Authors Simpson, Englander Showcase Diverse Range of the Short Story
Posted Friday, March 02, 2012 12:05 PM
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories
Knopf, 207 pages
In-Flight Entertainment: Stories
Knopf, 176 pages
The short story is an infinitely variable and elastic thing, able to accommodate almost any type of narrative. This mutability may be the key to its survival and, judging by these two new collections, its continuing ability to astonish and delight. A short story can be lean or expansive, encompass whole worlds or deliver truths in an electrifying micro-second. At its best, the form deepens our grasp on what it is to be human in ways that no other art form quite duplicates.
New works by Nathan Englander and Helen Simpson capture this variability with a range of entertaining and technically proficient stories.
First things first. The title story of Englander’s book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” is one of the funniest and most impressive stories I’ve read in years. Inspired by Raymond Carver’s classic short story, this piece sets up and delivers in a way that’s surprising, touching and by turns, hilarious and sad, all within the space of about 30 pages.
In a house in South Florida, an unnamed narrator and his wife Debbie host American-born guests from Israel, Yerucham (formerly “Mark”) and Shoshana (“Laura”), an old friend of Deb’s from school in New York. At first, the narrator is vaguely hostile toward their guests’ self-righteousness (Debbie “puts a hand on my arm. Her signal that I’m taking a tone”), and can’t resist making a dig or two at their expense (“they went to the Holy Land and went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox, which to me sounds like a repackaged detergent—ORTHODOX ULTRA®, now with more deep-healing power”).
As it turns out, Mark and Laura have a weakness for alcohol, kosher or not, and as the two couples begin to unwind, little secrets emerge. Debbie, for instance, is obsessed with the Holocaust, which leads Mark to recount a comical anecdote about his father and another old-timer, Holocaust survivors unknown to each other, who find themselves face-to-face in a South Florida clubhouse (“like watching a pair of big beige manatees sitting on a bench, each with a sock on”). The anecdote’s hugely unedifying moral leaves Debbie distraught and the narrator liking his guests more and more.
As the evening progresses, the refreshment of choice turns to marijuana—a surprise to the narrator, since it’s his wife who offers pot to their guests, from a stash she discovered at the bottom of their teenage son’s laundry hamper. He’s hurt that Debbie’s known about this and hasn’t told him (“Even if it’s a secret with him, it should be a double secret between you and me”), and this is where Englander maneuvers a change in tone that feels exactly right, where the reader begins to understand that something more profound than a weird evening with Hasidim is at play here.
One thing leads to another, and now the four play what Shoshana calls the “Anne Frank game,” (“in the event of a second Holocaust … which of our Christian friends would hide us”), except instead of Gentiles, they turn the question on each other. The answers or lack thereof bring us to the end of a disturbing emotional journey Englander has deftly guided us on throughout. It’s a masterwork of tone, concision and pacing.
The rest of the stories in What We Talk about When We Talk About Anne Frank, while often amusing, tender and insightful, never quite meet the high bar set by the title story.
The specter of global warming looms throughout British writer Helen Simpson’s story collection, In-Flight Entertainment. In the title story, two passengers in business class on a flight from Heathrow to Chicago find their in-flight experience dampened by an elderly passenger’s sudden death. For Alan, however, the more upsetting experience was making his way through a crowd of anti-flying “nutters” at the airport protesting the onslaught of global warming (“he was sick of the sound of it, he only had to see those words and a massive wave of boredom engulfed him.”). As it turns out, a fellow passenger (and retired scientist) named Jeremy is far more knowledgeable on the subject, and his prediction about what’s to come offers no comfort at all:
“Crops will fail first. Food shortages will kill off four-fifths of the population, along with malaria and bird flu and so on. There’ll be warlords and fighting in the streets. By the time you’re my age you’ll be beating them off your vegetable patch and your last tins of tuna.”
The young couple touring the caves and chateaux of France in “Geography Boy” also butt heads over the global climate shift and other apocalyptic forecasts. Simpson deftly plays the urgency of young love and lust against Brendan and Adele’s dire outlook for the generations to come. And in “The Tipping Point,” another relationship founders on the rocks of a disagreement over the global catastrophe yet to come.
The second-to-last story, “Diary of an Interesting Year,” carries this concern to its harrowing conclusion. In the form of a journal written in 2040, the narrator describes for us the world as it has come to be, frighteningly akin to the scientist’s predictions in the opening story. Forced to abandon their home in England, she and her lover G embark on a perilous journey north in search of safety. Entry by entry, the world around them breaks down:
24TH AUGUST 2040
We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G said, “Quick! We’ve got to kill it.”
“Why?” I said. “How?”
“With a knife,” he said. “Bacon. Sausages.”
I point out that even if we managed to stab it to death with our old kitchen knife, which looked unlikely, we wouldn’t be able to just open it up and find bacon and sausages inside.
“Milk, then!” said G wildly. “It’s a mammal, isn’t it?
Meanwhile the pig walked off.
As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, there is no happy ending to this tale of the future. “Diary of an Interesting Year” is a departure from Simpson’s other, more domestic-based short fiction, but one of the collection’s true standouts.
Another fine story, “The Scan,” follows a day in a young woman’s life clouded by the threat of cancer. Undergoing an MRI scan (“they were after pictures of her imploding head”), she can’t help comparing the “viewless tunnel” to a “coffin’s slow glide to curtains hiding the fire.” In just a few pages, the author engenders great sympathy for this woman and the story’s conclusion is all the more heartrending for it.
“Stories are good for uncomfortable things, for uncomfortable subjects” Simpson said in a recent interview. “They’re not generally relaxing.”
Perhaps not, but in the hands of skilled practitioners like Englander and Simpson, they are still living, breathing things.
Lee Polevoi is chief book critic for Highbrow Magazine. His reviews appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere.
Photo on main page: Derek Thomson
Photo of Nathan Englander: Random House