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February 3, 2012

Shalom Auslander’s ‘Hope: A Tragedy’

http://www.jewishjournal.com/culture/article/shalom_auslanders_foreskins_lament_20120203

Shalom Auslander’s memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” chronicled the author’s shaky departure from his dysfunctional ultra-Orthodox home in Monsey, New York.  Readers will recall how Auslander was somehow able to blend sadness and compassion with biting humor and anger into his own utterly unique narrative voice.  He seemed at times to be channeling pieces of Phillip Roth and Jack Kerouac, and one could also hear the faintest echoes of the tormented Allen Ginsberg infusing his prose.  Auslander told us about his violent and often drunk father, and his passive and rejecting mother, and the daily anxiety and fear that permeated dinnertime when his father was most likely to strike.  He was a sensitive boy with a quizzical nature and still-closeted rebellious thoughts about the kind of Jewish life he wanted to lead.  As a survival tactic, he morphed himself into the role of “family “pleaser.”  He would distract his father from his growing fury with spot-on imitations of Richard Nixon that occasionally brought brief moments of levity to this tragic family.

Orthodoxy did not soothe Auslander’s childhood discomfort; on the contrary, it irritated him with its laborious rituals and invasiveness.  By the time he reached his teen years, he was getting high, shoplifting, and obsessed with pornography.  He knew he wanted out, but wasn’t sure what that might mean.  He bitterly resented all of his Yeshiva teachers who indoctrinated him with images of a sadistic God—one who would wreak revenge upon him for the slightest infraction—much like his father did at home.  He eventually found a loving Jewish girl from a religious home who was also looking to flee, and they fell in love, wed, had children, and sought solace on secular ground.  Auslander found a psychiatrist to help him.  But his overly active brain often threatened his balance.  His future seemed tenuous.

Auslander claims to have never abandoned God and sometimes feels superstitious about his leap of faith away from Orthodoxy.  His wife calls him a victim of “theological abuse.”  He describes trying to live as a Jew without clear-set boundaries claiming “The teachers from my youth are gone, the parents old and mostly estranged.  The man they told me about, though—he’s still around.  I can’t shake him.  I read Spinoza.  I read Nietzsche.  I read National Lampoon.  Nothing helps.  I live with Him every day and behold.  He is still angry, still vengeful, still-eternally-pissed off.”  Auslander admits, “There isn’t an hour of the day that goes by without some gruesome, horrific imaginings of death, anguish, and torment.  Walking down the street, shopping for groceries, filling the truck with gas; friends die, beloveds are murdered, pets are run over by delivery trucks and killed.”  It was around this time that he decided to begin his first novel.

Unfortunately, his new work of fiction, “Hope: A Tragedy” (Riverhead Books: $26.95), lacks the renegade quality and authenticity of his earlier memoir.  It is a strange and disturbing story about a man named Kugel who moves to a small town in upstate New York with his wife and child and his dying mother who is utterly convinced she has spent time in a concentration camp being tortured by Nazis.  In reality, she has never left the confines of New York State.  Kugel has money problems, a job he hates, and to make matters worse, he discovers a decrepit old lady in the attic of his new home who claims to be Anne Frank!  His wife thinks he is going off the deep end when he tells her of his discovery, and when he finally manages to convince her, she insists he evict her; something Kugel can’t summon the strength to do. 

Auslander describes Kugel’s first encounter with “Anne Frank”: 

“I don’t know who you are, he said, or how you got there.  But I’ll tell you what I do know.  I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz.  And I know she died along with many others, some of whom were my relatives.  And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality.”

“The old woman stopped typing and turned to him, fixing that hideous yellow eye upon his.”
 
“It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass, she said.”

Kugel has been weaned on his mother’s ugly lies.  When he was a small child, she would bring a bar of soap to his bedside and tell him that it was all that was left of one of his dead relatives.  When Kugel asked her why the soap bar has “Ivory” printed on it, she would respond curtly “Well, they’re not going to write Auschwitz on it, are they?” 

Sadly, this narrative continues to degenerate.  Kugel recalls his mother telling him that the lamp that rested on the table near his childhood bed was really the remains of his dead grandfather, another of Hitler’s victims. Kugel would shudder in disgust and so do we. 

At first, some readers may feel confused as to where Auslander is going with this ugly rhetoric.  Besides the obvious gross-out factor or the pitiful and dangerous attempts at dark humor, what is he trying to say?  Even if his intent is to show us how the burden of Holocaust memory can sometimes become suffocating; surely there must be a better way than this. 

His novel feels forced, self-conscious and contrived, and the third person narration doesn’t suit him Auslander doesn’t seem yet to have developed the imaginative empathy to enter anyone else’s universe of despair other than his own, and his characters fall flat.  We feel his over-eagerness to please and impress and are reminded once again of the little boy he once was sitting at the supper table trying to placate his father.  There are snippets of his earlier charisma, such as an unusually clever riff on what might be the most meaningful words a person can utter right before they die, and a few oddly placed and absurd comic references to Jewish luminaries like Alan Dershowitz and Dr. Ruth, but everything else feels manipulated and emotionally barren.

A first novel is daunting for any writer and I have no doubt the talented Auslander will regain his footing.  It is still hard not to love the young man who once wrote a tender story about an anticipated Thanksgiving reunion with his estranged parents and siblings.  Auslander spent weeks making with his own hands the table upon which they would eat; he has inherited his father’s talent for craftsmanship.  While building the table, he would recall brief shining moments of pleasure with his father while he was still young when they would work side by side mostly in silence in his father’s garage.  When his father arrives, he compliments the now independent and grown-up newly married Shalom on his handiwork, and Auslander is thrown by the complexity of his emotional response.  Instead of feeling gratified that he had finally pleased his old man, he remembers thinking to himself that he had never felt more enraged at “the man who had raised me, his hair silver now and his face more wrinkled than I had remembered—and I thought: Drop dead, fat man.”  Soon after his parent’s departure, he broke the table apart and reconfigured it into a motorcycle ramp upon which he tramples with his bike.  Now he must simply do the same with his writing. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

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