What We Talk About When We Talk About Nathan Englander

What We Talk About When We Talk About Nathan Englander

In February, Nathan Englander's much awaited short story collection will be released. But this week, The New Yorker gets privileged access, publishing a new short story titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." That's also the title of the upcoming collection, and if the story is any indication of what's in store, readers are in for a major treat. The story had me riveted, not least because of the communal Jewish divides it explores.

Here's the story's premise: two married couples, one a secular Jewish couple living in Miami, the other ultra-Orthodox Jews visiting from Israel, reunite after years apart. The ultra-Orthodox wife–Lauren, who now goes by Shoshana–is an old friend of the secular wife, Debbie. And the story revolves around a long Sunday afternoon the couples spend together, getting drunk, then high on Debbie's son's weed, and finally debating many things Jewish. Is Judaism is a culture or a religion?, the husbands argue over. Is intermarriage "the Holocaust that's happening now"?, as the Shoshana's husband Yerucham (ne Mark) suggests.

Big stuff here, and what is astounding is how economically, and humorously, Englander handles it all. We're not treated to lengthy disquisitions on the finer points of these complicated topics. What we get instead are pitch perfect portrayals of what Jews actually sound like when they argue about these things. No one ends up convincing the other they're right, nor, for that matter, do the couples convince the reader who's right either.

Englander has an explanation for this–why he raises weighty issues without fully resolving them. And he explains it an interview published on The New Yorker's website. He says, "What interests me when I’m writing is being able to crawl into a character’s head and speak from his or her mouth. It’s not pulling the strings on a marionette, it’s not playing ventriloquist, and it’s not mimicry. It’s about inhabiting a character, and, at the same time, being totally unaware of what you’ve become."

There's more to the story than just Jewish dynamics, however. At root, the story is about trust–between husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbors, friends. That comes through most clearly from the game they couples end up playing in their purple hazed stupor. It's called the "Anne Frank game," which Deb, pathologically obsessed with the Holocaust, occasionally plays with her husband. Basically, it entails asking each other who they think would actually hide them if another Holocaust happened. What it really is, though, is an explicit test of ones moral character, and how much you trust the people you know.

The "Anne Frank game" is crass and even morally repugnant. But Englander's achievement is to convey the truth of this fact, while still knowing full well that many people might actually play it, or something like it. We are left not with a look into the soul of Jews, but into the souls of all ostensibly loving couples. When the game comes round to Shoshana, and she is asked whether she thinks her husband, Yerucham, would hide her, Englander's conclusion sears you: "So would I hide you?" Yerucham asks his wife, begging for her confirmation. "And for the first time that day he reaches out, as my Deb would," Englander writes, "and puts his hand to his wife's hand. 'Would I, Shoshi?'"

Read it, to find out what she does.

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