Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hitler was an optimist

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy (New York: Riverhead, 2012). 304 pages. $26.95.

Is it possible to be a Jew through literature? Every other alternative to the Jewish religion and the Jewish state has failed to sustain Jewish identity, but for more than a century modern Jewish literature has spun out rich and surprising answers to the question of what it means to be a Jew. The best Jewish fiction, in fact, is often a voluble discussion of the answers. That may be the biggest knock against it. Novelists like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler, Leon de Winter, Cynthia Ozick, Zoë Heller, and Howard Jacobson have so much to say, so digressively, on such a diversity of topics, that talk can crowd out story. They are more concerned with message than drama, more concerned with following the scent of an argument than with the detailing the practical adventures of people’s lives. To read Jewish fiction, much like studying Talmud, is to insert oneself into a multi-layered conversation over Jewish ideas.

Just recently a special subvariety of the Jewish talking novel has arisen. This is less a novel of ideas than a novel with an idea, a premise that sounds good in paraphrase. In this kind of fiction, an improbable or even supernatural event disrupts the usual world, which otherwise goes about its business as usual. Franz Kafka invented the genre in “The Metamorphosis” when Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed after uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic beetle. Steve Stern came close to perfecting it in The Frozen Rabbi (2010), his tale of a 19th-century Polish Hasidic rebbe who tumbles into a pond at winter and is frozen solid, only to be thawed out in a basement in Memphis a century and a half later. John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man (2011), in which a middle-aged widower becomes maybe a wonder-working superhero, made itself into an unexpectedly nimble vehicle for discussing Jewish ideas. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joseph Skibell, and Nicole Krauss among others have tried their hands at the premise novel with varying degrees of success.

In his debut novel, Shalom Auslander bids to outdo all of his Jewish predecessors. Approaching 40, Solomon Kugel moves his wife and three-year-old son to the country, buying an old farmhouse in upstate New York. He has found the perfect escape from Jewish Brooklyn, he thinks—until he discovers Anne Frank hiding in his attic. His mother is dying; his marriage is teetering; his job is in jeopardy; his tenant is causing trouble. “There’s never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic,” he admits. Kugel hesitates to call the police. What if the old woman in the attic, with numbers tattooed on her forearm, really is Anne Frank? “He would forever be known,” he reflects, “as the person—the Jewish person—that reported Anne Frank to the authorities.” Besides, Anne Frank just wants to be left alone to finish her novel. She doesn’t want to be remembered as the author of The Diary of a Young Girl. “I am not a child!” she shouts at Kugel. “I’m not some goddamned memoirist!”

Auslander mines the premise, not just for laughs (which are many), but for occasions to express a bitter contrarianism toward Holocaust piety and the conventional wisdom on nearly everything else. Raised and schooled in the ultra-Orthodox town of Monsey, New York, Auslander fled it and Orthodoxy as soon as he could, wanting nothing more to do with the Jews except to keep writing about them. Beware of God, a collection of stories, and Foreskin’s Lament, a memoir filled with comic hostility toward Judaism, followed. Normally he would be called a self-hating Jew, except that he’d probably welcome the accusation. “We’d have far fewer problems in this world if more people had the courage to be self-hating,” he observes in Hope: A Tragedy.

The story is straightforward. Kugel slowly sinks to his destruction as he tries to make Anne Frank comfortable—he buys her Streit’s matzot, printer paper, a pillow-top queen-sized mattress—while also trying to mollify his wife Bree, who only wants Anne Frank out of their attic. Meanwhile, he must watch out for an arsonist who is burning down farmhouses in the area, hold onto his job as a salesman for a green company that sells products made of recycled materials, and care for his mother, who pretends to be a Holocaust survivor. (She holds a lamp shade. “This,” she says, “is my aunt.” It says Made in Taiwan, Kubel notes. “Well, they’re not going to write ‘Made in Buchenwald’ on it, are they?”)

The story is little more than an inoffensive gelatin shaped to hold jokes, wisecracks, and mutterings of dissent. The death of poetry, Auslander says, is one death you couldn’t pin on the Nazis. Everyone talks about Auschwitz, he notices; why do you never hear anything about Chelmno? For people who believe there is a reason for everything, the reason is always to teach a positive lesson. “The reason was never because life’s a bummer,” he points out, “or because whoever or whatever the Reason for Everything is, it finds our misery kind of funny.”

Auslander is very funny, but he has a serious message to deliver. Hope is a tragedy, he is convinced—hence his title. Hope is the cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death. Hitler was an optimist. Auslander says this repeatedly. “Have you ever heard of anything so outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution?” he writes. “Not just that there could be a solution—to anything, mind you, while we have yet to cure the common cold—but a final one, no less!” In its irreverence and impiety, Auslander’s novel is not such a strange contribution to the torrent of Jewish ideas, but in suffusing bitterness with irresistible humor, it is a distressingly effective one. I so wanted to hate it, but sad to say, Hope: A Tragedy is one of the funniest comic novels in several years—perhaps the funniest ever by a non-Jewish Jew.

Addendum: Originally written to run in Commentary last January, this review was spiked. It appears here for the first time. A paperback edition of the novel will be released next month.