Kafka and Woody were talk­ing . . .

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

READ­ING Nathan Eng­lan­der is as close as we’re likely to get to eaves­drop­ping on a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Kafka and Woody Allen. As in his break­through 1999 story col­lec­tion, For the Re­lief of Un­bear­able Urges, Eng­lan­der’s new book pro­vides us with a high­wire act that bal­ances psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight and his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness with play­ful­ness and wit. The eight sto­ries in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank con­firms the youngish (he’s 41) Amer­i­can writer as a mod­ern mas­ter of the form.

The ti­tle pro­vides a key to the ob­ses­sions of Eng­lan­der’s char­ac­ters: the Holo­caust, the po­si­tion of vic­tim and op­pres­sor, the im­pli­ca­tions of guilt and in­no­cence. It also hints at Eng­lan­der’s mis­chievous meth­ods of in­ter­ro­gat­ing such heavy top­ics. Here, as in his pre­vi­ous work, he has a light­ness of touch that keeps the reader pon­der­ing and grin­ning long af­ter the sto­ries end. He is a writer well aware of his re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­ter­tain.

Bor­rowed from Ray­mond Carver’s 1981 story col­lec­tion What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Eng­lan­der’s ti­tle story tracks two Jewish cou­ples — one Is­raeli, the other Amer­i­can — as they dis­cuss life and re­li­gion. Fu­elled by al­co­hol and mar­i­juana, the Amer­i­cans in­tro­duce a de­bate they of­ten have among them­selves: ‘‘ No, it’s not a game,’’ the hus­band says. ‘‘ It’s just what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank.’’

The ‘‘ non-game’’, this ‘‘ Right­eous-gen­tileGame’’, one of ‘‘ Who-will-hide-me’’ in the event of a sec­ond Holo­caust, al­lows Eng­lan­der to re­lease an arse­nal of ob­ser­va­tions about hu­man na­ture across a spec­trum of his­tory and cul­ture.

One of this col­lec­tion’s de­lights is the va­ri­ety of styles Eng­lan­der em­ploys as his char­ac­ters strug­gle to un­der­stand them­selves through re­li­gion, so­cial sta­tus, ge­og­ra­phy, or a com­bi­na­tion thereof. Sis­ter Hills, for ex­am­ple, is an epic-in-minia­ture about the di­ver­gent lives of two neigh­bours who over four decades watch the de­vel­op­ment of their Is­raeli sub­urb, while The Reader is a self-re­flex­ive fa­ble about lit­er­a­ture and the power of sto­ry­telling. Then there’s the slap­stick meets Dante of Peep Show, in which a man scuffs his $500 pair of shoes and, quick to get off the street be­cause of his em­bar­rass­ment, un­ex­pect­edly finds him­self in­side a strip club, where he meets fig­ures from his past who force con­front the ba­nal­ity of his life.

Eng­lan­der’s main themes are ap­par­ent through­out. These are sto­ries of per­se­ver­ance, mainly of Jews and Ju­daism. Eng­lan­der’s char­ac­ters are in search of their place in the world. Take the nar­ra­tor of My Fam­ily on My Mother’s Side, in which an au­thor named Nathan learns that ev­ery­thing he thinks he knows about his fam­ily is false. In the process, he dis­cov­ers that his own life has passed by with­out com­pre­hen­sion:


to It’s not only the past that can be al­tered and for­got­ten and lost to the world. It’s real time now. It’s stream­ing. The present can be un­done, too.

Sis­ter Hills, the long­est and most am­bi­tious story, cen­tres on neigh­bours Ye­hu­dit and Rena, the lat­ter of whom who loses her hus­band and three sons to war and the per­ils of life in Is­rael. In 40 pages chart­ing four decades, Eng­lan­der com­pas­sion­ately in­ves­ti­gates Is­rael and its his­tory through the mi­cro­cosm of a sin­gle neigh­bour­hood.

Camp Sun­down be­gins as one of the most hu­mor­ous in the col­lec­tion. When ru­mours flour­ish that a for­mer Nazi camp guard is among them, the el­derly Jews in this sum­mer re­treat soon turn hos­tile and a far­ci­cal witch­hunt en­sues. Here, as in How We Avenged the Blums, Eng­lan­der sup­plants hi­jinks with the taut cur­rents that run through his best sto­ries.

De­spite the tit­u­lar nod to Carver, Eng­lan­der’s work bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the mas­ter of Dirty Re­al­ism. Like Carver, how­ever, his sto­ries con­tain a rich and dex­ter­ous au­thor­ity. This book should spark dis­cus­sion about the vi­tal­ity of the short story: I fin­ished it with a new­found sense of faith in the form. Kevin Ra­bal­ais is the au­thor of Land­scape of De­sire.

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