History carves its way through Nathan Englander’s latest short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, like a river cutting through solid granite over millennia. The stories’ characters are all Jewish, and they’re all scarred in some way by the events of the 20th century, even if they didn’t live through them. The Holocaust hangs heavily over the proceedings; so do Israel’s wars with Egypt, and the casual anti-Semitism many Jewish people encounter. From the opening story—in which two couples, old friends, find boozy conversation slowly turning to more serious things when they see each other for the first time in years—to the close, in which a young boy learns morality may not be a constant in times of war and aftermath, the book confronts ideas of grave injustice.
Those injustices aren’t always visited on Jews, however. Englander’s caustic sense of humor pokes through over and over, showing how the rigidity of Jewish law can cause families to be split apart or how the justifiable fears of the past can lead to unjustifiable actions in the present, as in the collection’s best story, “Camp Sundown,” in which a group of elderly Holocaust survivors cause headaches for a summer-camp director, until those headaches queasily turn toward harassment of one of the other camp guests. Throughout, Englander asks questions about what makes an action right, about whether the sins visited on a people in the past can ever give, say, a Holocaust survivor license to do horrible things.
It may seem surprising that Englander gets so much mileage out of this basic setup—almost every story here is a twist on that same basic formula in one way or another—but his career is long-marked by hefty considerations of Jewish customs, laws, and history. While What We Talk About doesn’t have the out-of-nowhere surprise that marked his debut, For The Relief Of Unbearable Urges, it might be stronger than that collection, story for story; it often reads as if he’s found the subject matter he’s most interested in pursuing, even if that chases away readers who want more variety in topics. Mothers mourn children lost in war and invoke ancient laws and customs that tear other families apart, and the rest of society is powerless to stop it. Young boys form violent protection societies to fight back against anti-Semites in a sleepy suburban town. Jewish history intrudes on a man’s hopes of enjoying a peep show in peace. All these stories are terrific, but when starting a new one, there’s always a brief sense of “This again?”
While a little more diversity might be nice, Anne Frank also gives the sense at the end that Englander—in typically witty, thoughtful form—has examined his central thesis so thoroughly and from so many different angles that he’s exhausted all there is to say about it. And yet in each new story, Englander finds a new way into the ideas of justice and how history changes our notions of what’s fair. The experience of reading Anne Frank can be wearing, but once it’s over, the book becomes greater than the sum of its parts, simultaneously urgent, funny, and moving.