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 … 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 … The best stories here function as fables of their own.
Englander has sharpened his focus. His subjects are mercy, vengeance and their moody, intractable stepchild, righteousness. He is never deaf to the past or willing to grant us that luxury … Englander knows where to hold back, a particular gift when writing about and around the martyr of his title, the locked up and locked in. A kind of hard-won wisdom spills out on every page. Nowhere is that more true than in the collection’s two finest stories, both delivered with Englander’s trademark blend of the breezy and the biblical, both meditations on what ‘2,000 years of being chased’ can do to a people … Stubborn people. Stubborn history. Terrific collection.
At his best, Mr. Englander manages to delineate such extreme behavior with a combination of psychological insight, allegorical gravity and sometimes uproarious comedy. He can be as funny and outrageous as Philip Roth in describing the incongruities of modern life … In several instances, however, the delicate narrative balance slips from Mr. Englander’s grasp. Either from an over-kneading of themes or from a willful melodramatic impulse, moral insight gives way to moralism, irony to O. Henry contrivance … It’s the title story and Everything I Know About My Family that point to Mr. Englander’s evolution as a writer, his ability to fuse humor and moral seriousness into a seamless narrative, to incorporate elliptical — yes, Carver-esque — techniques into his arsenal of talents to explore how faith and family (and the stories characters tell about faith and family) ineluctably shape an individual’s identity.
He portrays characters from a narrow ethnic spectrum that most Anglophone readers never see from the inside, and he does so from the perspective of the sympathetic and nostalgic apostate. If anxiety about identity too often stands in for actual drama in his fiction, for some it may be a preferable substitute. Dressing all this up in Raymond Carver’s clothes offers the prospect of an accessible synthesis … Englander’s reaching for Carver exposes his own shortcomings as a storyteller. He has no ear for actual speech; his characters talk either in essay fragments or hammy bits of overdone dialect. He can’t portray something like drunkenness without having his characters constantly state that they are drunk. And his stories are all too often choreographed towards a schematic finish … When he isn’t shrink-wrapping history, Englander’s crude literary appropriations tend to spotlight the flimsiness of his plotting and the cautious plodding of his prose.
The problem with this explicit addressing of Jewish themes—all, of course, involving victimhood—is its didactic insistence, which leads to contrivance or to sensationalism … What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank betrays a writer who has lost control of his materials. Even on a technical level, the writing is disheartening: the prose, undistinguished throughout, is no more than a vehicle for moving the characters from one point to the next. The characters themselves are for the most part schematically sketched, and riddled with ethnic tics (like Englander’s style, as in that ‘did not know from mercy’); they are just instruments to convey the author’s uninteresting insistences. And several of the plots are manifestly contrived for little but sensationalistic ends.
Of the eight stories in this new volume, most with the resonance of novellas, four are at least as good as any I've ever read … Englander uses elements of Raymond Carver's famous story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ as the skeleton for his title story, but the flesh he drapes on those bones is distinctly his own … Cut in line to buy this book; chances are, you'll cry; guaranteed you'll laugh.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Englander's second book of stories, deserves high praise. It's audacious and idiosyncratic, darkly clever and brightly faceted. The title story alone is worth the price of admission, as is the complex tale of mercy and mercilessness that completes the volume, ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ … Englander balances caustic despair alongside absurdist epiphany. The result is a high-wire act: brilliant acrobatics at best, and some disappointing crash landings at worst … The weakest pieces in this book are ‘Peep Show’ and ‘The Reader’ and ‘Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side.’ Each gives the impression of being engineered by gimmick rather than achieved through careful evolution. But who's complaining? By the time you finish reading, you may find yourself wanting to revisit Carver, to listen for that voice shadowing Englander's.
Englander is interested in how faith is understood, rejected and defended, and in the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the community. If the themes are familiar — this is terrain well-mined by Malamud, Bellow and Roth — Englander refreshes them with narrative experimentation and a cast of appealingly crazy characters … Englander unwittingly makes us wonder: If a writer takes Jewishness as his subject, is he obligated to tell us something new about Jewishness? Or is he only obligated to describe Jewish characters in the most precise language he can, putting them in the most psychologically revealing situations he can imagine? Such questions — irresolvable, hairsplitting, Talmudic — prove more satisfying than the answers posed by a more perfect book.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank...is head-scratchingly inferior in every way to his previous collection and does not even have the excuse of being a debut … Only in ‘Sister Hills,’ about the war-torn life of a woman who helped to create an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, does Mr. Englander display something like a singular artistic vision. The story is a cleverly constructed parable about the collision of orthodoxy and modernity, and it illustrates the author's most rewarding themes: the emptiness of living without traditions and the perils of stubbornly clinging to them … More often, though, the collection conveys a sense that Mr. Englander is using the Holocaust to extort emotional responses from his readers.
If there is an abiding theme, it is the way in which notions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, victim and oppressor, shift over time as memories fade or new perspectives open up on old struggles. At their lightest, the stories show this by reprising the relatively simple inversions of the earlier book … They orchestrate precisely such moments of discomfort into their own twisting and turning plots, always a step or two ahead of the reader, and furthermore that they do so in the service not of partisan judgment one way or the other, but of deep, clear, unflinching understanding.
In What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Englander's rich humor floats along, light as a feather, until the narrative suddenly darkens. The title story describes a game, a deadly one. It is akin to what Israelis call the ‘existential question,’ or the ‘people apart’ dictum, a conversation Jews have within their own four walls. And it's not funny at all … Englander ranges across several octaves. He is deeply literate about Jewish religious life and culture in all its dissonance. His characters are shot through with the wounds of history. While every figure is preoccupied with the day-to-day, the writer places them in a Jewish historical context. That usually means dark … Englander's stories are at times startling, even transgressing. But they ring true and are a funny, chilling, joy to read.
Like ‘Anne Frank,’ ‘Sister Hills’ and ‘Camp Sundown’ resoundingly demonstrate why Englander consistently has drawn such raves. All three stories feature tight and suspenseful plots, sharply drawn and often thorny characters, the carefully reasoned presentation of difficult moral dilemmas and a refusal to take sides. Not every story in this collection manages to reach these lofty heights, although those falling short do so in different ways … Englander's best work here both acknowledges and bravely resists its deadly pull, obliquely angling toward shore - and the wider perspective that comes with higher ground.
The title story that opens the collection (evoking in its title both the Holocaust and Raymond Carver) is like so much of the best of the author’s narratives, with a voice that evokes a long legacy of Jewish storytelling and the sharp edge of contemporary fiction … The author at his best.
It’s a tribute to Englander’s verve and scope that the eight stories in his new collection, although clearly the product of one mind with a particular set of interests (Israel; American Jewry and suburbia; writing and reading; sex, survival, and the long shadow of the Shoah) never cover the same territory. Each is particular, deeply felt, and capable of pressing any number of buttons … What we talk about when we talk about Englander’s collection turns out to be survival and the difficult—sometimes awful, sometimes touching—choices people make, and Englander, brings a tremendous range and capacity to surprise to his chosen topic.