WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK. By Nathan
Englander. New York: Knopf, 2012. 207 pp. $24.95.
HAPPINESS IS A CHEMICAL IN THE BRAIN. By Lucia Perillo. New York: Norton,
2012. 211 pp. $23.95.
WHO WILL HEAR YOUR SECRETS? By Robley Wilson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2012. 207 pp. $19.95, paper.
SIGNS AND WONDERS. By Alix Ohlin. New York: Vintage, 2012. 261 pp. $14,
THE GREATEST SHOW. By Michael Downs. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 2012. 183 pp. $23, paper.
We were sitting around Jed’s bridge table, the four of us, and Jed was holding forth about short stories. Jed, aka “Dr. Jared Palmer,” was an English professor, so he felt that gave him the right.
By a vote of three to one, our little book club had decided not to read a short story collection at all. But Jed, whose idea it was, somehow prevailed upon us to read not one but five collections over the long hot summer. (The rest of the year we convened once a month, but we took the summer “off” due to vacations and such; usually we assigned ourselves some lengthy classic like Bleak House or Anna Karenina for our summertime delectation, but Jed had so insisted that we try a group of short-story collections, and looked so crestfallen after we voted against him, that we finally gave in.)
“But how are we going to discuss short stories?” I asked. An industrial engineer, I was the logical one of the bunch. “Say a collection has twelve stories. Are we just going to plod through them, one story at a time?”
My sweet wife, who usually sided with me in all things, said unexpectedly, “We wouldn’t have to. We could just pick the four or five we like best, and discuss those.” She glanced at me, apprehensively; Alexis was like that.
“God,” I said, “it’ll take half the session just to decide which ones to discuss.”
“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” said Jed’s wife, Mary Ann. She was a bottle blonde I’d always thought a bit forward, to the extent that she made Jed seem like a wuss. “We’ll just set a time limit or something, and stick to it. I’ve got a few favorites in each book I’d like to discuss.”
I said, “Okay, but half the fun of this group is pointing out things we hate in novels. So I hope somebody will toss a really bad story into the mix, like a stink bomb.”
“Good idea,” Alexis said. “We can’t just discuss the good ones.”
“Aah, terrific,” said Jed. “Alexis is always our voice of reason.”
So the idea had taken hold. Since the three non-professors had no idea which collections to pick out, we left that to Jed, who announced that he wanted to choose a mix of well-known authors and unknowns, big and small presses. “That way we’ll get a good overview,” he argued.
No one took up the argument, and so it was decided. Within a week, in early June, Jed e-mailed us a list of five titles, and suggested we Amazon them and read them in a particular order, Nathan Englander’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank being first on the list.
“Oh, great, a hardcover,” I told my wife at dinner that night. “Twenty-five bucks.”
“Well, it won’t be that much on Amazon,” Alexis reasoned. “Besides, you know what Jed always says: ‘We should support the writers of our own time.’”
Among the four of us, I was the one who always argued for classics, since they had to be classics for a reason: namely, that they were good enough to stand “the test of time.” Jed had winced at the cliché and given his quote about supporting contemporary authors.
Anyway, I saw from the list Jed e-mailed that all the titles were brand-new, published in 2012, though some thankfully were in paperback. So, the summer passed, and it passed quickly as summers usually do. Alexis and I beavered our way through the five collections and imagined Jed and Mary Ann doing the same. I was actually beginning to look forward to our first session back, in early September.
We always met at the Palmers’, since they had the nicely padded table and comfortable leather chairs. Most book clubs had more than four members, but we’d decided early on not to invite anyone else; we wanted the intimacy of a small gathering, and we wanted ample time for everybody to have their say.
Anyhow, September had rolled around, and we sat with our bottle of Ketel One (which the girls mixed with OJ while Jed and I preferred vodka martinis) with the tree-filled back view stretching out to a misty horizon. We had all lived in suburban Atlanta for years, though we came from somewhere else. And we all had different reasons for staying in the book club, as we had, for more than a dozen years: Jed loved holding forth on books and displaying his superior knowledge; Alexis and Mary Ann were best buds from college who enjoyed the chance to get together; and I relished any excuse to get drunk in mid-afternoon. We usually started at four and finished up by six-thirty. Jed was always the one to start things off.
“Okay, how many have read Englander’s other work?” he began, ostentatiously raising his own hand.
“Never heard of him,” I said. As you may have detected by now, I wasn’t wild about Jed: I thought him pretentious and overbearing. He, on the other hand, seemed to think I was a semi-literate nincompoop. As I’ve said, Alexis always sided with me, while Mary Ann with that upswept golden hair and those French nails of hers, kept her own counsel. She was as likely to disagree with Jed as she was to support him.
Now she smiled. “Billy, even I’ve heard of him,” she said, softening the reproof by patting my hand.
“Me too,” Alexis said, not glancing in my direction.
“OK, you bookworms,” I said. “So tell me all about him.”
Jed shrugged. “Not that much to tell,” he said, glancing through the book’s frontmatter.
“Only two books of fiction published, but celebrated in the New York Times and everywhere else. He’s the latest hotshot young Jewish writer—you know, ‘the next Philip Roth,’ he earns hyperventilating quotes like that.”
“And he looks so young,” Mary Ann added, “if the ‘author photo’ is recent.”
“So,” I said, wanting to get into the book, “what about this title: What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank. I thought titles were supposed to be short and pithy.”
Jed gave his best look of smugness and superiority.
“That’s an allusion,” he said, “to Raymond Carver’s famous story ‘What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.’ See, he just substituted ‘Anne Frank’ for ‘love.’”
“Oh, so it’s plagiarism,” I said. “Off to a good start, isn’t he?”
Jed looked offended. “An allusion is not plagiarism,” he said. “It’s just a way of suggesting a context.”
I took a long swallow from my martini. “OK, enough about the title.” I was getting seriously pissed at Jed, and we’d barely started. I glanced around the table. “So who liked the book and who didn’t?”
Mary Ann said: “I loved it, especially the way he combines serious material, like the Holocaust, with this deadpan kind of comic sensibility.”
“God, you’ve been married to Jed too long,” I said, with a hard grin. “What you’re trying to say is that he’s serious and funny at the same time.”
Miffed-looking, Jed said, “I think she meant exactly what she said. And she said it very well.”
“Look,” I said tightly, “if you don’t knock off the–”
“You mean like Woody Allen?” Alexis asked Mary Ann, sweetly. She was always our “situation diffuser” when things got heated between Jed and me. “Because I didn’t think–”
“No, not quite. Allen is funny almost all the time. Englander is more somber than that, and his humor is a matter of darkly funny lines that are slipped into even darker passages.”
Mary Ann looked at me, as if daring me to translate what she meant.
Alexis added, “And I loved ‘Peep Show,’ too, and ‘How We Avenged the Blums.’ Even the titles of those are sort of funny—they suggest the tone. Yet they’re about sex and pain at the same time.”
“I have to agree,” I said. “Those two were my favorites.”
“On the other hand,” Jed said, “there were a couple I didn’t care for. Like that weird one, ‘Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side.’”
“Right, the one broken up into sixty-three little sections,” Mary Ann said. “I couldn’t get my head around that one. He’s trying too hard, trying to be fancy-schmancy.”
“It’s experimental,” Jed intoned, “but not in a good way.”
I hated to agree with Jed, but “I couldn’t even finish it,” I confessed.
“All right, so the consensus is we like most of them. So did anyone mark a passage they want to read?”
“I did,” Mary Ann said. She drove me crazy with her yellow marker and her books; sometimes it looked as if she marked more passages than she left alone. “This is from the title story. Remember, the narrator is talking.”
“Go for it,” I said.
Mary Ann took a sip from her screwdriver, cleared her throat, and read aloud in the slightly stilted, overloud voice people use when they don’t quite know what they’re doing:
Facebook and Skype brought Deb and Lauren back together. They were
glued at the hip growing up. Went to school together their whole lives.
Yeshiva school. All girls. Out in Queens through high school and then riding
the subway together to one called Central in Manhattan. They stayed best
friends forever until I married Deb and turned her secular, and soon after that
Lauren met Mark and they went off 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. Because of that,
we’re supposed to call them Shoshana and Yerucham.
“I love that,” Mary Ann said. “I mean, ORTHODOX ULTRA—that’s a killer.”
“I laughed out loud too,” Alexis put in.
“Hey, you people are catching on,” Jed said to Mary Ann, who promptly glared at him. So he backed down. “I agree with you, hon, I agree with you. I marked that passage, too.”
“That’s nice, honey,” Mary Ann said, sardonically. She almost could have been mocking Alexis, but Mary Ann wasn’t like that. Did I mention that Alexis and Mary Ann had this really tight bond?—Jed had once laughed and called them “The Vampire Lesbians of Cobb County,” one of his allusions, of course. Pretentious prick.
“Forgiven,” said Jed. He looked around the table. “So, are we done with Englander, or is someone burning to say something else?”
“Well, I liked ‘The Reader,’” Alexis said. “I mean, I felt for poor Author, who went all over the country on this book tour and found almost no readers. It seems to be a–”
“A commentary on our culture and its indifference to books,” Jed said. “A kind of llegory.”
“Allegory?” I said.
Before Jed could deliver a mini-lecture on that subject, Mary Ann said, “There’s one line I loved, when Author is speaking to the book buyer: ‘The whole country is, for me, a desert—empty rooms from sea to shining sea.’”
“That’s kind of sad,” Alexis said. “I mean, imagine if you–”
“I thought it was funny,” Jed said.
“Funny?” she asked. “I mean, you have to have compassion for the poor Author, don’t you?”
“No,” Jed said. “Not really.”
“I think Alexis is right,” I said, reversing the roles for once. “I mean, Jed, I know intellectuals scorn compassion and all that weak-minded stuff, but–”
My tone had gotten huffier than I realized, my fists clenched on the table.
“Now, dear,” Alexis said.
“Oh come on,” Mary Ann said, lightening the atmosphere. “It’s just a book.”
Then Jed stretched his arms and suggested we move on. Next on our list was Lucia Perillo’s Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain.
“Well, I’m not going to hold back,” Mary Ann said. “I thought this book was fabulous.”
Jed, who didn’t like to see anything overpraised, said, “What was so fabulous about it?”
His wife turned on him. “Didn’t you read it?”
“Of course I read it, and I might agree with you. I just wanted to hear your take.”
“I read on the jacket flap that the woman is an award-winning poet, and I can believe it,” Alexis said. “As you guys know, I tend to read things for the language, for the writing itself, and by God, this woman can write.”
“I agree she’s talented,” Jed said in his measured way, “and probably, line by line, she writes better than Englander does.”
“I tend not to like women writers,” I said, fearlessly. “They’re always too focused on emotions, their own emotions. Hey, gals, I want to tell them, there’s a whole world out there.”
“My God, what an obtuse remark,” said Mary Ann. She swirled the last of a screwdriver in her glass and I wondered how many she’d had; alcohol tended to make her combative. “I mean, have you read Toni Morrison? Have you read Nadine Gordimer?”
Jed smiled like a cat. “She got you there, bud.”
I guess the liquor was making me combative, too. My fists had clenched once again. “And I don’t know what you mean, reading for the language. Isn’t a fiction writer just supposed to tell a good story?”
Mary Ann ignored me, this time. (Alexis had sat there fearfully glancing back and forth between us, as if Mary Ann and I were engaged in some demented tennis match.)
“Plots, are you talking about?” Mary Ann’s nose had wrinkled as if there was something particularly distasteful about plots. “No, it’s language. That’s where it’s at.”
Alexis said, glancing at her watch, “Maybe we should get back to Lucia Perillo.” She was right: the afternoon was already drawing to a close, the bright sun outside the picture window blaring in at us, so that Jed, the one facing it, wore a perpetual squint.
“Okay,” Jed said. “Does anyone have a passage they want to read?”
“I’ll go,” Alexis said, and when the rest of us nodded, she began: “This is from that story called ‘Saint Jude in Persia’: ‘My mother may be short and squat, a victim of too many shortbreads with her tea, but she’s still not a woman you want to go up against when she’s got a bee in her bonnet and a gun in her hands.’” Alexis sat back and grinned.
“That’s it?” I said.
Mary Ann scowled at me. “It’s an amazing sentence, and the book is full of them.”
Jed threw up his hands. “Oh, another wonderful, wonderful writer,” he said. “I mean, if we’re not going to do any critical thinking here–”
“Here’s another terrific sentence,” Mary Ann said, “spoken by a physician in ‘House of Grass’”: ‘Inside the body we are all much the same, just as a bird without its pelt of variegated feathers becomes a lump of undistinguished meat.’” She added: “Now that’s profound.”
“Do birds have pelts?” I asked.
Ignoring me, Mary Ann said, “That sentence is poetry.”
“I thought it was supposed to be fiction,” I persisted.
“Fiction writers use poetic language when they’re so inclined,” Jed said. “I mean, look at Virginia Woolf. Look at Katherine Mansfield.”
“I’d rather not,” I said.
“Come on, folks,” Mary Ann interjected. “The book at hand? Lucia Perillo?”
Jed considered a moment, then said, “I’d say she’s not strong on plot, but as the girls have suggested, she has a beautiful way with words.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Mary Ann. “I loved “A Ghost Story”—remember, the man has sex with a girl while she’s asleep? After they’ve already had consensual sex once? So is it or isn’t it ‘rape’? That story has quite a nifty plot”—she glanced at Jed—“in my humble opinion.”
“I loved the ones that featured that girl Louisa, the one with Down syndrome,” Alexis said.
“I read a book in college,” I said, “when I was trying to write stories. It said never write about homosexuals, and never write about retarded folks.”
“What was the copyright date, 1890?” Jed asked. “Please burn that book.”
My face flamed red. “I don’t still have it,” I said. “Do you have to mock every fucking thing I say?”
Alexis said quickly, “Louisa was such a poignant character, and funny, too.”
“But you laughed with her, not at her,” Mary Ann said.
Jed said, “Does anyone else have anything to say about Lucia Perillo?”
“Bravo,” Mary Ann said. “Amazing stories.”
“Beautiful and funny and heartbreaking all at once,” Alexis said.
I sat there with my arms folded.
“Like I said, I don’t like hyperbole, but I have to agree with Mary Ann and Alexis,” Jed said. “Damn good stories.”
Then the three of them looked at me, as if daring me to offer a contrary opinion. I looked across my left shoulder toward the big window, squinting at the sun.
“They were all right,” I said.
“Okay,” Jed said, “now comes Robley Wilson. Who Will Hear Your Secrets?”
Alexis leaned forward. “I really loved this one. This guy knows what he’s doing. All the stories are smart, well-constructed, beautifully written. Very professional.”
“I think so too,” Mary Ann said. “But more than that, the stories are moving, don’t you think? They are filled with this mixture of regret and longing”—here she glanced at Jed—“and that mix helps pull the collection together. But I do have my favorites.”
“Before we get into naming favorites,” Jed said, “does anyone have a passage they want to read?”
There was silence. We all took sips of our drinks.
“Wilson’s work isn’t a matter of fancy passages, and there certainly aren’t any poor ones,” Mary Ann argued. “I’m not surprised nobody marked one.”
“Right,” I said. “He writes clear, straightforward prose, maybe nothing you want to write home about, but the book is strong and workmanlike.”
Jed nodded, but he said, “There were some funny lines. Like in that story ‘An Age of Beauty and Terror,’ where the guy keeps having pornographic visions that others can’t see. He complains to his shrink, and the shrink says, ‘Count your blessings. . . . Enjoy the free entertainment your mind is giving you. Not even a cover charge.’”
I laughed. “That was one of my favorite lines, too.” It felt odd to agree with Jed.
Alexis said, looking at me, “And there’s that first story, ‘The Dark.’ About the couple that visits Ireland, and their marriage is sort of quietly falling apart.”
“I loved ‘Mind’s Eye,’” Mary Ann said. She was shuffling through her notes, her blood-red danglers swaying from side to side. For in addition to highlighting passages with her marker, she made copious notes. She took the whole thing way too seriously, in my opinion. By now, her pages were dog-eared, not to mention orange-blotched from the screwdrivers. “That’s the one where the guy gets chemical burns from his contact lenses, but the story’s really about the way he sees his relationships with women.”
“Did you notice,” asked Alexis, “how many of the stories are about infidelity, and how many are about college teachers, and how much drinking goes on in this collection?” She raised her glass in a comic salute.
Jed laughed. “Well, the three certainly tend to go together.”
“Back to the notable passages,” I said. “I like the startling way he begins some of the stories.” I shuffled through the book’s pages. “Like this line that begins ‘Crooked’: ‘Sarah Eliot’s first real boyfriend taught her how to steal.’ And this one from ‘The Climate in Florida’: ‘Her first week in Florida, Marianne Corey read an item in the Sentinel about a thirty-year-old woman who accidentally shot herself with her own handgun.”
“Yeah,” Jed said. “You can’t not proceed to read the story after opening sentences like that.”
In my head I was repeating, You can’t not proceed to read the story . . .
“Listen, guys, we’d better move on,” Alexis said, glancing at her watch. “But first, could we have a bathroom break? This OJ is going right through me.”
“This is my favorite of the bunch, hands down.”
“I agree, it’s an excellent collection—the writing is colorful and energetic.”
“One of the best newer writers I’ve seen. I’m impressed.”
We were discussing Alix Ohlin’s Signs and Wonders. Now that we’d reconvened, the sun had turned from bright yellow to a deep gold-orange. Jed looked almost beatific in the golden sunlight slanting in from the window.
“Well, now that it’s established we all love the stories,” Mary Ann said, “who’s got a passage they want to read?”
“I do! I do!” Alexis said, waving the book in the air. Whenever she drank, a certain childlike enthusiasm came out in her; it’s one of the reasons I loved her.
“Go,” Jed said.
Alexis cleared her throat. “OK, this is from ‘The Only Child.’: ‘It all started when Sophie came home from college, between her sophomore and junior years. She wasn’t happy to be back. She’d grown to love Boston, the depressing, blustery winters, the intricate one-ways and roundabouts, and felt she’d outgrown California and its sunny, childlike weather.’ I love that last description, the ‘sunny, childlike weather’ of California. I grew up there and that’s exactly right.”
“That was the opening passage, wasn’t it?” Jed asked. “Ohlin is brilliant in her beginnings, the way she starts a story off. As with Wilson, you can’t stop reading.”
“Here’s one,” Alexis said. “From ‘Vigo Park’: ‘There’s a gun at the beginning of this story, placed here so that you know it’s going to go off by the end.’”
“Excellent,” Jed said. “By the way,” he added in his lecturer’s voice, “does anybody know where that idea originated, about a gun going off?”
We all ignored him. I said, “Here’s one from ‘The Teacher’: ‘On Doug and Carol’s wedding day, murder was committed in their small town, which they steadfastly refused to take as a bad sign.’”
“Listen to this,” Mary Ann said, “the beginning of “Forks”: ‘Alan was lying facedown in Center Square, a squiggle of vomit on the pavement beside him, his one good leg folded sideways.’”
Everyone nodded, murmuring.
“And the stories as a whole are unified,” Jed said. This was always a big deal with him: unity. “They’re all written in the same recognizable voice, smart and sassy and headlong. You know you’re in the hands of a pro.”
“And some of the situations she conjures up are priceless,” Mary Ann said. “Like that one where the couple can’t get pregnant so the wife, a teacher, has an affair with one of her spermy adolescent students.”
“Right,” I said. “’Robbing the Cradle.’ That one was terrific.”
“Oh yeah,” said Alexis. “And don’t forget the title piece, about the academic couple. You remember, the woman is a tenured professor and her husband is department chairman? I liked that little description of the husband, who is arguing at school against requiring Shakespeare for all English majors: ‘Now, I love Shakespeare,’ he tells his wife. And then she thinks: ‘She hadn’t seen him read a book, any book, for pleasure, in the last decade. What he loved was reality television.’”
“There’s your typical professor,” Jed said. “Teaches Chaucer by day, watches Cops by night.”
We had to laugh at that one. Then Mary Ann said, “And back to your idea of unity, honey. Most of the stories are about romantic relationships, most of the characters are ‘professionals’ of some kind, and all the pieces are fiercely intelligent both in conception and in the way they’re written.”
“Bravo,” Jed said. “You’re almost as articulate as Ohlin.”
“Very funny,” Mary Ann said.
“Well, I hate to be the proctor here,” Jed said, “but I guess we should move on. I do want to add, though, that Ohlin has a wonderful facility with language, and yet her stories aren’t facile. Not at all. Most all of them have this Chekhovian sort of inevitability, as if they aren’t really ‘written’ at all, but simply told to a rapt audience. OK, now we really do have to move on. We’ve just got one collection to go.” He downed his fourth martini, or was it his fifth? “Maybe afterwards we can go grab a drink somewhere.”
I presumed Jed was making a joke, but I noticed the others weren’t laughing—rather, they were nodding—so I didn’t either. Poor Michael Downs, I thought. He was the last author we planned to discuss, but by now we were all soused.
“Well, what’d you think?” Jed said. He held up the book, The Greatest Show.
Mary Ann said, “I liked the way this book is unified,” she said, as if nobody had made this point about the others. But she glanced smartly at her husband and I realized she was mocking him. Good, I thought. “The Hartford circus fire of 1944, and how it affected all these various people down through time. In one story, you have a minor character who then pops up as the major protagonist in another one. Everything is woven together beautifully.”
“Agreed,” I said. “With each story you sort of knew what to expect, but he keeps coming at it from different angles.”
“And I know I’m sounding like a broken record here,” Alexis said, “but the stories are beautifully written. Not a word out of place. Jed, you did an amazing job of choosing these five collections. I thought we’d hate at least one of them.”
Jed glanced at his watch, so I did, too. We’d been at this for hours, and Jed and I were getting impatient. But we didn’t want to give this Michael Downs guy short shrift. And the girls, who had drunk much less than we had, seemed game for more discussion. Glancing out the window, I noticed that the sun had turned an orange-red, so now you could stare at it directly without squinting at all.
“Which story did you guys like best?” Mary Ann asked. She broke into song: “We might as well accentuate the positive.”
“The last one, ‘History Teacher,’” Alexis said. “Remember? This guy was three years old when he got burned in the fire, and now a schoolgirl is doing a report on the tragedy and asks him to visit her class? Somehow the writing in this one was even better than in the others—it’s got such poignancy.”
“That’s a good point,” Jed said doubtfully. “What about favorite passages? Anyone?”
“How about this,” I said. “From ‘Elephant,’ a description of the fire”:
Not long after my father left for the war, there was a fire in Hartford that
killed nearly two hundred people. The fire is famous not so much for the
horrific deaths it caused, but for where they occurred. A circus tent burned
that afternoon. No one knows for sure how the fire started, but it consumed
the tent so quickly that the crowds inside were trapped. Flaps of flaming
canvas fell from the sky. There was black smoke. Panic. Screaming circus
animals. A famous photograph shows Emmett Kelly, the saddest of clowns,
carrying a water bucket, which, given the scale of black-and-white ruin around
him, holds nothing but its own inadequacy.
“Nice, honey,” Alexis said. “Here’s another one, a description of one of the
injured: ‘What struck her about him (what would strike anyone) were the scars that
marked his arms and legs, chest and back. The jigsaw patterns changed color in different light. In some places his body hair grew out of his scarred skin as it would on any other man, and in other places—where, perhaps, the scars were deeper?—his skin looked papery and bald. The resulting impression was of a man unfinished.’ It’s from ‘At the Beach.’”
“Excellent,” Jed said. He pushed away from the table as if to signal that our discussion was over. “So, have I made any converts?”
“Converts?” Alexis said.
“You know, to the short story. None of you guys even wanted to read these books at first.”
“Oh, I’m glad we did,” Mary Ann said. “But I wouldn’t want to read another five anytime soon. I’m itching to sink my teeth into a good novel.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have to stick to my guns here. Short stories are just too damned short. By the time you get interested in one, it’s over.”
“Exactly,” Alexis said.
“I have to agree,” said Mary Ann.
Jed was shaking his head. “You people . . .” He glanced at his watch again, then gazed out the window. “Look, it’s going to be dark soon.” We followed his gaze.
On the rim of the horizon the sun was perched, bloody red.