Auslander Rewrites History in Cynical, Jaded ‘Tragedy’

"Hope: A Tragedy" by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead Hardcover)

Anisa K. Li

"Hope: A Tragedy" by Shalom Auslander is available in bookstores now.

There’s something very odd about Solomon Kugel’s mind, and it’s not just that he thinks Anne Frank is hiding in his attic in present-day rural New York. He’s also paranoid that his aging mother is listening to him through the house’s vents, that another Holocaust is imminent, and that he must always prepare for the worst. Throughout “Hope: A Tragedy,” Kugel grows increasingly convinced that the Nazis are about to bang down his front door. What would any normal person do? He makes a list of necessities, stocks up on matzah and Zyrtec, and asks everyone he knows if they would be willing to hide him in their attic.

This kind of hyperactive paranoia persists throughout Shalom Auslander’s first novel. The premise of a resurrected Anne Frank is an interesting idea, and the various characters are odd enough to pique the reader’s interest. The novel falters at times, however, due to repetitive syntactical choices—incessant swearing, for one—and a few questionable decisions concerning punctuation that distract from the central action of the book. Yet the story does end up succeeding through the humorous and persistently abrasive voice that Auslander delivers through Kugel.

Auslander provides a unique perspective on the era of World War II from his disgruntled narrator’s experiences and interactions. “Hitler was the most unabashed, doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years,” says Kugel’s equally dark-humored psychologist. “Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution?” It’s a peculiar way to look at history, but this novel unearths a part of history that, in most peoples’ minds, has been resolved or exhausted years before. Kugel’s feelings about the Holocaust are obsessive and guilt-ridden. Yet his mother, who haunts the house like Anne Frank haunts the attic, won’t let him forget. “Ever since the war,” is her constant refrain, as she berates her son for a lifetime of perceived disappointments and wracks him with guilt over an experience of which he has no memory.

But Kugel’s mother, surprisingly, was never in the Holocaust. Like her son, she led a happy, privileged childhood in New York. Once this bizarre revelation comes to light, a major premise of the novel—the pervasive cultural presence of Jewish guilt—becomes yet another manifestation of exaggerated paranoia. So when Kugel’s mother points to a lampshade and says, “That was your grandmother,” Kugel’s endless frustration with her guilt-tripping antics is finally understandable. He never was disregarding her experience in a genocide, but rather was fed up with her constant stream of lies. Yet Kugel soon comes to connect with his Jewish heritage in heretofore unseen ways: “A Jew can’t throw Anne Frank out of his house,” he realizes with a mixture of horror and somber acceptance when he discovers the elderly escapee in—where else?—his attic.

Reading Auslander’s novel is like living in another literary dimension where the world is riddled with endless obscenities and even inanimate objects battle against the main character. At one point Kugel has a heated conversation about his gluten intolerance with the toilet he has just mercilessly used. Sarcastic and pessimistic descriptions abound in his life: “Kugel awoke early the next morning, turning his face from the harsh rays of intruding sunlight that stretched across the room like some goddamned thing that stretches across some other goddamned thing.” This is his world view: Everything opposes him, and even if it doesn’t, he convinces himself that it does. There’s a lot of farting, defecating, and even repeated references to Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, whom his mother reverently holds up as a paragon of manliness. This sarcastic approach to life and religion is not new to Auslander. In fact, his other published works—a memoir and a book of short stories—are equally peppered with offbeat and dark musing on what it is to be Jewish. This engaging and consistently blasphemous view of the world ends up becoming the book’s most compelling aspect. Even to put words into Anne Frank’s mouth, the girl whom everyone thought died a martyr in a death camp, verges on becoming sacrilegious—is it a tribute to her memory, or a mockery?

The only barrier to complete absorption into Kugel’s paranoid mind, however, is the unnecessary choice of eliminating all quotations marks from the text. Perhaps this is a choice made to lure the reader more completely into Kugel’s head, but it ends up distracting from the actual salient events of the book by confusing perspectives and ideas. Other authors, such as Cormac McCarthy, have successfully enhanced the dramatic depth of their novels through eliminating punctuation. Here, however, the multitude of voices makes this choice fall flat. The novel is not quite simplistic enough in structure to take on a minimalist approach to grammar. Despite its original plot, the writing style itself is not particularly striking and does not benefit at all from attempts at artistic embellishment.

Ultimately, the labored yet creative way that Auslander writes about the Jewish experience stays with the reader more than the characters or plot. It’s a depressing view of religion and culture, and Auslander’s Anne Frank sums up one peculiar view of Jewish history toward the end of the novel. “I have been the blessed beneficiary of sixty years of humanity’s guilt and remorse,” she says sarcastically to Kugel. He is paralyzed by his inability to relate to the genocide of his people—and this, more than anything else, may best hint at his disdainful and angry outlook on life. Though it happened decades ago, the atrocities of the Holocaust are very real to Kugel, and throughout the entire novel, he cannot be rid of his remorse and paranoia. This guilt—and the dichotomy Auslander establishes between Kugel’s imagination and real life—drives forward a novel that is relentlessly offensive and intriguing.

—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at virginiarosemarshall@college.harvard.edu.

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