Israeli Potheads, Nude Girls, Fat Rabbis Star in Englander’s Tales: Review

"What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank"
The cover of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" by Nathan Englander. Source: Random House via Bloomberg
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Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander
Michael Lionstar/Random House via Bloomberg
Nathan Englander, author of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."

Nathan Englander, author of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Photographer: Michael Lionstar/Random House via Bloomberg

The most amazing stories in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” are about Israel or Israelis, and what’s amazing about them, in part, is how they avoid politics.
Except “avoid” is probably the wrong word, since it suggests pussyfooting, and Nathan Englander’s style is more along the lines of a left jab followed by a right hook. They avoid politics in the sense that their appeal and their meaning lie elsewhere.
Trumpets announced the arrival of Englander’s first collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” in 1999. Its nine glistening stories were set mostly among the closed community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York, which was where the author came from himself.
His characters were people his readers might have found alien and forbidding if they saw them on the street; they turned out (big surprise) to be like everybody else, only funnier.
The new tales about Israelis again make the foreign familiar. In the title story, a secular American couple plays host to a Hasidic couple visiting from Israel, the husband sternly outfitted in “black suit, a beard resting on the middle of his stomach,” the wife in “a bad dress and a giant blond Marilyn Monroe wig.” (The two women are old school friends.)

Truth or Dare

After a long afternoon of alcohol and pot -- which, the Hasids explain, is how they cope with having 10 daughters -- come the inebriated truth games. By the end, the story isn’t about Orthodox versus secular; it’s about the cracks in a marriage, and it closes with a sudden insight that arrives like a punch.
The longest story, “Sister Hills,” covers four decades of West Bank settlement, and of motherhood and loss and the craziness of bitterness, in 40 pages.
The last one, “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” concerns Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem, specifically an old professor who once shot four Egyptians in cold blood and beat the owner of a fruit stand almost to death.
Its theme is the impossibility and, at the same time, the necessity of making moral judgments from outside a situation. This time the punch comes at the beginning, and you still feel the ache when you reach the quiet close.

Yiddish Humor

The other five tales don’t reach the same level. The absurdism that is a major current in Yiddish humor has a strong but not always happy pull on Englander.
In “Peep Show,” a prosperous businessman sidles into a triple-X establishment near Port Authority, where he’s invited to touch the naked girls. Then the girls are replaced by the fat, hairy rabbis of his boyhood, and then the rabbis are replaced by his mother. (“Do you need some tissue, Ari? Did you remember to bring?”)
The comedy is heavy with meaning. It isn’t nearly as funny (or as horrifying) as the giant apparition of the Jewish mother who barks down at Woody Allen from the sky in the movie “New York Stories.”
In “The Reader,” a once celebrated, now forgotten Jewish novelist moans over the decline of bookstores and the audiences who once lionized him there. It’s such a nakedly masochistic self-projection that the mockery of the writer’s self-pity doesn’t save it from self-pity.
These stories don’t miss badly or embarrassingly, and they would probably come off much better if they weren’t in the company of three stories that smack of genius. Englander is at his best -- I don’t know why -- when he’s forced into acting as a translator of cultures. He never writes less than gorgeously, but when, from narrow confines, he puts his finger on the universal, he’s Shakespeare.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is published by Knopf (BTG) (207 pages, $24.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at cseligman@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.