by Nathan Englander; Knopf, 2012; 224 pages; $24.95
Take the grittiness of Raymond Carver, add a dash of Kafka’s dark surrealism, top it off with Marx Brothers zaniness and you have Jewish-American writer Nathan Englander. In this book, his second volume of short fiction, craziness abounds: Devout Hasidim visit Jewish-American yuppies in South Florida, smoke cannabis and play Anne Frank games. Holocaust survivors plot mayhem at a New Jersey elderhostel; a Jewish-American businessman (with “a gorgeous Gentile wife”) happens into a Manhattan peep show — and finds himself ogling pudgy rabbis from his childhood, then his own mother.
Much laughter here — but it dissolves abruptly in edgy darkness. Englander loves to turn on the narrative dime, and he does it masterfully. This isn’t just supple storytelling, it’s balletic. Issues suddenly — but naturally — arise and hilarity turns serious, even deadly. Taken in sum, the stories address very thorny matters: Most broadly, the question of Jewish identity itself, in cultures increasingly homogenized, commodified, technologized and secularized. Then there are the relevance of Jewish history (particularly the Holocaust) for postmodern Jews; anti-Semitism; varieties of Jewish belief, from the Hasidic and the Zionist to the utterly secular. Even the Palestinian question is touched on.
In treating these concerns, Englander operates dialectically. He offers alternatives, not easy answers; characters are often left shocked and/or confused, and the reader pondering. This is no intellectual cop-out, though; it is highly nuanced storytelling. The author embeds his positions in the narratives, and he has the artistic sense and skill to let them speak for themselves.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Sister Hills,” the collection’s one utterly somber text. Covering almost 40 years, from 1973’s Yom Kippur War to the present, it traces the lives of two Israeli mothers whose families establish a settlement in Palestinian territory. In their predicaments, Englander examines recent Israeli history and the tolls utter commitment can take on life and on character. The collisions of circumstance and choice in this story give these women genuine tragic stature.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is Englander’s third book. His first, another short story collection titled “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” was highly acclaimed, winning the 2000 PEN Faulkner/Malamud Award and the American Arts and Sciences Kaufmann Award. The second, a novel titled “The Ministry of Foreign Cases,” was described by one reviewer as “side-splitting and frighteningly macabre.” After reading “Anne Frank,” I’m eager to investigate these other works; you may be, too.
William Hug is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.