New Jewish-themed stories lack length, but not depth

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Click photo to download. Caption: Nathan Englander. Credit: Christopher Peterson.

Nathan Englander can seemingly do anything on a page. He has written a novel, a play (The Twenty Seventh Man), and translations of both the Haggadah (coming this March) and stories of Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

Yet, the short story is how Englander’s career originally took off—and in his latest book, the award-winning Jewish wordsmith goes back to his roots.

In the recently released What We Talk About When Talk About Anne Frank, a follow-up to his 1999 debut collection of stories (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges), Englander shows how he is unafraid to confront complex moral issues head-on.

A highlight in this collection is “Camp Sundown,” a pitch-perfect evocation of a leisure camp for seniors, a la Camp Isabella Freedman, which is part of but separated from a camp for kids. The director of the camp has inherited his job recently as “a pervert’s replacement”—the former director had been deposed for fondling the children. The new director has displaced turtles from the lake because they bother the seniors, despite being warned that they will return. This heralds Englander’s themes of justice and forgetting; the turtles come back after being banished, while the seniors wreak their vengeance on a man they believe had been a Nazi guard.

The problem Englander sets up brilliantly in this piece is that, as he writes, “the camplike structure…revives certain adolescent elements of human nature.”

“You want camps? I know camps. I know from human nature,” the speaker in the story says, rolling up his sleeve. A fellow camper, think two of the seniors, was a guard in the camps of “over there” and is now living among them.

The “justice” administered by the campers against the alleged guard leaves both the director and the reader in a quandary— What to do? “Guilty all,” says one of the characters. This is a story that begs to be taught to literature students, as a dissection would be sure to yield more and more layers. Almost any line is eminently quotable, such as: “‘Tunnel vision, they call that now,’ Arnie says, always adding his ‘now,’ as if all the others are trapped in the past and only he has access to the present.” 

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of Nathan Englander's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Credit: Courtesy Nathan Englander.

These stories are not simply the examination of moral dilemmas. As the narrator of Englander’s story “The Reader” says, “I write…to touch people in the way that I, as a reader, have been touched.” Though the story of a writer with a once-large audience now diminished to one lone reader seems autobiographical, it is an exaggeration. Englander’s last full-length novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was not as wildly popular as his shorter works, but he still had an audience. The atmosphere of chastened pride in “The Reader” contrasts with the energy and exuberance of the other short stories in Englander’s collection, but it earns high marks for its dramatic effects. 

The longest story in the book, “Sister Hills,” is about Israelis attached to the past of the land and unsure how to behave in the present. Its last image, of a girl pushing an older woman, evokes a forced tethering to a past that can’t be moved forward. 

The story “Free Fruit for Young Widows” takes place at a fruit and vegetable stand at Jerusalem’s large, central outdoor market, Mahane Yehuda. The protagonist, Etgar (Hebrew for “challenge”), learns about the past of his father and the man he gives free fruit to each week, Professor Tendler. Etgar, whose last name is Gezer (meaning “decree”), must grapple with the challenge of what it means for a human to decide the fate of another. His father asks him, “And whoever we are, my son, to decide who should die?”

Grappling with this awareness—fruit stand philosopher that he is—Etgar nonetheless continues to give free fruit to Tendler, a killer and a bully, just as his father did. Again, the setup and execution of this tale display Englander’s mastery of the short story form. The author’s approach for these eight compact stories is compelling, laying out moral issues baldly—and revealing the complexity of any stance.

Posted on February 20, 2012 and filed under Book Review, Opinion.