posted 2012-05-13 00:37:11

Funny, Then Serious, Then Funny Again

Nathan Englander’s glorious return to the short story

Christian Davies

Staff Writer

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On the surface, Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is a collection of eight short stories about religion. But what truly distinguishes Mr. Englander’s writing, and what makes this collection of stories so effective, is his wizard-like ability to weave seriousness into absurdity, humor into tragedy, and to surround some of the most dire human atrocities imaginable with laugh-out-loud moments. His collection is instilled with equal parts budding joy and eerie pathos.

In the title story, an homage to Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Mr. Englander puts two Jewish married couples, one “ultra-Orthodox” and one not, together in south Florida to talk about religion and marriage while draining a bottle of vodka and smoking a hefty pack of pot they stole from their teenage son. As the story progresses and inhibitions are loosened, the barriers of religion begin to dissolve, and the insecurities of each of the four characters are subtly kneaded to the surface. In the story’s conclusion, the couples play “the Anne Frank game” where they try and guess which of their Christian friends would hide them if a second Holocaust were to break out in America. For one of the couples, the foundation of their entire marriage comes into question.

Mr. Englander is able to raise startling questions such as this in the same graceful way that Mr. Carver could. Just when we think it’s safe to relax and enjoy an unchallenged sense of risk-free diversion, Mr. Englander confronts us with a hard-to- swallow dilemma that forces us to think about our own lives the way his characters are forced to think about theirs.

Throughout the collection, Mr. Englander is able to find this balanced tone between the serious and the frivolous, two opposing qualities of life that are intimate, although often overlooked in their connection together. In another imaginative story, a trip to a peep show leads to an examination of life decisions, their wide-range of consequences and what that means in the privacy of our own being.

But Mr. Englander’s deep philosophical talents don’t limit the pure entertainment value of his stories. “How We Avenged the Blums” is an often hilarious, complex tale about a group of Jewish kids who design a revenge plan against the “local Anti-Semite.” “Camp Sundown” is about a group of elderly summer campers who start to believe that one of the campers is a former Nazi camp guard while “The Reader” is about an author on a deflating national book tour that is eventually left with one fan who alone attends each of the author’s readings. These are all synopses of stories that could be handled well under a variety of writer’s hands, but under Mr. Englander’s adept guidance, they become illuminating. The stories bounce around the page, playing with rhythms, styles and entertaining their ways to layered climaxes where questions about religion, family, and history are bound together in a woven ball of intellectual coil.

Any author who deals as much with the influence and impact of contemporary Jewish culture as Mr. Englander does will inevitably find Jewish history leaking into and even defining their work. “Sister Hills” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” are the two strongest connections between past and present that Mr. Englander makes in this collection. Both stories successfully show how actions of others from the past can have direct, inescapable, and often astounding impacts on the actions of those alive in the present. “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is Mr. Englander’s biggest experiment with form. His numbered vignettes allow us to follow along as a writer tries to make sense out of his own family’s history piece by piece.

Thirteen years after his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was published, Mr. Englander has made a glorious return to the short story. It is his ability to blend the ethereal with the concrete, the historical with the new, the religious with the secular, and the funny with the tragic that allows his writing to fly. Reading Mr. Englander is like reading the Bible through funhouse glasses. What is holy? What isn’t holy? And what does any of it mean to any of us?