What We Talk About When We Talk About Nathan Englander

There are some short story writers with such a definitive style and taste, that if I were to read one of their works “blind”, I would know as soon as I was three or four paragraphs in, who wrote it. Ernest Hemingway, George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Antonya Nelson, Edith Templeton, Eudora Welty…I start reading one of their short stories and I am fully engaged, and fully cognizant of who wrote this piece. But it is not knowing who wrote the story that makes their works so good, it is the power of craftsmanship that each author wields, unique and beautiful and satisfying. Even more importantly, what makes me love each of these authors is their uniquely demonstrated commitment to illuminating a corner of the universe, and in that singular illumination, demonstrating a truth about life.

Nathan Englander, on the other hand, is a writer who experiments with styles and tones, displaying different skills of character, place and plot. Although he works along a continuum of the Jewish experience, his stories — so varied in approach and in expression — vary in impact, and in satisfaction. His latest collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, includes some stories I loved, like the title selection, which dissects, in a perfectly rendered moment-by-moment reunion of old friends, the nature of relationships; Sister Hills, a legend-style story of Israel; and Camp Sundown, where the question of justice unravels along the shores of a Jewish summer camp. All three share a pacing in structure and a lovely light touch mixed with very heavy meaning that made these stories distinctively Englander — and illustrative of some aspect of humanity. But the other stories fell apart for me, some rather painfully so (Peep Show); and others because they seemed to be showcases of Englander’s skill but devoid of any actual illumination of a feeling or event or person (Free Fruit for Young Widows and The Reader).

I want illumination, not just skill. And when people talk about Englander (he is causing lots of talk and garnering lots of praise with his latest collection), they seem to mostly talk about his skill, his ability to be both funny and serious, to create situations that are sharply focussed and rich in detail. But where is the illumination? Where is the deeper pounding at what matters, meaning of life and all that? I found it in a few of his stories — as mentioned above — and so when I talk about Nathan Englander, I am talking about a writer still developing, not only his signature style but his commitment to broadening his readers’ experience — and understanding — of life.