Shalom and the Jewish Jesus

Shalom Auslander got the best possible start on having a sickly fatalistic sense of humor:  he was a miserable Jew from the day he was born.

As detailed in his highly entertaining 2007 memoir Foreskin’s Lament, Auslander was raised a deeply unhappy Orthodox Jew in and around New York in the ’70s and ’80s.  Like many of that ancient faith’s most pitch-black humorists, he found himself both longing to escape the strangulating strictures of Judaism and helplessly entwined in its teachings of utter helplessness in the face of an unknowable God.  This curdled into a cynicism that most of us don’t experience until much later; at a young age, he was writing deeply funny and hopelessly jaundiced pieces on current events for GQ and Esquire that bore the exasperated wisdom of a man twice his age.  His first fiction came in the form of Beware of God:  Stories, a masterfully funny collection of short pieces that found new and exciting ways to to portray the relationship of man to his maker, light-years beyond the kind of angsty adolescent moaning that usually hits Gentile teens when they’re 19 and haven’t gotten laid yet.  The stories in that collection, still one of my favorites of the century so far, often portray Jews who are both bound by the nature of their religion and consumingly aware of its absurdity.

Flash forward to 2012:  Auslander is now a man in his 40s, no longer a promising young writer pushing the boundaries of his craft, but a grown adult.  He begins working on his first novel, faced with the expectation that he will finally come to terms with his Jewishness and produce a mature work about what it’s like to be a man.  Instead, what he writes is Hope:  A Tragedy, one of the most audacious works of black comedy in recent memory, a book that both draws on the patterns and obsessions of his earlier work and ups the ante considerably.  The subject of Hope is no less than Judaism’s most sacred cow, the figure he will refer to in the novel as “the Jewish Jesus” — not Yeshua himself, but rather the universally beloved Holocaust victim and diarist (or, as Hope will have it, Holocaust survivor and failed novelist) Anne Frank.

The novel concerns itself with Solomon Kugel, who is wracked with some deeply ingrained characteristics of the classic Jewish protagonist:  a profound sense of guilt at the idea of perpetuating misery, as shown in his uncertainty over having a child; a persistent sense that he is being haunted by the ghosts of his forebears, as shown by the presence of his aging mother, who pretends to have been a victim of the Shoah despite having been born in Manhattan after the war was over and who instills in him a terrible fear that everyday objects might be the remains of his relatives; and a curious balancing act between a deep-seated instinct for survival and a desire for utter self-abnegation.  It is for the latter reason that he buys an old farmhouse in upstate New York, deliberately seeking out the most uninteresting town he can find — but of course, he cannot escape history, and it is in this town with no past that he finds, typing away in his own attic, the still-living Anne Frank, who refuses to die until she can finish a work of fiction that will outsell her legendary memoir.

All of this is played with a complete lack of delicacy, black as pitch and bold as fire:  Frank turns out to be an unbearable old crank, worn out by the purity of her own reputation which prevents her from ever being human.  His mother’s sick fascination for a misery she never experienced is played for both tragedy and laughs.  (One of my favorite moments in Hope involves her recollection of a family photo taken at Auschwitz, where the young Solomon had the poor taste to smile for the camera:  “You ruined the whole concentration camp for me, you know that?”, she scolds.)  Trying to come to terms with bringing his son into a world so full of evil, Solomon dreads having to eventually give the boy “the talk” — only he means the Holocaust talk, not the sex talk.

Yet, as deftly as Auslander handles all of this (and like many of his best short stories, the funniest and blackest scenes are played out in razor-sharp dialogue), Hope needs more substance to carry out its promise.  For the most part, Auslander delivers.  The whole device of bringing in an apparently living Anne Frank — found, like the Hitler diaries, in a barn, and of equally suspect provenance — is so gutsy that there’s almost no way it can work; but it does, and it doesn’t trip over itself by becoming a metafictional conceit, though certainly Auslander uses it to say a few things about being a prisoner of your own literary reputation.  Plot-wise, Hope is a bit meandering; everything happens in the hearts and minds of the handful of characters who count, and several of them don’t.  A subplot about a chaotic arsonist on the loose in town doesn’t really add much and probably could have been dropped, though that would have put the whole novel at risk of being scaled back to one of Auslander’s short stories.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, however.  Auslander’s short fiction, as I’ve said, is terrific, and while Hope:  A Tragedy doesn’t gain all that much from exceeding his other stories in length, it doesn’t lose much either, and most importantly, it retains everything great about them.  It’s often crushingly funny; it cagily balances the narrow divide between cynical fatalism and nihilistic despair, and sometimes manages to seem downright breezy in the process; and most importantly, it portrays its Jewish protagonists, though they might be eternal prisoners of their religious identity, as capable of being embarrassingly and hopelessly human — but touchingly human as well.  Auslander never lets his characters off the hook, but he does more than just let them squirm and dangle; he allows that there might just be a pretty clear view from there.

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