High Shtick

The title of Nathan Englander’s powerful new collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, comes from a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but Englander’s change in the noun at the end of the title changes the tenor of the whole phrase. Everyone talks about love, but who talks about Anne Frank?

Well, Englander, for one. And Philip Roth, for another.

Roth’s great 1979 novel The Ghost Writer is about a young novelist, Nathan Zuckerman (whom Roth once referred to as his “alter brain”); an old writer, E. I. Lonoff (a character so closely modeled on Bernard Malamud that Malamud was enraged); and a woman whom Zuckerman meets in Lonoff’s house, a woman who may or may not be Anne Frank. It’s a book all about influence and the weight of history; Englander has acknowledged his debt to Roth, and has called The Ghost Writer, “a survival guide for young writers.” The stories in Englander’s new book are so good, so fierce, and so funny, that they’ve drawn critical comparisons to Roth’s work. But these comparisons are mistaken.

Englander is Roth’s imitator, yes, but he is also Roth’s opposite. The Ghost Writer is about a young writer staking out his differences from an older writer, and in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Englander sets himself up, in many ways, as the anti-Roth. Where Roth is radical, Englander is reactionary. Roth, over the course of some thirty novels, has been at war with convention—formally, thematically, and ideologically committed to the aesthetic of individual liberty. Englander, on the other hand, is committed to tradition. His stories ostentatiously mimic old forms. The title story, for instance, borrows not just Carver’s title, but also its structure, and sometimes its sentences and phrasings. Most of Englander’s stories read like myths, like folktales, with old-style setups, climaxes, and denouements, and the protagonist scoured clean of vanity. And while Englander, like Roth, writes obsessively about assimilation, he does so from the other end of the telescope. His stories are about Jews in danger, Jews under siege—in Long Island, on the West Bank, at summer camp—and everywhere in Englander’s world lurks the specter of the Holocaust. People who light out on their own often seem to be portrayed as traitors to an endangered culture.

Englander has been criticized in the New York Times and elsewhere for his didacticism, but this criticism, I think, misses the mark. If Roth and Englander share one thing, it’s boldness: a willingness to take their fiction to uncomfortable places. Just as Roth’s radical individualism sometimes veers into the misogynistic and the profane, so Englander’s traditionalism sometimes veers into moralizing—and this traditionalism is not a flaw in Englander’s writing, but the source of his crazy, disturbing power.

Take his story “Peep Show,” which owes an obvious debt to Borscht Belt shtick, and which, retold, sounds like a dream sequence from a Woody Allen movie. A guy walks into a 25-cent 42nd Street peep show, with four tokens in his hand. The first time he puts in a token, the curtain raises and he sees a naked lady. The second time he puts in a token and—alacazam!—there’s his childhood rabbi up on stage, nude, staring at him (“his masculine breasts are bigger than the girl’s”). The third time he puts in a token, and it’s his mother (“Do you need some tissues, Ari? Did you remember to bring?”). And the fourth time—well, the ending of the story is too good for me to spoil. But if the shtick is old-school, the premises are more outrageously anachronistic.

The story’s main character is facing cosmic rebuke for assimilation. He’s got a gentile wife. To get ahead in the business of law, he has changed his name from Ari Feinberg to Allen Fein—and the whole thing, as a portrait of contemporary life, is absurd. There are no more peep shows on 42nd Street; the name “Feinberg” does not seem to be an obvious impediment to getting ahead in law firms in New York City, and “Ari,” as in Ari Emmanuel, is a West Coast synonym for power, so much so that the name was borrowed by the TV show Entourage. (Maybe the name “Allen” in this story is a tip of the cap to Woody.) But if I object to this story on mimetic grounds, I have to admit that I was gripped by it, that I laughed out loud as I read it, and that I could not put it down.

Part of what gripped me was the audacity of this story, which turns a Roth or a Woody Allen story on its head. In Woody’s world, the assimilated hero, the guy pursuing his sexual urges, would have the story’s moral sympathy—but here the story’s sympathy seems to be with the rabbi, the scold, and the whole story builds to a Flannery O’Connor-style chastening.

When Englander writes about West Bank settlers, he renders them in biblical terms:

Hanan put his hand to his eyes to block the sun, hoping to see better. And holding that position, with his beard blowing and his long white robe, and the tallit on his shoulders, he looked—poised among those ancient hills—like a man out of time.

Wherever you go in these stories, there is violence. In “How We Avenged the Blums,” a character called The Anti-Semite pummels the smallest Jewish kids in a quiet suburb, and then all the Jewish boys of the neighborhood come together to defend themselves. In “Camp Sundown,” the Holocaust survivors at an elder hostel suspect another elderly resident of being a guard at a concentration camp—and at midnight, they get together and drown the old man. “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a sympathetic treatment of another damaged, vengeful Holocaust survivor—in World War II he killed a Polish family that was plotting to kill him, and in the Israeli wars of independence he killed four Egyptian soldiers, shooting them point blank as they sat down to lunch. Englander is not one to excuse his characters or to let his readers off easily; he describes the killing of the Polish family’s infant daughter as follows: “The last bullet Tendler left in the fat baby girl, because he did not know from mercy, and did not need to leave another of the family to grow to kill him at some future time.” The hero of this story, a fruit peddler in Jerusalem, saves his best produce to give free to Tendler, the killer.

Englander’s stories are by turns comic and tragic, brimming with paranoia and history and passion and bile. They drive recklessly past the humane limits of their premises. They’re often upsetting. But I couldn’t stop reading. My wife and daughters were upstairs, calling me to watch Downton Abbey with them, but I had to put them off. “Hold on,” I called. “Just a minute. I gotta finish this story!”

Published in the 2012-08-17 issue: 

Gabriel Brownstein, associate professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of two works of fiction. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (W. W. Norton & Co.) won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2002. His novel The Man from Beyond (W. W. Norton & Co.) was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Novels in 2005.

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