It’s an embarrassment of riches to have new collections by short story masters Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon released on the same day (Feb. 7). After publishing novels in 2007 and 2009, respectively, they’ve returned to a form that showcases their talents at fashioning sturdily constructed, memorable tales.
Englander caused a stir in 1999 with his first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which offered unorthodox glimpses into the world of Orthodox Judaism. He stays close to his roots here, echoing the art of Jewish short fiction masters from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Philip Roth in tales that are both contemporary and timeless.
Most of the Jewish characters that populate the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank are survivors (literally so, for the several who endured the Holocaust). Nowhere is that more dramatically demonstrated than in the novelistic “Sister Hills,” set in the northern portion of the territory captured by Israel in 1967. The story spans decades, and focuses on Rena and Yehudit, settlers who occupy two desolate settlements on “empty mountains that God had long ago given Israel but that Israel had long ago forgotten.” With its mythic overtones, it’s a stunning narrative achievement.
Englander is intrigued by the difficulty of moral choices, as displayed in stories like “Camp Sundown,” when a group of Holocaust survivors at an elderhostel camp decide to take revenge on a man they believe was a Nazi guard at a concentration camp. And the title story, evoking a classic Raymond Carver tale, follows two couples—one, assimilated South Floridians; the other, friends who have abandoned America for an ultra-Orthodox life in Israel—as they debate which of them would shelter the other in a new Holocaust.
As serious as some of Englander’s themes may be, he displays an equally potent gift for comedy, most notably in “How We Avenged the Blums,” recounting the fumbling efforts of a group of Long Island Jewish boys and their dubious Russian martial arts teacher to retaliate against an iconic bully, “the Anti-Semite.”
Several of the stories in Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake have the same enigmatic aura as his 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, an intricate exploration of identity in the cyber-age. From the opener, “The Bees,” in which a recovering alcoholic is haunted by his decision to abandon his wife and young son, a chill descends on Chaon’s world.
The mostly male protagonists are stunted, both economically and emotionally. The employed ones work as supermarket clerks or UPS drivers, and the most accomplished, a former college professor in the story “Long Delayed, Always Expected,” has been brain damaged in an automobile accident.
Death is another thread that unites Chaon’s stories. Two moving examples are the title story, in which a child is born with a “parasitic” twin head with an underdeveloped body attached to hers, and “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow,” where a teenager and his “former future wife” struggle after their newborn’s death.
Though their subject matter could not differ more dramatically, in their moral seriousness and literary craftsmanship Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon deliver some of the best of what contemporary short fiction has to offer.