Reviewed by Joe Winkler
Hope: A Tragedy
by Shalom Auslander
Riverhead, 304 p.
I grew up with my own personal Holocaust Museum in my foyer. I knew the names of concentration camps the way some other children knew the names of baseball teams. Though just a third generation Holocaust Jew, my life feels suffused with its remembrance. Imagine then the effect on a second generation Holocaust Jew, or read Shalom Auslander’s hilarious, and ingenious new novel. Auslander, in this novel Hope: A Tragedy depicts Solomon Kugel struggle with a child allergic to the world, necessitating Kugel to add Zyrtec to his emergency kit in case of an impending Holocaust. A wife who doesn’t understand why throwing Anne Frank out of their new house crosses some serious Jewish boundaries. And yes, the real Anne Frank lives in Kugel’s attic. To top it off, Kugel feels obligated to take care of his mother who is wrongfully convinced she and her family went through the Holocaust. Here Kugel remembers a touching display of motherly love from his childhood:
“What’s that? Kugel asked, pointing to the lampshade she had placed beside him on the bed. That, she said with a sigh. That’s your grandfather. Kugel held the lampshade in his hand and turned it over. This is Zeide? He asked. Mother nodded, composed herself. It says Made in Taiwan, Kugel said. Mother looked at him, disappointment and anger in her tearstained eyes. Well they’re not going to write Made in Buchenwald are they? She snapped. No, said Kugel.”
Beneath this story lies deep questions about history, the consolations of philosophy, and of course that omnipresent ghost in Auslander’s world, God.
The first sixty pages of the book reads as a pitch-perfect satire on the hazards of the culture of remembrance our world cultivates. I can only imagine that every Jew of similar background, who grew up with Holocaust nightmares, will laugh, a cathartic deep laugh like nothing they’ve laughed in ages, but in the quiet of their room, embarrassed to laugh at such a touchy family topic. Auslander deftly makes the jokes every second generation Holocaust Jew needs to make simply to live, though not for the sheer fun of it. Behinds all the hijinks lies not a simple desire for rebellion, a gnashing of sharpened teeth, but serious questions about the burden and gifts of history, of cultural inheritance. Auslander paints obsessive remembrance as neuroses, which one great psychoanalyst defined as a strength that has now turned into a weakness, or a solution that has now become a problem.
The writing, crisp, sharp, almost a collection of one-liners, reads smoothly and flows with ease. If anything, the book reads too quickly. For the most part, the reading experience felt similar to conversing with a very intelligent uncle, an angry, biting, somewhat raunchy but insightful uncle who speaks with eloquent comedic timing. At points, you feel a bit tired, tired of the self-pity, the self-hatred, and the anger. You want to tell him to smile, but you know he cannot, and you know you don’t want to look away because he might say something smart at any moment.
After the initial punch of the trangressively funny Holocaust jokes, Auslander begins to weave in other components into the book, mainly, a running philosophical argument with a stubborn realtor, the voice of his therapist, Dr. Jove that echoes throughout Kugel’s mind, and Kugel’s brother-in-law, a stand in for the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Each of these characters, as do all characters aside from Kugel himself, represent an ideology of sorts, an answer to the questions of life. The different components of the book, each in of itself unique, and clever, serve a different purpose. The story of Kugel’s increasingly frustrating struggle with Anne Frank keeps the narrative running, while the asides serves as philosophical commentary on the questions of the text, the larger questions of life, mainly: how do you balance a fealty to a past without it destroying your present and future? And can hope, inherently delusional in the mind of Dr. Jove, hinder our happiness rather that support it? (Apparently, Dr. Jove wants to strangle Dickinson’s “thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops – at all.”)
Though a book of arguments, these signify arguments of literature, not ideological or philosophical arguments. No one wins, per se, not even nihilism, what wins is what works for people. Most of the arguments are playful in the way of their fluidity, as they are all legitimate options to coping with the darkness in life depending on situation and person.
Many compare Auslander to an early Roth, but this effort feels more like Woody Allen. They differ in that Allen has much more of an air of insouciance, almost bordering on playful nihilism. Auslander, in contrast, finds himself obsessed with the traces of tradition, of the past, its burdens, its story, its commands, its myths. Auslander doesn’t look into the abyss and laugh; he cries, but somehow it comes out sounding like laughter.
For the most part, though, the parts lack complete coherence. They do not gel together to create a larger whole, a novelistic effort. Instead, the book evinces something of a sketchbook of brilliant ideas without string to tie the parts together. The philosophical asides read as an appendage, flimsily glued on to a pre-existing story. Furthermore, the book, though a fast and intelligent read, putters towards a less then perfect ending, an ending we need, though not necessarily the ending the book deserves. In a certain sense, Auslander sacrifices his narrative goals and achievement for his conceptual ends.
Though Auslander buckles under his own ambitions, in many ways, as a first novel, a second fiction book, and third published book, it represents significant steps forward for an author many thought doomed to the cage of his own yelling. Auslander no longer sounds destructive; rather, he strikes a plangent note instead. He thinks the thoughts of a philosopher, a philosopher in love with a potential world in which he need not tell his children about the mechanical slaughter of a whole people. In many ways it’s a good old fashioned yell for pain, an, ouch, this hurts, why does it still hurt, why didn’t religion, books, psychologists, medicine, help me, provide answers, why won’t cigarettes or practiced breathing, or meditation or yoga or massage therapy, or aroma therapy, or acupuncture or Buddhism, or really any ism, why does nothing either abate the pain or explain it away?
Kugel, nothing if not a stand in for Auslander, cares about people, tends to them, however begrudgingly. He displays love, worry, sympathy, and even empathy. He sees his burden, the cultural inheritance passed down against his will, but doesn’t simply shirk it off; he struggles with it. So much of the power of the book lies in assuming the opposite of the intentional fallacy, in assuming that instead of some story, we watch, page by brutal page, Auslander fight with himself, his heritage. It’s an unnerving but inspiring experience to see someone tear away at himself with such fervor. Hell, you can’t blame the guy for not perfecting the novel in his first try, but you can applaud him for the attempt to move forward.