Give Nathan Englander credit for chutzpah. The title of his new book of short fiction, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, draws on two iconic antecedents: the young diarist killed at Bergen-Belsen and the Raymond Carver story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ Each, in its way, informs the collection; each, in its way, helps to set the terms. And what are those terms? The tension between the religious and the secular, between the American setting of much of this work and the more elusive textures of Jewish life … The triumph of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is Englander's ability to balance one against the other, to find, even as he's calling it unfindable, the deeper story, the more nuanced narrative … The best stories here function as fables of their own.
At his best, Mr. Englander manages to delineate such extreme behavior with a combination of psychological insight, allegorical gravity and sometimes uproarious comedy. He can be as funny and outrageous as Philip Roth in describing the incongruities of modern life … In several instances, however, 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 contrivance … It’s the title story and Everything I Know About My Family that point to Mr. Englander’s evolution as a writer, his ability to fuse humor and moral seriousness into a seamless narrative, to incorporate elliptical — yes, Carver-esque — techniques into his arsenal of talents to explore how faith and family (and the stories characters tell about faith and family) ineluctably shape an individual’s identity.
Englander has sharpened his focus. His subjects are mercy, vengeance and their moody, intractable stepchild, righteousness. He is never deaf to the past or willing to grant us that luxury … Englander knows where to hold back, a particular gift when writing about and around the martyr of his title, the locked up and locked in. A kind of hard-won wisdom spills out on every page. Nowhere is that more true than in the collection’s two finest stories, both delivered with Englander’s trademark blend of the breezy and the biblical, both meditations on what ‘2,000 years of being chased’ can do to a people … Stubborn people. Stubborn history. Terrific collection.