Sunday, July 1, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortist: 2012--Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Knopf

Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Knopf.

In the spring of 1999, reviewers fell all over themselves with praise when Nathan Englander’s first book of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was published.  Knopf gave him $350,000 and ordered a first printing of 30,000 copies (absolutely unheard of for a first book, especially a first book of short stories).  But the 28-year old modern orthodox yeshiva/Iowa Writers Workshop student, hailed as the new I.B. Singer, was a publicist’s dream and fresh fodder for reviewers and interviewers eager for attractive copy on the moribund book pages of American, Canadian, and British newspapers.  As the reporter in the San Francisco Chronicle said, “the first thing anyone notices” about him is his hair—“curly and luxuriant,” framing his face in a way “that dares people not to take him seriously,” looking like the “clotted curls of Tiny Tim or Kenny G.” 

Not since O. Henry had short stories received such a delighted readership, stories that O. Henry would have been happy to have been paid so handsomely for.  But Englander’s stories had the added cache of representing what Frank O’Connor in his The Lonely Voice had called the ideal subject for the short story--a “submerged population group”--, in fact, the archetypal submerged population group: “Reb Kringle,” about a crotchety old Jew pushed into working as a department story Santa Claus, “The Tumblers,” in which the fools of Chelm must pretend to be circus acrobats, “The 27th Man,” in which an unpublished and unknown writer is mistakenly arrested by Stalin and achieves an audience, and the title story about a man whose wife no longer wants to have sex with him and gets permission from his Rabbi to visit a prostitute.  What a hoot!  But a hoot elevated by culture.  The academics were quick to include Englander in Introduction to Short Story texts.

“Isaac Bashevis Singer on crack,” said Lois Rosenthal, editor of Story Magazine, who first published Englander. He was compared to Philip Roth, Chekhov, Beckett, Babel, Gogol, Bellow, Kafka, Tolstoy.  The book was compared favorable to Salinger’s Nine Stories and Malamud’s The Magic Bareli and was on the New York Times best-seller list during much of the spring and just in time for beach-book purchases.  There were multiple printings and translations in several languages, whew!

I know I am a terrible snob when it comes to the short story; my postcolonial-trained students were always eager to call me an elitist.  But when I read For the Relief of Unbearable Urges in 1999, I was not impressed by Englander’s curly locks, his orthodox background, or his Iowa Workshop well-made stories.  I thought his stories were fun, but relatively simple and predictable.  It seemed to me that the rave reviews and adoring interviews were promotional hype; Englander was a young, good-looking representative of a minority culture, for whom newspaper writers could build an interesting opening paragraph. 

Englander’s new collection of stories, the title piece a risky take on Raymond Carver’s famous story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” has not received the same kind of raves from reviewers that his first collection did.  He has had his hair cut and he seems to being resting on his laurels, trying to ratchet up his intellectual cache by focusing on the iconic sacrificial victim of the Holocaust and the loveable big bear of a writer who jump-started the short story a few decades ago. 

However, Englander obviously does have enough cache to earn a pot-full of back cover blurbs from a sort of “who’s who” of contemporary writers, e.g. Michael Chabon, Tea Obreht, Jonathan Franzen, Colum McCann, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks, and Richard Russo.  Every writer should have a publicist like Englander.  Blurbs by fellow writers are not reviews by literary critics.  To get a good blub, you make sure your publisher has a good promotional department willing to get the word out and ask for favors.  I am not saying that these well-known writers did not read the advance copies Knopf sent out, but I am saying that the puffs appearing on the back cover of Englander’s book did not require that they read it.

The reviewers, we assume, did read it, and were therefore somewhat more circumspect. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times is reserved in her praise, noting, “In several instances, the delicate narrative balance slips from Mr. Englander’s grasp.  Either from an over-kneading of themes or from a willful melodramatic impulse, moral insight gives way to moralism, irony to O. Henry contrivances.”  “Peep Show,” she calls a “heavy-handed portrait of a guilty conscience” and “How We Avenged the Blums” unravels into a “predictable tale about Long Island kids getting revenge on a local anti-Semite.” She calls “The Reader” a sort of “hokey ghost story about the relationship between an author and his audience” and says that “Free Fruit for Young Widows” begins as a “moving account of the sufferings endured by a young survivor, only to tumble into fairy tale artifice.”

James Lasdun in The Guardian says that in his new book Englander finds a way to shift from his first collection, which was apolitical, to adapt the short story form to accommodate a wider cultural perspective.  Although generally he likes the stories, he calls the title story a dud, arguing that the problem is partly one of tact, partly one of aesthetics: “The idea of an American Shoah at this moment in history has no plausible resonance or valency, even as a ‘thought experiment,’ as the couple describe it.”  Lasdun concludes that several of the stories often reprise the relatively simple inversions of Englander’s first collection.

What do I think about these stories?  I think the title story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is a Carver wannabe story that does not have the understanding of the complexity of love and how hard it is to talk about it that Carver explored.  If Englander thinks this is homage to Carver, then he just does not read Carver well.  I realize how powerful a subject the Holocaust is and how important a symbol Anne Frank is, but I just don’t think that subject matter alone can carry a story, no matter how potent.  And there is always a fine line between imitative homage and sly parody.  Carver would have got a laugh out of this story, probably in places that Englander did not intend.  Just how close to a druggy parlor game can you take the Holocaust?

“Sister Hills,” the longest story in the collection, is an Old Testament or, at least an I.B. Singer, type fable about two women quarreling over a disputed child.  This is Englander’s most serious effort to undergird his storytelling with Middle East politics, history, culture—all that important stuff.  Englander resists jokes and cleverness here, playing it serious to the end, but it is a story told many times before, and better, by Gogol, Singer, etc.

In “How We Avenged the Blums,” Englander has a bit more fun, although the fun is built on viciousness, or the desire for viciousness.  At the beginning of the story, the Anti-Semite bully of the neighborhood beats a boy unconscious.  When his friends find him, the narrator says, “Because he was suspended by his underwear from one of the bolts on the swing set, we knew that a weggie had been administered….”  At the end, the Jewish superhero Ace Cohen hits the bully so hard that he breaks his jaw.  “Not a bit of him moved except for that bottom jaw, which had unhinged like a snake’s and made a solid quarter turn to the side.”  Great fun for everyone!

“Peep Show” is a sleazy joke.  “This guy walks into a peep show.”  Nuff said.

“Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is Englander’s attempt to be present himself as an “experimentalist,” primarily by writing the entire story in 63 number paragraphs.  There seems to be no intrinsic need to number the paragraphs; it just allows reviewers to call it “experimental.”

“Camp Sundown” is a cruel joke.  Think an unlovable version of the movie Cocoon with vengeance and no Don Ameche.

“The Reader” is a sentimental homage to all writers who grow old, out of style, and self-pitying. 

“Free Fruit for Young Widows” is the most horrifying story in the collection—an illustration of the argument that the Holocaust was so horrible that nothing done in retaliation is horrible enough.  Or else the argument that the Holocaust was so horrible that it has killed all sympathy and pity in those damaged by it.
Robert MacFarlane in The Sunday Times (London) says WWTAWWTAAF is a fine, intricately patterned collection, but concludes that it is a book “of cautious, crafted, crafty stories, which catch you again and again off guard.”  Yes, indeed, that’s exactly what a reviewer would have said about O. Henry’s stories about a hundred years ago. However, Englander would like to be known as a writer who has an important subject matter, not merely a crafty craftsman who provides a little ironic punch.  He has said that his bread and butter is whether you can be Jewish without religion: “The title story of this book is about that central question: is being Jewish a matter of culture or religion?” When reviewers want to suggest that a writer has something important to say, they usually refer to his or her “voice.” The Toronto Star reviewer says Englander is destined to be “one of the most significant voices in American short fiction in this century.” 
I think not. Englander may be accepted as the contemporary "voice" of Jewish culture and history, but he is not destined, hope to God! to be a significant voice of the 21st century short story.


Lisa Roman said...

I read Englander this summer, tempted by the critical acclaim. I agree in most of your views, although I'd say that it wasn't all that bad, pretty funny at times, and moving at times as well. The biggest problem for Englander seems to be his "friends". I can see the same dilemma for young, especially female, writers and journalists (and why not also artists) here in Sweden, who become of over-praised by a more established media-entourage, craving for what is "new" and "fresh" and "provocative". The risk is that these younger talents don't get to develop their skill and mature in relative obscurit Englander seem to have a lot of talent, but the way the stories end is often disappointing. A bit more self-critique and resistance from the part of initial readers would have helped. Still. the "All I know of my family..." piece was truly touching, althouh maybe unnecessarily "experimental".

Charles E. May said...

Very good point, Lisa. Englander was a big hit when his first book came out for the very reasons you cite, and thus, as you note, probably has had little incentive to go beyond the successful tone and formulas he has used.