – was it for me, would I get it, how much was I missing – persisted until just past the halfway point when I read a story called ‘Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side’.
The thing about What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, emblazoned as it is by a veritable clarion call of the great and the good (Jonathan Safran Foer talks about how funny and brave it is, Dave Eggers says it’s ‘consistently brilliant’, Jonathan Franzen praises Englander’s ability to ‘integrate fine-grained comedy and large-scale tragedy’), is that it’s mildly intimidating. Here is a Jew writing about what it is to be Jewish. Without being an authority on the subject, having read certain books, I’m aware of the situation in Israel and have opinions on said situation. When you read a writer who is getting to grips, as Englander occasionally is, with such a weighty and fraught subject, you need to know (or at least, I needed to know, at first) where he falls on the issue. It isn’t always clear. Perhaps it isn’t possible to be clear (although there are people who are very clear on the subject).
The title story, for instance, that kicks off proceedings, concerns a pair of couples, one of whom is devout and one of whom is not, getting together to kick around old times and smoke dope. It’s a shifting, uncomfortable tale of husbands and wives, the secrets that exist, the balance of faith, the chasm of trust. It’s interesting without being wholly satisfying. ‘Sister Hills’ follows, a sort of magical realist fable (or at least a story that seems to employ magical realism as the basis of a defence) set among settlers who build a community on land stolen from Palestinians (who flit in and out of view without really having a voice or a say). Can you write a story in such a locale without addressing the elephant in the room? Englander tries. ‘How We Avenged the Blums’ concerns a schoolyard bully who gets his comeuppance when all of the local Jewish kids band together to kick his butt. Again, this reader couldn’t help wondering if we were in the land of euphemism and metaphor. Who did the bully represent? It’s peculiar because having read Etgar Keret’s recent collection, Suddenly a Knock at the Door, I suffered no similar qualms. I think this comes in part as a result of the fact that Keret is both more reliably comic and more fantastical. Englander is writing about the world that exists. Keret is writing about a world that exists in his head, that reflects the world even as it distorts and transforms it.
And then, as I say, I started reading a story called ‘Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side’ which I initially found truly infuriating in that clever-clever McSweeneys sort of way but which eventually revealed itself to be seemingly rich and genuine and truthful, revealing as it appears to be of Nathan Englander the man. From here on in, I relaxed and enjoyed the collection as it was perhaps meant to be enjoyed from the beginning. This may have been due to the presence of my two favourite stories in the collection – ‘Peep Show’, which concerns Nazi reprisals in a camp for the elderly and ‘The Reader’ which tells a sort of William Goldman-y tale of a writer who only draws an audience of one and how he comes to resent the man’s presence at his empty signings. Both of these are worth the admission price alone.
Later still, though, weeks after I finished the collection, it occurred to me that actually what Englander is doing is very clever. His ambiguity fosters a debate that functions as a backdrop to the stories themselves. We don’t need to know what Englander thinks because we have the stories and the stories are enough to get readers wondering and talking and debating the rights and wrongs of certain things themselves. It is this, sitting between the lines of Englander’s stories, that makes them so interesting and valuable.
Any Cop?: All told, then, a strange uneven experience reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank but one that does what Englander’s first two books did as well – make me interested to see what he does next.