What he’s talking about

Nathan Englander mulls questions of modern life and Jewish identity in his new collection of short stories.

love DO NOT REUSE (photo credit: San Jose Mercury News/MCT)
(photo credit: San Jose Mercury News/MCT)
Nathan Englander’s new collection of longish short stories titillates, provokes and enchants, but mostly it moves you in surprising ways; he is a writer working unselfconsciously at the peak of his powers. He is still drawn to the quagmires of Jewish identity and confusion and paranoia, but his writing has reached an entirely new level that is more mature, humane and complex.
His 1999 book of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, brought him instant acclaim as a creative new voice and many hailed him as a young Jewish wunderkind.
Then he grew quiet for several years and produced a novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, about a nominally Jewish family in Buenos Aires under extreme duress during Argentina’s frightening Dirty War in 1976. Something about it seemed lacking. However, his new work is explosive, and sprinkled throughout with the maverick morality that permeates all of his writings.
Englander steps deep inside a character’s heart and mind. Perhaps this sensitivity was developed by the various sorts of lives he has already lived.
His childhood home was an Orthodox one in West Hempstead, Long Island, and after that he left for college where he spent his junior year in Israel. It was around this time that he relinquished Orthodoxy, believing that he could hold firm to his Jewish identity without the rituals and fervor of religious life, which disturbed him greatly. His family are all still Orthodox, but there is no bad blood between them.
He speaks with great warmth about his mother, who still assists him by reading and critiquing his early drafts. But he does not miss the daily grind of the yeshiva he attended, which he once described as being dominated by a “right-wing, antiintellectual, fire-and-brimstone, freethought- free, shtetl mentality.”
He finds the writing process exhausting.
He describes his struggle to find the right mind-set as incredibly arduous, saying, “Once you’ve got the sitzfleisch, and the focus, and the skills, and a sharpened pencil, and you’ve pushed a cabinet up against the fridge, and thrown your cell phone out the window, and yanked your router from the wall, there is the issue – and I promise you, more than any other writing issue this is the one – of engaging with the work and all that floods into your head that is related to the work, but not truly of the work.”
Englander originally harbored fantasies about becoming a photographer. He seems blessed with hyper-vigilant powers of observation and a distinctive grasp of the particularly strange brew of comedy and tragedy that feels uniquely Jewish. He feels comfortable on the uncertain margins of Jewish life. One imagines him always watching other people; noticing the subtle ways their faces change when they are lying.
The title story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” is unforgettable. Two Jewish women and their husbands have gathered for a brief afternoon reunion in Florida. The ladies were close friends over 20 years ago when they attended a yeshiva in Queens. Then their lives took strikingly different paths.
The narrator’s wife turned secular after marrying him and together they are raising one son, now 16. Her friend married an ultra-Orthodox man and moved to Israel where they are raising 10 daughters.
The day begins innocently enough with the two husbands exchanging muted barbs about how each has chosen to live as a Jew.
The love between the two women has remained blissfully intact; and perhaps even heightened by their joint memories of growing up together in Queens.
The two couples begin to drink and smoke pot and their moods rapidly shift from euphoria to paranoia to a nervous sort of self-examination regarding issues of trust that still linger between each husband and wife. For example, the narrator is upset that his wife has not told him until just that day that their son started smoking pot a few months ago and challenges the morality of her secrecy.
The conversation shifts again, and a uncertain air takes hold. They begin to play a silly game in which each of them tries to imagine which of their non-Jewish friends might shelter them if the world once again became dangerous for the Jews. This soon morphs into a more precarious game where each pretends to be a Gentile and attempts to imagine whether they would protect their Jewish spouse if trouble arose.
The narrator and his wife feel confident they would always have each other’s backs.
It is now the other couple’s turn and an eeriness permeates the room as a cold stone soberness returns.
Englander shows us how suddenly revelations can surface from the unconscious, particularly with regard to those closest to us. The religious man’s wife stands unnaturally still and the quizzical look on her face begins to dissolve into something far more ominous.
Englander writes: “She does not say it.
And he does not say it. And [of] the four of us, no one will say what cannot be said – that this wife believes her husband would not hide her. What to do? What would come of it? And so we stand there, the four of us trapped in the pantry. Afraid to open the door and let out what we’ve locked inside.”
“Everything I know About my Family on My Mother’s Side” feels startlingly personal.
Englander describes an intense love affair gone sour. The girl, nicknamed Bean, is from Bosnia and is not Jewish. She came to our narrator complete with filled-in stories about her past and the loving extended family she left behind. Not him. Not our narrator. He is envious of her security and perpetually confused and saddened by his own family history, which is pockmarked by secrets and lies and distortions and grief about relatives from distant countries that only his parents remember and he has never known. He feels incomplete with Bean; damaged and unworthy of her love.
Englander arranges this piece in numbered paragraphs that, unconsciously perhaps, mimic the choppy unsettledness of so many Jewish families.
This work is clearly a love letter to Bean; perhaps a desperate last attempt to win back her love by showing her he understands now why she left him. His pain is palpable. Englander’s narrator cries out in agony to his beloved Bean: “Do you want to know what I felt? Do you want to know if I cried? We don’t share such things in my family – we don’t tell this much even.
Already, I’ve gone too far.”
Later on, he seems to be apologizing to Bean for his absence in her presence; for his inability to love without stipulations.
Nathan Englander has written a breathtaking meditation on the soul-searching it requires for a certain sort of man to figure out how to truly love someone more than himself. And if Bean is still out there, she should give him another chance.