Book Talk! What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank has already received lavish praise from a plethora of great writers and publications. All of this, plus the title which references both Raymond Carver’s classic collection and probably the world’s widest read and most influential diarist of all time creates rather lofty expectations for the stories inside. But rather than a sign of bravado, this title is an indication of the dichotomy in Englander’s work. It serves notice that in his stories Englander’s wit will be on display even as he faces difficult truths and explores serious topics. With this varied collection Englander extraordinary writer, but above all else he is a master story teller.
It’s fair to assume that when Anne Frank is referenced in the title of a short story collection, the stories will probably focus on Judaism, or Jews, or being Jewish. In this case that assumption is mostly correct. There is only one story in the collection that didn’t reference these things in anyway. That may sound boring, or it may sound like there would be very little differentiation between stories, and this would be true if Englander was a much less imaginative writer. Instead, these stories are really about guilt, trust, war, suburban life, and relationships. It’s actually one of the more diverse collections I’ve read in years. It’s also the most consistent I’ve read since William Trevor, another huge feat.
Instead of any identifiable literary technique or ability, Englander’s voice stands out in the crowded landscape of modern American writers because of his unrivaled ability to tell stories. He deftly maneuvers from the tragic to the hysterical with ease. He is Carver’s equal in creating believable dialog, and he’s nearly as good at eliciting emotion. He even has Carver beat in variety. ”Sister Hills” is the powerful story of two families who settle in Israel before the Yom Kippur war. The story follows them over the course of decades and shows their very different fates. Despite being based in a real-world setting, the stark contrasts between the families on opposite hills and the actions taken achieves the effect of a parable, much like another excellent story in the collection. ”The Reader” is about an old writer who has been forgotten by the masses but is still followed by one old reader every night on his book tour. This lone reader will not let him quit, and acts as both supporter and enemy of the writer. While “Sister Hills” focuses on family, mercy, and neighborly relations, “The Reader” tackles the old art vs. real life problem with a little bit of aging thrown in. Of course neither of these stories result in a clear lesson to be learned, but both have the affect of a story told by some sage elder. This story-telling trope becomes literal in “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” which explores the differences between good and evil in the format of a war/holocaust story told from father to son.
The dust jacket describes the title story as “a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. This also happens to be the first story where we see Englander’s dark humor, though it’s evident through many of the stories including “Peep Show,” featuring naked rabbis, and “Camp Sundown,” a story about what happens when paranoia runs rampant at a Jewish summer camp.
The only weakness in this entire collection was “Everything I know About My Family on My Mother’s Side.” An experiment in form, Englander tells the story as a list of facts. Rather than acting as a compelling frame for the story, this serves as a distraction; however, the other seven stories are outstanding. Englander can make the reader laugh even when wee shouldn’t be laughing. But even more impressive is the fact that many of these stories put the reader into the characters’ place, forcing us to decide who is to blame, what we should do about the pot we found in our son’s drawer, and even what constitutes a truly evil act.