"What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" by Nathan Englander Originally published in the December 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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.