“. . . the question, the one that has to do with the collected stories in questions, is: Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories worthy of the hoopla? The answer, in a word, is Yes. Yes, indeed. As with his earlier For Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander here creates a document that is greater than the sum of its parts, with each story supporting and informing those that come before and follow, making What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank the rightful heir to what has come before and the pater familias to all that will hopefully follow.”
With such past successes as his debut collection of short stories, For Relief of Unbearable Urges (Can it be a dozen years ago already?) and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases behind him, and with 100,000 copies of his new work being printed, everything from a Facebook marketing campaign to the obvious NPR appearances to a downloadable poster available from his publisher’s website, it is safe to say that a new collection of short stories by Nathan Englander is being regarded as something of a literary event.
But the question, the one that has to do with the collected stories in questions, is: Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories worthy of the hoopla?
The answer, in a word, is Yes. Yes, indeed.
In this volume, as in his past work, Mr. Englander proves himself capable of writing about and within an uncanny emotive state that combines joy and sorrow, peace and frenzy all at once, the resultant state being one of frayed feelings, of dirty feet and clean teeth, of the patchwork mindset that is all-too-human and nearly impossible to convey on paper.
And yet he does it here, from the title story—in which an old setting, familiar to Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, wherein two married couples comprised of old friends and new acquaintances sit at a table, talking, setting us up with bonhomie and drinks aplenty, only to quite suddenly descend to the heartache of love restricted, love diminished without warning, becomes something shockingly new and rewarding—onward through a series of tales that are as startling as they are transformative.
In his debut collection those dozen years ago, in the story “The Tumblers,” Mr. Englander took a group of Polish Jews who were roughly being herded toward a concentration camp and allowed them to transform into the titular tumblers, acrobats hurling their way toward freedom.
Here, in “Camp Sundown,” Agnes Brown, an old woman who survived those camps, only to find her way to the new world and, ultimately, to an elderhostel summer camp, is herself transformed at the sight of a fellow camper named Doley with equally remarkable results.
In his perfect introduction of Agnes, as she approaches Josh, the camp director, Mr. Englander writes:
“’I want I should talk to Rabbi Himmelman.’
“This from Agnes Brown, seventy-six years old, standing behind Josh’s chair in the dining hall and addressing the back of his head.”
“He holds her gaze, staring eye-to-eye, though he sits and she stands. She is shrinking, his Agnes. Every summer, the old people grow smaller as the children grow big. Josh has decided that there is only so much height in the world and the inches must change hands.”
And compare with this, the reader’s introduction to Doley Falk:
“The big man, Doley Falk—quiet looking and sweet as sugar. He is not one of the troublemakers who complain all day to Josh, morning to night, for whom life has turned into one unbroken disappointment. He’s just a serious old bridge player, come from Toledo, Ohio, who wants nothing more than to eat kosher food and play cards, and to scream ‘two no trump’ when he feels the Alzheimer’s sneaking his way.”
And this, about the third point of our triangle of pro-and-antagonists, Josh:
“Josh’s face is a one-man mask of comedy and tragedy. His scowl is in constant rotation with a big fat smile as he searches out Agnes and Arnie. He grins and slaps counselors on the back, making the most out of what is, hands down, the summer’s most successful cross-generational event, and then he relocks his jaw, renarrows his eyes, and maneuvers toward his prey.”
Such skillful work. With each single, slight stroke, Mr. Englander creates characters full blown and sets them loose to play off each other. Like babies on swing sets together, or, perhaps more aptly, like dogs in a dog park, because dogs are the possessors of teeth.
To read “Camp Sunset,” or any other short story by Nathan Englander is to surrender to it. Resistance is futile. For his is the gift of imagination, of insight, of wit and of honesty, all at once. Instead of the sitcom ride to the predestination of the average short story, with an ending that can be seen coming from the first floridly descriptive paragraph onward (“Bruno was always a happy dog.”)
Mr. Englander’s stories are his own and his alone—they play by his rules, yield to his purposes, and are as unknowable as the dramas of our own lives.
Better than “Camp Sunset” is “Sister Hills,” the best of the excellence gathered here. While “Hills” lacks the humor that propels “Sunset,” it contains all the observance of human nature that it everywhere in Mr. Englander’s best work, and tests humanity by placing it in a barren place, a place where, in war, in illness, in the dark of night, people have no one and nothing other than strangers to turn to in time of need.
“Sister Hills” takes this idea, the desperate need for a solution in the short term and explores how that solution plays out from there, how bonds—natural and artificial—are born and are made and the results of each.
Sadly, the tension so perfectly created by the first two stories, the title story and “Sister Hills,” is quickly diminished by the third and weakest story, “Peep Show,” which defies its authorship by being the one thing that the reader thought no Nathan Englander story can be—predictable, and, to an extent, by the next story “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” which is undermined by an annoying writer’s device, although it maintains a spirited sweetness throughout.
Still, like Carole King’s Tapestry, like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, like any of the best vinyl records of the 70s, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank has the virtue of the stories placed right to carry forward not only the theme the author explores as he moves forward, but also, the light and dark patterns of his writing.
Where singer/songwriters have lost the idea of an album as an organic gathering of songs that were placed just so in order to harmonically build to a cathartic result to the splintering iTune-ization of the music industry, short story writers today are still able to craft, one story at a time, a collection of works that are perfectly interdependent by means of theme, purpose and sensibility.
As with his earlier For Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander here creates a document that is greater than the sum of its parts, with each story supporting and informing those that come before and follow, making What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank the rightful heir to what has come before and the pater familias to all that will hopefully follow.