Anne Frank Gets Sexified…And That’s Okay
If you believe the British press, the new novel Annexed by Sharon Dogar is a XXX parody of The Diary of Anne Frank, a heated-up redux of the story we all know. We defend it. Read More
If you believe the British press, the new novel Annexed by Sharon Dogar is a XXX parody of The Diary of Anne Frank, a heated-up redux of the story we all know: A boy and girl, terrified and fairly certain that they would be killed, locked away from the world at the very age when their hormones are taking over their brains. It could be hot, right? Take away the context and it’s basically the bad-parts version of Go Ask Alice.
Now I have to make a confession: I nearly puked when I wrote that paragraph.
Something about the book Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl makes those of us who have bonded with that book feel fiercely protective of it. Even that word feels insufficient: protective. What would you do if someone through your child in front of a train? When I first read the book, Anne was a friend, a confidante in a world and a school where I couldn’t trust anyone. I got older, old enough to read the unedited version (although it hadn’t been published then)—or, at least, to understand what was happening between Anne and Peter Van Daan—and I had a luminescent crush on her. Now I have grown up, she hasn’t, and I think of her like my two daughters—like if anyone hurts her or tarnishes her name, I’ll break their face.
Which gets me thinking about Sharon Dogar. A few years ago, my best friend died, and I didn’t know how to write about that, so I wrote a book about us. A 13-year-old me, a loser and a cutter locked away in his room with only books, hears a knock at his closet door. It’s Anne Frank, who’s discovered a passage from the Secret Annexe. We hide out and tell each other stories, avoiding the greater issues in our lives together, much the same way that the real-life Anne did with her journal. For a very brief period, I tried to sell it—fielding suggestions from my well-intentioned agent like “Could you make it funnier?” and “Feels like a book for girls, but main character is a boy—mind changing?”
The pages are sitting on the top shelf of my bookcase, collecting dust.
So I know what Ms. Dogar is going through. I know how it must’ve felt to take on this book, to delude yourself into thinking you’re worthy of adapting another person’s voice, one who got it stolen from her way too early. Ms. Dogar is a gambler, and she is brave.
And I know, one false step and I will kill her.
To my surprise, Annexed wasn’t very sexed-up at all. We always downplay book covers—why not judge a book by it, anyway?—but this one does a remarkable job of selling the story’s mood and subject: a teenage boy, sepia-toned, melodramatic, a Jude armband in an exaggerated yellow around his forearm. The prose inside is overwrought and pleading: a riddling of exclamation points, boatloads of repetition, lots of one-word and one-line paragraphs that have the queasy effect of being both exposition and awkward character development (“Is that the only reason we want to [kiss]? / I don’t know. / How do you ever know, anyway?”).
The romance in Annexed is way less subtle than the miscegenation in Twilight—almost to the point where it begins to feel like a parody. Peter’s voice appropriates the gentle smugness of Anne in her diary: He sounds a bit too startled, a bit too proper, like older people translating the voices of younger people.
Which is exactly what The Diary of Anne Frank was, and what Annexed is. Just as Otto Frank was probably the worst person to edit his teenage daughter’s diary, a middle-aged woman is probably not the best person to write the voice of a teenage boy with overactive hormones and control issues. But that’s what writing is all about, right? Imagining. Putting yourself into another world, taking surface lies and spinning them into a fundamental truth.
The thing that’s annoyed me about a lot of young-adult books is how so many of them are geared toward girls these days; the male characters aren’t real guys so much as they’re approximated caricatures of boys, the sort that only exist inside teen girls’ conversations. That’s not the Peter of Annexed. Dogar has given him flaws, and quirks, and dorkinesses—he’s a fleshed-out character who is largely relatable and sometimes detestable.
But her Peter is very rarely unpredictable—there’s a scene at the beginning where he’s walking through the streets after having taken off his Jude armband, imagining the thoughts of the people around him (all of whom, he’s convinced, can tell he’s a Jew, and are thinking that he’s a dirty Jew bastard)—and it might be true, but it’s exactly what you’d expect him to be thinking, with no poetry and no surprise. It’s the limitation that fan-fiction writers have, trying to alter a history that someone else has control of, and it is Ms. Dogar’s Achilles’ heel as well. No matter what thoughts she puts into Peter’s head, or what modifications she makes to his romance with Anne, there’s nothing she can say that hasn’t been said already, with more immediacy and by one of the participants. I wanted to like Annexed, and in a way I really do, but I like it in the same way that I like reading reviews of movies I’ve already seen. I want to catch a dull glimmer of that blindingly good story.
Do I blame Ms. Dogar for diminishing Anne, or stealing some of the light herself? Of course not. In her own way, she’s making the original shine brighter. Like my crush and my suppositions about what good friends Anne and I might have been, Annexed is a fan letter to the same Anne Frank I wrote to. We just have two very different relationships.
Matthue Roth is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.