Picador, £16.99, 292pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Hope: A Tragedy, By Shalom Auslander
Friday 17 February 2012
Shalom Auslander's God is blood-brother to Randy Newman's: "I burn down your cities – how blind you must be/ I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we/ You all must be crazy to put your faith in me/ That's why I love mankind". In Auslander's first book, Beware of God, God is a serial killer; in his second, Foreskin's Lament, it's God's representatives on earth - the orthodox Jews – who do His dirty work for Him. And now – in his third book (and first novel), it's the history God has imposed upon His Chosen People that does the damage.
Being familiar with all three, I feel that a pattern has emerged - nay, a pathology - which I'll call Auslander's Complaint. Think of it as like Portnoy's Complaint, but with lashings of extra guilt, and nil sexual gratification. His understudy - better yet, fall-guy or patsy - in Hope: A Tragedy is named Solomon (ha!) Kugel (first cousin to the latke). Fleeing to Stockton, in upstate New York, a place with no apparent history, he discovers Anne Frank hiding in his attic.
Pouf goes his dream of minding his own garden, and leading a Candide-like existence. Instead he's landed with a steamer trunk full of historical baggage. Not to mention literary carry-on in the shape of Philip Roth, who also relocated Anne Frank to the US (in The Ghost Writer). By way of thanks to his illustrious precursor, Auslander records the following exchange between Kugel's sister (a would-be mother), and his wife, Bree (a would-be novelist). The former reports that she saw Philip Roth in Brooklyn, to which the latter responds: "I thought he was dead".
Why is Anne Frank hiding in Kugel's attic? Because she's attempting to write a follow-up to her bestselling Diary. Unlike Philip Roth's Anne, who remains highly desirable, Shalom Auslander's is a kind of Baba Yaga, a crone whose nationality might be Dutch, but whose appetites are decidedly Mittel-European. To make matters worse, she is foul-tempered, and foul-mouthed; nor is she house-trained. Nonetheless, she becomes Kugel's other woman, in the sense that she rocks his marriage.
As if this weren't enough tsurus, there's an arsonist on the loose, dedicated to burning down Stockton's most picturesque barns, one of which the Kugels inhabit. Solomon Kugel's paranoia thereby finds its objective correlative. In his obsessive need to share his fears, Kugel recalls the little boy in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, who, waking from a nightmare, summons his mother, not to have her soothe his fears, but that she may share them.
Unfortunately, Mrs Kugel Snr, who has accompanied her son and his family to Stockton on the understanding that she only has a couple of weeks to live, is even more paranoid than her only son. Although born and raised in New York, she insists - like Binjamin Wilkomirski before her - that she is an alumna of the death camps, and that a bar of Ivory soap, and a lampshade (inconveniently marked Made in Taiwan) are the mortal remains of her nearest and dearest. What with a genuine Holocaust survivor in his attic, and an ersatz one on the ground floor, poor Kugel is sandwiched in the very place he thought to be free.
Then Auslander's Anne Frank finds her voice. She provides a coherent explanation of her passage to America (she was sheltered by guilt-stricken Germans), and delivers the book's message, which is Auslander's riposte to that other bestseller, Obama's The Audacity of Hope: "I think America is the greatest wasted opportunity in the history of man. I think the answer to peace in the Middle East is to bomb the hell out of it; kill no one, but destroy it all - every mosque, every synagogue, all history, all the past, leave no stone unburned, leaving nothing holy behind. I think never forgetting the Holocaust is not the same thing as never shutting up about it."
Not only does Anne Frank declaim these words, she also commits them to paper, with incendiary consequences. Clearly Auslander has similar ambitions for his own book, but - alas - what drives his talent also shackles it. He mentions Spinoza a great deal, but a more apposite philosopher might be Bishop Berkeley. For it is Auslander's solipsism that prevents his novel from becoming a bad-taste bean-feast: all his characters are either versions of himself, or props to illuminate the varied aspects of his Complaint.
Solomon and Bree, for example, appear to offer contrasting portraits of the author; the one giving flesh to his fears, the other living his life (Bree's back-story resembles that of Auslander). The trouble is that while Solomon can't control his imagination, Bree has writer's block. If only Auslander could unlock that block, you feel his talent would truly prosper. I look forward to Bree's next book.
Clive Sinclair's 'True Tales of the Wild West' is published by Picador
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