Friday, March 16, 2012

What We're Reading: Short Stories

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories by Nathan Englander

It is difficult to say exactly what critical perspective we bring to the reading of a collection of short stories. Certainly our expectations are not the same as when we read an anthology composed of stories by various authors, or a novel, or even when we read a short story that appears on its own in a monthly magazine. We expect a novel to have a consistent and sustained voice, and for the story to unfold at a certain pace. In anthologies, we expect to find an eclectic range of styles and modes of development, and would perhaps be disappointed if we did not. If we stumble across a short story in a magazine, we are ready for anything, but seem to demand that it be something almost wholly unexpected when it steps forward to ask our attention and engagement.

In a single author’s collection of stories, we require some fine balance of these elements, and because of this, collections like this seem to be evaluated in a more subjective way than other literary productions. In a collection of short stories by a particular author, we still want variety, innovation, and surprise, but we also demand a certain sameness, not one of voice necessarily, but one of consistency in the way an author employs ideas and images and makes them have meaning. We look for the single author behind the avatar of different voices and tales, and seek to understand his or her meaning, and we expect as well, as in a volume of poems, that individual stories in the collection will in some way elucidate the meaning of the other stories for us, will deepen their resonance. We inevitably make comparisons when things sit side by side. And we instinctively make relative evaluations as well: “I liked that one most; I didn’t like that one; this one seems out of place here.” In looking at a collection of short stories, we are not only more subjective, but more critical. Few applaud a short story collection unreservedly.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is a collection that infuses imagination and inventiveness into stories that have a classic feel, while maintaining devotion to a characteristic range of themes which are explored in similar fashion from story to story. There is a high moral seriousness to Englander’s work, but his stories are often told with beguiling humor as he sets before us tales about evil, mercy, vengeance and righteousness. The largely contemporary tales are often shadowed by a dark sense of history, particularly that of the Holocaust or the weight of Jewish cultural traditions. The narrative style seems to walk a fine line between realism and allegory or fable, but managing the balance gives these stories a feel of the universal and timeless. And Englander seems to be a master of what seems the most difficult and implausible achievement in a short story, that of creating interesting and suggestively complex characters with a few strokes and lines of dialogue in a compressed space. But perhaps the greatest delight of this collection is that the stories turn in unexpected ways, and that the reader is led into a denouement of unforeseen revelation or ambiguity. These are stories that you continue to turn over in your mind long after you have read them, not because they are koans or puzzles but because they guide us to places of resignation and mercy.

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