High Shtick

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Nathan Englander
Knopf, $24.95, 207 pp.

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...

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About the Author

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.