What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander | wisconsinacademy.org
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What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander

Reviewed by Daniel Born
Knopf, 207 pages, $24.95

What to do when long-lost friends from Jerusalem—an ultra-orthodox couple named Shoshana and Yerucham (formerly known as Lauren and Mark)—pay a visit twenty years after finding God in the Holy Land, only to end up insulting your family. Your son “does not seem Jewish to me,” says Mark. Instead of exploding with outrage (as does wife Debbie), the secular narrator of Englander’s title story delivers a riposte that would make Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld proud:

“Jewish to you?” I say. The hat, the beard, the blocky shoes. A lot of pressure, I’d venture, to look Jewish to you. Like say, maybe, Ozzy Osbourne, or the guys from Kiss, like them telling Paul Simon, saying, “You do not look like a musician to me.”

But Mark will have none of it, insisting that Judaism is about religion and not culture or the clothes, even while he and Lauren plow through their host’s vodka and their son’s hidden pot stash, kosher even though rolled up and smoked in tampon wrappers.

Fortunately for readers, the flaming wreckage of this trans-Atlantic visit is as savagely entertaining as it is sad. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that all the chemical bonding in the world will not bring this foursome into happy harmony.

“Our concern is not the past Holocaust,” Mark offers. “It is the current one. The one that takes more than fifty percent of the Jews of this generation. Our concern is intermarriage. It is the Holocaust that is happening now.”

When the protagonists end their day by playing a grown-up version of Truth or Dare that involves the role-playing of acquaintances of Anne Frank’s family (Who among our neighbors, who among ourselves would protect us, and who would sell us out in the event of another shoah?), embarrassing, larger truths about individual character come to light—and these outweigh the more visceral elements of difference between the story’s secular Jewish hosts and their orthodox guests.

Englander’s second collection of stories—whose title riffs off of Raymond Carver’s most famous short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”—resembles his first in that he returns consistently to questions of Jewish identity. The stories here display an obsession with questions of history and survival. Published almost a decade after Carver’s death in 1999, Englander’s first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, suggested that Carver might have a successor in the short story genre. Let it be said that Englander’s new book cements the promise.

Several of these stories explore with ruthless honesty doctrines of preemptive, righteous violence. “Sister Hills” and “How We Avenged the Blums” should be recommended reading in any course on the Middle East conflict, or on the general topic of just war theory. But these stories are more mature. Englander doesn’t have to convince us he is a Serious Writer; he can now comfortably let the Entertainer go full blast. That is evident in the relentless comic riffing in the title story as well as “Camp Sundown,” which features a beleaguered Elderhostel director trying desperately to keep his eighty- and ninety-year-old Jewish campers from wreaking vengeance on someone who stirs up the ghosts of concentration camp memories.

Englander has managed to infuse his themes of guilt, tragedy, paranoia, and purity with crackling peals of laughter, and it is interesting that though these short stories at several points name-drop Gogol, Babel, and other Russian masters of the form, the comic skill on display here more aptly summons Mark Twain. This is a marvelous collection, ensuring that Englander will keep us reading and thinking for decades to come.

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