This month sees the publication of two outstanding new short story collections, Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and the debut collection by Nova Scotia's Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting, to go with last month's slender and vivid Emerald City and Other Stories, by Jennifer Egan.
Nathan Englander may take his title from Raymond Carver, but in the opening story it's a family joke that twists into something grimmer. "What we talk about" is usually the Holocaust, the psychic wound that haunts virtually all these stories. And yet this is far from a sombre book.
In the title story, two Jewish couples spar relentlessly, and Englander shows an unerring ear for dialogue. Mark observes that his hosts' teenage son "does not seem Jewish to me". "'Jewish to you?' I say. "The hat, the beard, the blocky shoes. A lot of pressure, I'd venture, to look Jewish to you. Like say, maybe, Ozzy Osbourne, or the guys from Kiss, like them telling Paul Simon, saying, 'You do not look like a musician to me.'"
Just when you think he's laying it on a bit thick – beginning a story with the line: "I want I should talk to Rabbi Himmelman" – Englander performs a neat twist. Back comes the riposte: "Why do you talk like that? ... Like you haven't been in Livingston, New Jersey, for the last 50 years ... Honestly, where does it come from, the 'I want I should talk to the rabbi' and all that?" In this story, "Camp Sundown", a hapless camp leader (irony fully intended) is faced with a moral dilemma by the rebellion of some elderly Jewish residents. Agnes and her aged sidekick Arnie are half-sinister, half-comic, though their actions are wholly tragic. And the riposte becomes pointed; it's not, after all, the 50 years spent in Livingston NJ that turn out to be of significance, but the years before that.
Perhaps the most chilling story is "Sister Hills", an account of the building of a Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem, and the implacable matriarch, Hanan Cohen, at its heart. A condensed epic spanning the years from 1973 to 2011, but evoking Biblical times in its harshness, it ends with an image of such hopelessness it brings to mind Evelyn Waugh's unforgettable story "The Man Who Liked Dickens".
Fellow Brooklynite Jennifer Egan's milieu is vastly different: her characters are models and stylists, man-eaters and globe-trotting conmen, the comfortably off, devious and adulterous. The stories, dating back to the Nineties and collected to take advantage of the success of "A Visit From the Goon Squad", show their age slightly, but are remarkable for all that. In the tender title story, a photographer's assistant worships a bravely failing model as they both cling to the edge of the fashion world. Another story depicts a jaded thirty-something stylist on a fashion shoot: "There is too much flesh ... after a day of dressing girls with pronged hips and bellies like shallow empty dishes, her own body comes as a surprise." The waiflike teenage model should give it up and go back home, but probably won't. "It is hard to pass up an extraordinary life," the stylist observes. In these stories, even the monied, gifted and lucky feel cheated, as though real life is happening somewhere out of reach.
Alexander MacLeod's collection explores varieties of maleness, touching on all the usual subjects – sport, fatherhood, dead-end jobs, violence, male bonding – with a light, quizzical air. "Miracle Mile" begins brusquely: "This was the day after Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield's ear", and traces the friendship of two young athletes who like to scamper in front of freight trains in the Michigan tunnel between America and Canada. "It was one of those impossible dangerous things that only invincible high-school kids even try, running in the dark, all the way from Detroit to Windsor, underneath the river."
Physical matters predominate in these stories, together with the tough philosophy that springs from the active, male life. But there's also a tense anticipation of the fragility of flesh. The title story concerns the anti-camaraderie of a gang of day-labourers: a drunk, a high-school kid and a born-again Christian among them. As the narrator observes, "It's the light lifting that does the real damage."
The final lines of MacLeod's stories tend to the ambiguous and sinister: "It all disintegrated after that"; "I kept wishing for it to be darker so I didn't have to see it all so clearly". Most strikingly, as we leave a man by the hospital cot of his desperately sick baby, the lights on the machine flash "Like a discotheque, maybe, or the reflection of ancient fire in a cave." Without a formal resolution, such stories are free to create ripples in the mind of the reader.
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