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

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” was originally published in the December 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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My first experience with Nathan Englander’s fiction was forgettable.  In 2009 he published “Free Fruit for Y0ung Widows” in The New Yorker, and all I really know is that I didn’t really like it.  Knowing this, when I read the title of his new story I was wary to begin.  An obvious call back to Raymond Carver’s 1981 classic, I figured Englander’s story wouldn’t be able to support the weight of all of the comparisons it begged for.  Though I’m still trying to figure out whether I actually liked this story, I’m glad to say that it was interesting and the connections to Carver’s story do it no harm — in fact, I stopped thinking of Carver’s story very early on, for better or for worse.

Just like “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” this story involves two couples sitting around a table, drinking.  Our narrator is a middle-aged husband and father.  He and his wife Deb are hosting Lauren, Deb’s friend from childhood, and her husband, Mark.  Only now Lauren goes by Shoshana and Mark goes by Yerucham since they moved to Jerusalem some twenty years ago “and shifted from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox.”  Lauren and Mark have ten children.  The narrator and Deb have just one, Trevor, a sixteen-year-old who stumbles out barely awake at three in the afternoon on this particular Sunday.

Much of the conversation circles around Jewish identity.  Deb is, the narrator says, obsessed with the Holocaust, though her family had been in America for generations.  Mark doesn’t particularly think her interest is admirable, and he shoots it down by relating a story about his father, a survivor.

Deb looks crestfallen.  She was expecting something empowering.  Some story with which to educate Trevor, to reaffirm her belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms.

Discussions of Jewish identity continue.  Mark is certainly the more opinionated and bold of the “ultra-Orthodox” and doesn’t mind suggesting that Trevor is not really Jewish.  The narrator doesn’t really care and even seems to agree, enjoying the course of the conversation, but Deb gets frustrated and makes claims to Jewish culture.  Such a thing does not exist, according to Mark.

“Wow, that’s offensive,” Deb says.  “And close-minded.  There is such a thing as Jewish culture.  One can live a culturally rich life.”

“Not if it’s supposed to be a Jewish life.  Judaism is a religion.  and with religion comes ritual.  Culture is nothing.  Culture is some construction of the modern world.  It is not fixed; it is ever changing, and a weak way to bind generations.  It’s like taking two pieces of metal, and instead of making a nice weld you hold them together with glue.”

The afternoon proceeds at a hazy pace, which is made all the more so when the couples begin smoking Trevor’s pot that Deb recently discovered.  Finally, the couples play the “Anne Frank game,” where they think of people, reflect on their character, and determine whether they think that person would protect them were there another Holocaust.  This leads to an epiphany ending, one that we drift away from quietly.

While I remained interested in the story the whole time, taking in the back-and-forth between the spouses and between couples, I am still not certain whether I liked the story or not.  I’m not sure, for one thing, how it all adds up to the ending, which I liked but am not sure follows the story.  On the other hand, the ending succeeds in making the whole story even more hazy than the pot-smoking. 

I will have to think more, and, as always, will appreciate any comments you may have.

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

  1. Shelley says:

    The pot-smoking trivializes everything.

  2. Trevor says:

    I think that is one of the things that bugged me, too, Shelley. It seems the pot smoking is meant to fiddle with the pacing, to get the characters from point A to point B, and to represent some shared experience or communion, but it’s not much more than a device, in my opinion, and not one that helps me understand the characters themselves — given the end of the story, that is important. Many authors use sex to the similar ends, and that always bugs me.

  3. Aaron says:

    I think Englander benefits greatly from borrowing the structure/style/pacing of Carver’s (Lish-edited) piece: it gives him the room he needs to speak casually (and in small details about the relationships these two couples have, both within themselves and by comparison) and to make inferences about Jewish identity/culture both in terms of the present and the past (which is what riffing on an old story affords you).

    I also think everything adds up to the ending: we know that Deb has some instability regarding the Holocaust, we’ve seen her disappointment with the anecdote about the golf-playing survivors, and we’ve seen the small fractures between her and her husband, and yet, when it comes time to play this game, she’s the one who can sleep happy, knowing the man she lives with, and the culture that she’s a part of. Meanwhile, the supposedly happy family of twelve, who live a certain way because that’s how life has been dictated to them, is the one that might not actually be this way: as the man says, if he weren’t devoutly Jewish, he would not have been with this woman: they are together because of religion, not first-and-foremost a life-sacrificing love.

    Then again, I tend to think a lot about Jewish identity, particularly in the ways in which it is best to live: as a tolerant, accepting, loving part of the world, or as a secluded part of an alienating culture/community? Englander hasn’t really stood out to me before, but his quiet pace (borrowed or not) and excellent characterizations have sold me on this piece.

    More thoughts here: http://bit.ly/upLmmb.

  4. Aaron says:

    Oh, and I disagree about the pot-smoking; Carver’s original story has them smoking and drinking to loosen them up and get at the heart of the “love” these people feel underneath it all. Englander’s doing the same, and that impromptu hora in the rain, the slight lapses in the one couple’s religious piety, the concerns about their child whilst at the same time setting a not-bad example for him . . . that all came off smoothly and realistically to me. Especially when you consider that these couples use these vices — drinking for the Americans, pot for the Israelis — to get through trying times.

  5. John says:

    boring!

  6. jerry says:

    I don’t know how i feel about the pot smoking..the story would work just as well without it…

    Englander is great at writing dialogue unlike most writers these days who either won’t or can’t.

    I thought it a fine story..I have never read the Carver work.

  7. mary lou bethune says:

    I have really liked Englander’s short stories in the past. He finds the heart of the matter every time.
    This is typical New YOrker fare: no solution given for the heartbreak of the world.

  8. Roger says:

    I found the ending very satisfying. Mark’s love for Lauren is revealed as situational rather than transcendent, and therefore as fraudulent, at least arguably. By extension, his entire identity is revealed as hollow. He is a blank who has been filled in by nothing more than the rituals and customs of his ultra-Orthodoxy. I agree with Aaron about the dramatic reversal. After we see some rumblings under the ground on which the secular couple are standing, in the end it is the religious couple that experiences the earthquake. Nicely done by Englander.

  9. Jon says:

    I’m very surprised this story has gotten an overall positive response. The ending to me felt very didactic–like Englander started with a strongly felt point he wanted to make about ultra-orthodox, and then just hung a somewhat clunky story on it to turn it into fiction (rather than using the forms of an essay or sermon, which seem to more naturally fit it.)

    And the point itself seems too particular to what we know of his own life (abandoning the life of an ultra-orthodox) and a little too commonplace. It just doesn’t feel like it resonates very widely.

  10. Trevor says:

    I’m leaning more and more to Jon’s view. The interesting structural elements in this story were lifted from Carver. The interesting substantive element was an examination of culture versus religion, which is done often enough. I liked the ending, but leading up to it was a mish-mash of structure and substance that didn’t ever quite come together for me.

  11. Ken says:

    I would agree with Aaron about the story. I found this very very rich and complex with masterful dialogue and nice ambiguity. The question of cultural vs. religious jewishness is intelligently detailed and not answered. Another issue it raised was about trust within and between couples. I also thought about the fact that by this time, unlike with my parents’ generation, most parents have themselves smoked pot and yet does one do it in front of your teenager? People drink in front of teens but alcohol is legal. Should one openly smoke in front of one’s kids, smoke with them, or be hypocrites or perhaps quit using weed? Of course, one should not steal one’s kid’s pot, should one? I did not see this as judging Mark and his judaism. I thought it was more of a nice irony that their seemingly tight union, based on the solid rock of religion, may be less tight. And yet…how seriously to take such games (especially when high). All of these open-ended questions are what appealed to me about the story and, therefore, I’d hardly call it didactic.

  12. Ken says:

    I also laughed out loud about the line about Ozzy Osbourne questioning whether Paul Simon is a “real” musician.

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