When I picked up Molly Antopol’s début story collection, The UnAmericans, from the library, I discovered that it comes with a heavy freight of praise: on the front cover, there’s a sticker identifying her as a National Book Foundation “5 under 35 author” and a blurb from Adam Johnson describing her as “a writer of seismic talent;” the back cover is filled by other big-name blurbers like Jesmyn Ward, Abraham Verghese, and Lauren Groff. I’m not sure about this marketing strategy, because there’s always part of me thinking “Bullshit!” (or at least “Really? Show me what you’ve got”). I don’t know if I’d call Antopol “a seismic talent”–I think the language many literary writers use to praise each other is clichéd nonsense–but I liked these stories a lot.
The eight stories in this volume span decades and continents: teenagers in a Jewish resistance group in WWII Belarus; a pair of brothers in the contemporary Israeli army; Jewish characters in California, New England, New York whose ties to the Old World and its politics, however weak, still bind them. They draw on Antopol’s family history, including the dark parts her relatives won’t talk about, but which she wants to understand (that link has some really interesting reflections from Antopol on what kinds of historical truth the novelist is responsible to).
The narrator of “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” a young woman who keeps prying into the family past, could be seen as a stand-in for the author. At the end of that story, her grandmother, a former resistance fighter, says,
I don’t understand you. All your life you’ve been like this, pulling someone into a corner at every family party, asking so many questions. . . . It’s a beautiful day. Your grandfather’s on the patio grilling hamburgers. . . . Why don’t you go out in the sun and enjoy yourself for once, rather than sitting inside, scratching at ugly things that have nothing to do with you? These horrible things that happened before you were born.
These, I think, are the questions around which the stories revolve: why are the narrators/point-of-view characters obsessed with a past or a politics that isn’t their own? Why can’t they just let it go and be ordinary and happy? Or is it theirs? Is it really true that something has “nothing to do with you” just because it happened before you were born? Continue reading