Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories normalizes bad politics. The author’s inability to engage with critical difficulties within American Jewish and Israeli culture leaves key stories littered with futile symbolism. It’s too simple to suggest that Englander lacks courage. Instead, the heart of his problem is systemic: a refusal to acknowledge the harms that Israel does to Palestinians.
To acknowledge such a problem would cost Englander much of his readership. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank accommodates a large collection of accolades on its dust-jacket, including praise from Gary Shteyngart, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Geraldine Brooks, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, and Richard Russo. We learn that Englander is welcomed by leading lights, worth reading for their praise, and the book worth its $25 cover price. This blurbing is editorial incest: three-quarters of these hosanna-shouters are published by trade divisions of the same publisher, Random House.
There is a more subtle understanding of this book cover. Englander is a writer closely tied to Jewish themes and cultural milieu. Neither the blurbs nor dust-jacket copy mention the word ‘Jewish.’ The only identity reference appears in Shteyngart’s praise of Englander as “a true American treasure.” The blurbs promise either universalism or great American literature. For example, one calls Englander at “the very forefront of contemporary American fiction.” In this market-conscious prose of avoidance, Jewish-ness gets subsumed invisibly under American-ness. It is difficult imagining African American, Korean American, or Chicano fiction being introduced in such de-ethnicized terms.
Although the marketing is nationalist, the leading stories from this collection are the products of cultural transnationalism. This is more than an issue of common dissonance occurring between covers and content. Englander tries to locate himself within an ever-widening gap between Israeli and US Jewish cultures, figuratively pulling them together.
That is precisely the work of the first story, the title story, which begins “They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation.” An American Israeli couple from Jerusalem, baalei tshuva turned Hasidic with ten daughters, visit a secular south Florida couple with a spacious house and prosperous life. The wives are high school friends from New York City who have not seen each other for some two decades. Their conversation rambles on until the couples play a role-game of Righteous Gentile deciding whom to save in a second Holocaust. An historic Jewish fear, they discover, is what unites them despite the differences in their Israeli and American lives.
The American couple tries to imagine who would hide them in an American Holocaust, one that is posited as a hysterical hypothesis. The Israeli couple discovers their hidden, unspeakable division in this perverse parlor game. Englander writes two once-American, now-Israeli characters ill at ease with what they have become but unable to enunciate their problem or its causes. Absent reasonable source of threat, all the characters indulge in self-pitying imagination of victimization.
The following story, “Sister Hills,” is a heavy-handed parable of a West Bank settlement and its founding families. Worse, Englander reverses victimization. The tale extends over forty years and relates the lives of two women, Rena and Yehudit. Fearing for her infant daughter at crisis-point during an illness, Yehudit asks her neighbor Rena to ‘buy’ the child and fulfill a folk custom of protecting a child by changing its name, thus deceiving the angel of death. Family fathers and sons die violently; the sale contract for the daughter Aheret (‘other’ in Hebrew — was Englander thinking of Ehud Manor’s song Ein li Eretz Aheret — ‘I have no other country’? — or is this name a clumsy stand-in for Palestinians?) gives rise to regrets; the two mothers dispute the contract in front of a rabbinical court; and there is no resolution to the dispute. The settlement grows inexorably into a middle-class exurb.
One reviewer writes “Perhaps this [story] will be unsettling to Englander’s more dovish readers, but in his own inimitable way, the author shows why ending Israeli occupation will be a very difficult task, practically and spiritually.” Such a formulation shifts responsibility for the story away from the author and onto his readers. Englander gives us a colonial tale, one that bears a close relation to Joyce Cary’s fictions. Use of a parable invested with heroic overtones diverts attention from the Palestinians, who remain barely mentioned at the story’s margins. Palestinians appear only as a teenage boy who asks Rena to stop chopping down an olive tree that belongs to his family, or as intifada rock-throwers down the hill.
Jewish land thieves have become foundational heroes and Palestinians have been nearly expunged from the story. Yet those invisible Palestinians provide the unacknowledged dynamic of resistance that generates this tale of Israeli colonialism. If modern and contemporary American fiction has been characterized by its pursuit of freedom in every form, this is a story that embraces a neo-biblical ethos where divine claims trump self-determination. A Jewish settler gets described “with his beard blowing, and his long white robe, and the tallit on his shoulders, he looked – poised among those ancient hills – like a man outside time.” In such mystical sentences Englander emulates a romanticized Book of Joshua, not Raymond Carver.
Englander lives and teaches in New York City while also identifying as a Yerushalmi (Jerusalem resident,) where he lived for many years. He wants it both ways, to be both an American writer and an English-language Israeli writer. Yet Englander’s cultural roots are in the United States, as is the market for his writing. If Englander cannot bring himself to confront settler racism and theo-fascism, it speaks to a refusal to alienate too many US readers who have come to accept these political phenomena. He palms off the facile symbolism of a felled olive tree near the end of “Sister Hills” when what is needed is more the valiant spirit of a Breytenbach or La Guma.
“Free Fruit for Widows,” an interesting and well-told story that combines the 1956 Suez War, the Mahane Yehuda Market, and social ethics does better, but it is clear that Englander is best on American subjects. There is no story with the satirical brilliance of his earlier “The Gilgul of Park Avenue” in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, but the exploration of Holocaust-generated fears in “Camp Sundown” shows some of the same skill in crafting credible interiority. Cardboard characters parade through other less-accomplished stories of this volume. Blizzards of blurbs cannot conceal Englander’s disappointing and compromised prose.
Photograph courtesy of PSP Photos. Published under a Creative Commons license.