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?
Antopol’s characters yearn for something bigger, more exciting, more important than they are–romantic and familial love, heroism, a place in history–but it always remains out of reach, or slips from their grasp. As a romance reader, I was especially interested in the ways romantic love fails in these stories: it isn’t big enough, I think, to bear the burden the characters want to place on it; it can be part of life, but it can’t make a life. Teenaged Judy, in “Duck and Cover,” thinks she “can sense a tiny bit of my life beginning to happen” when a boy from outside her world is attracted to her. By the story’s end, though, “everything once fuzzy and glorious is coming glaringly into focus and there Hal is: some regular kid with regular problems, a goofy boy with a peeling nose and mayonnaise on his breath and half-moons of dirt beneath his nails.” Her father’s idealized memories of her late mother, a “dazzl[ing]” Communist Party organizer who “knew how to be the most powerful person in the group,” mean that Judy can never be satisfied with “being–like everybody else,” though at the same time she can’t take her mother’s central place in her father’s life.
In his thoughtful and generally positive review, Dwight Garner faults Antopol for being “hesitant” and overly cautious, but I think this is deliberate, a tone that fits her characters and themes. Despite some dramatic events, these stories feel quiet; they don’t gut-punch you, and seldom provide a twist or big epiphany at the end, as many short stories do. Instead, they sneak up on you, gradually gaining emotional power–but they aim to make you think as much as feel.
Reading The UnAmericans seemed to me the opposite of id-vortex reading: in some ways these stories are all about shame. Antopol’s characters often play a part or manipulate others in order to make themselves feel more important, more alive. And they recognize that this is shameful, that by trying to claim significance in this way they are failing to live up to the past they feel shut out of. They march up to that shame and disillusion, look at it with clear eyes, and often do the wrong thing anyway. There’s nothing emotionally indulgent about Antopol’s writing.
Garner is right that the stories, good as they are, all strike a similar note. I’d like to read Antopol doing something different next time. But the hesitancy is something I valued in these stories, which never stop asking questions. Antopol, like her protagonists, is at one remove from the history that fascinates her, and as she says, “despite intensive research I remain uncertain as to where the truth actually resides.” The only thing she can be certain of is her own distance from it. But I don’t think that, in crafting these stories, she’s fallen short of it.