Memoirs used to be confined to dusty corners at the back of bookshops. Since Dave Pelzer and Frank McCourt came along, a decade or so ago, all that has changed. The genre has been sexed up, or rather, gloomed down. The misery memoir is now big business, open for anyone with a good turn of phrase, a dismal childhood, and a triumph over adversity to relate in the last chapter.
Shalom Auslander, whose childhood was as grim as any of the misery memoirists, has launched a new sub-genre, the Anger memoir. Auslander's anger, as expressed in his bracing and witty, though off-puttingly titled, Foreskin's Lament, is directed at two entities: his family and God.
Why be angry at God, you may ask? If you don't like the idea of him, then surely you can simply stop believing in him, and he'll more or less leave you alone. If only, for Auslander, things were so simple. Born into a family of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York, Auslander was brought up under a regimen of brutally strict religious observance. He was sent to religious schools, and his home life was so dominated by the narrow demands of constant religious observance that he likens it to the experience of a veal calf.
Quite aside from the religion, his home was never a happy place. As he puts it, "My brother hated my mother and resented me; my mother loathed my brother and doted on me and my sister; my sister hated my brother and defended my mother; I envied my brother and pitied my mother; my father hated us all; and my mother sighed, washed the dishes, and sang mournful Yiddish songs about the miserable futility of life."
We have all read about dysfunctional families before, though few as extreme and bizarre as the Auslander clan. What makes this memoir original and interesting is where it dwells on the writer's other adversary: God. Never, frankly, can there have been a more blasphemous book. This memoir makes The God Delusion look like a parish newsletter. Auslander reacts to his stiflingly religious childhood by turning against God, but God "like venereal disease" is always with him. He can't shake Him off.
He starts by breaking the dietary laws, bingeing on hot dogs at his local swimming pool: "I was sick. I was diseased. I was a criminal... I ran to the bathroom and forced my fingers down my throat, trying to regurgitate the sins I had already swallowed."
For his entire adolescence he is caught between his desires and the self-hatred that wells up in him when he follows them. "God tests us. Sometimes the test is a slice of non-kosher pizza. Sometimes the test is evil gossip. And sometimes the test is a magazine called Shaved Orientals."
His most sacrilegious act occurs on a visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place on the planet for Jews, where if you write a prayer on a piece of paper and place it in the cracks between the stones, these will supposedly be the first prayers answered by God. Auslander describes the crevices of the wall as being "packed tight with petitions for health, happiness, forgiveness, a cure, a windfall, an answer, a sign, a gruesome gray grout of helplessness and despair". Auslander writes "Fuck you", and shoves it into the wall. He instantly regrets it, but a soldier thwarts his attempts to dig the piece of paper out again.
If there is a defining thread that runs through Jewish-American literature it is in the ability of writers such as Bellow, Heller and Roth, and other less familiar names such as Alan Isler and Elinor Lipman, to intermingle pain and humour seamlessly. When Jewish writing is tragi-comic, it is often not a case of alternating between one state and the other, more that the prose can be simultaneously dark and light, serious and funny. Shalom Auslander comes directly out of this tradition.
For all the unhappiness he describes, this memoir is never self-pitying, maudlin or depressing; nor is he flippant or disingenuous in confronting the difficulties of being an alienated child.
Foreskin's Lament somehow expresses the ideas of Richard Dawkins in the tone of David Sedaris. You can read it for the humour, you can read it as reportage into a secretive and bizarre world, you can read it as a personal tale of triumph over adversity, or you can just read it for the misery. It doesn't really matter. But do read it.