Nathan Englander: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”

12/07/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 12, 2011.

I’m a fan of the Lish-edited Carver, the tight, muscular precision, often hiding within the ropy, whimsical lines of dialogue, as is the case in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I don’t have the two pieces side by side to compare, but Englander’s done a fine job in borrowing the style of this piece (and some of the lines and rhythms), while still making it his own. This modern piece is supposed to echo the original — four friends, still drinking and telling stories, but now smoking pot, too — while at the same time dealing with a different subject, which in this case is Holocaust-mania, which, as a fairly hardcore religiously atheist yet ethnically Jewish person, is a big thing in my book. It’s a smart choice, too, in that Englander is using an old narrative framework to deal with modern people who are talking about an old thing. There’s both momentum and futility packed into this circular structure, this talking about talking (or writing about writing, which is something I’m no stranger to), and the tale here is much assisted by Englander’s ability to cut straight to the thick of things, loading up on the opinions of Lauren’s husband (which was the biggest tonal advantage in the shift between “Beginners” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”), while at the same time keeping the discussion open-ended. Consider how remarkable it is that Englander’s able to write neutrally despite kicking things off with this:

They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.

You don’t need big moments, just honest reactions, and so we learn all we need to know about Debbie and and her husband by the little hand motions they make: “Her signal that I’m either taking a tone, interrupting someone’s story, sharing something private, or making an inappropriate joke. That’s my cue, and I’m surprised, given how often I get it, that she ever lets go of my arm.” The same goes for Mark and Lauren, who are defined at first by big blatant stereotypes, the two Jews who “ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hasidic,” and jokes about how “ultra orthodox” sounds like a detergent, “now with more deep-healing power. Because of that, we’re supposed to call them Shoshana and Yerucham now.” But as time passes, the big black hat comes off and the giant blonde wig is taken off, and as we relax in the company of these strangers, we begin to understand how similar we all are, deep inside. “Neither of them will put a hand on the other in public,” observes the narrator, and yet, Mark and Lauren are brought to do just that. Naturally, easily, without rushing or forcing it, or even making a big deal of it when it actually happens. The spontaneity of this story is fantastic: “This is how the four of us find ourselves in the back yard, on a searingly hot day, getting pounded by all this cool, cool rain… We’ve started dancing our own kind of hora in the rain.”

Among the things they discuss: the differences between Florida and Jerusalem (“It’s about building life in a vacuum. Do you know what I saw on the drive over here? Supermarket, supermarket, adult bookstore, supermarket, supermarket, firing range”), the twenty-one-year-old drinking age, the secret crutch of Israeli citizens (pot), the lifestyle of Mormons in Israel, the difference between being a religious Jew and a cultural Jew (Mark sees this relaxing of standards, this intermarriage, as a modern Holocaust: “You need to worry that your son marries a Jew,” he warns, somehow without seeming like a proselytizing asshole — the fact that he has “the munchies” helps to humanize him.) And as the conversation turns, what the story is really about is the relationship between these people, the level of trust they share, the ability to confide in one another and make jokes about each other’s obsessions, like Deb’s fixation on the Holocaust, which ultimately leads to the story’s title, as she explains the rules of the Anne Frank game, “Who Will Hide Me?” The way this thought experience works, you ask yourself about your neighbors, your friends, and even between one another, whether that person would hide you, risking their life for yours, in the case of a second Holocaust. Despite the small fractures between Deb and her husband over their son and secrecy, despite the ribbing and the restrictions, “Deb stares, and Deb smiles, and gives me a little push to my chest. ‘Of course he would.'” And yet, when Shoshana looks deeply at Mark, and the time passes, and passes, “She says yes, but to him it sounds as it does to us, so that he is now asking and asking. But wouldn’t I?”

Forget the earlier, anecdotal story about the two Holocaust survivors — three numbers apart — who, against all odds, somehow wind up retired in Carmel Lake, playing golf every day, and ignoring one another. Yes, it’s true that on one level, Englander’s dispelling this constant need to dwell on the past, to emphasize that it’s about living life in the present, about loving those you’re now with. But this last scene, this last moment, is what it’s really about; that mental prison that might snap back at any time, the one we put upon ourselves, when we worry about the ugliest thing of all — that the people we’re with do not feel about us as we feel about them. “And so we stand like that, the four of us trapped in that pantry. Afraid to open the door and let out what we’ve locked inside.” This is what we’re talking about, what’s lurking in all the small things within Englander’s fabulously ordinary prose and dialogue. And that’s terrific, that’s some Chekhovian-level repression and fear.

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