The Rumpus Interview with Shalom Auslander

By

Shalom Auslander’s work, like the best satire, is a gleeful finger in the eye of various moronic pieties and general demagoguery. He has written a book of short stories, Beware of God, in which God is imagined as a giant chicken and his last book, a memoir entitled Foreskin’s Lament, is a skewering of the Orthodox Judaism that Auslander grew up with. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Esquire, and he is a regular contributor to This American Life on NPR.

His first novel, Hope: A Tragedy is the comedic tale of Solomon Kugel, who moves his family to the country in an attempt to protect them from the vagaries of being alive. When he gets there, his delusional mother moves in and an arsonist starts burning down houses just like his. And then he finds Anne Frank hiding in his attic. The book is an absurdist meditation on the perils of history and the possibility of happiness in a world subject to capricious brutality and evil. Also Anne Frank eats a cat, so there’s that… It will be released on January 12th.

***

The Rumpus: Congratulations on the publication of your first novel! Was the process of writing a novel significantly different for you from your non-fiction work?

Shalom Auslander: I was somewhat worried about it (lie), but it turns out a piece of writing is a piece of writing – it starts somewhere, it ends somewhere, and in between things happen. Bad things, mostly. Then things get a bit better. No, wait – they’re getting worse. Then Anna kills herself.

Rumpus: In the book you quote the oft-cited dictum by Adorno about poetry after the Holocaust being barbaric. I read this piece in Lapham’s Quarterly saying he apparently reversed his position in the late 60s, saying that he was wrong to say no poem could be written after Auschwitz. He said, “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” This question must have been much on your mind in writing a comic novel about the Holocaust and genocide, more broadly.

Auslander: Hope isn’t about the Holocaust or genocide – it’s about a man trying to figure out how to live, now, knowing all we know about the bloody, violent history of mankind. Year One of history, Year Two – sure, you could tell yourself that all the murder and bloodshed and hatred was an outlier. Year Three’s going to be awesome. But today? We know, generally speaking, that people suck. Aristotle said that what separates man from animals is that we laugh. That, yes, and we also ethnically cleanse. So now what? 2012, now fucking what? Hope? Maybe. Good luck with that. Give up and live in fear? That’s one way, sure. Stay in the attic? It’s possible, if UPS will deliver books and food. There’s nothing funny about brutality and suffering, except the part about it happening again and again. And the part about our saying it won’t. And the part about our shock and amazement when it does. Otherwise, nothing.

Rumpus: Are there things that are out of bounds for the comic novel? Or is it all a matter of successful execution, of sticking the landing, so to speak? Do you have an example of a book or writer that pulls off addressing a controversial topic like this perfectly? A Vonnegut, a Heller, a Saunders? Any that fail miserably? A “Day the Clown Cried” of the literary world?

Auslander: Heller and Vonnegut, sure. Flannery O’Connor. Beckett seemed to nail it every time, and about the bigger pointlessness of it all, just for extra points. “Dr. Strangelove.” “Life of Brian.” Voltaire got it right with Candide. “The Great Dictator.” Chaplin later said that if he’d known the facts of the death camps he wouldn’t have made that movie, but that’s only because the fucking Jews ran Hollywood. I think it’s a question of what is it you’re laughing at – suffering or man? Because man is funny. Hating someone isn’t funny, but hatred is. Hope is fucking hilarious. That’s why we laugh at the guy falling on the banana peel; it’s not the fractured hip, it’s the man, just a split second earlier, in his sharp suit and fancy hat, certain that all would be well. Schmuck.

Rumpus: I feel like many of the more well-known comic writers were or are moralists, at least in their writing. Do you think the form lends itself to espousing moral positions or am I just generalizing?

Auslander: It’s a risk, sure. Humor is anger, and it’s tempting for the writer to resolve it or direct it at one thing or another. That happens more often than it should, I think (Heller, almost always; Vonnegut, often, but Vonnegut’s humanism always seemed tacked-on to me, like he was looking for some light, anywhere, somewhere, so I don’t mind his lecturing because I don’t think he even believed it). I tried hard with Hope to keep that from happening, in the first place because I don’t like preachers, and in the second place, because I don’t like preachers, and in the third place, because the most difficult questions have no right or wrong (that’s what makes them funny): Kugel may be a fool for hoping, Mother may be right for living in fear, Anne may be right for never leaving attics. There is no answer, other than laughing at the whole damned thing. Kundera writes about going into the dark depths of a joke, and I think when you do that, when you take it all seriously, the joke loses its one-sidedness – it’s preachiness – and casts a wider net. If everyone is a fool, no one is a fool. But it’s still pretty fucking funny.

Rumpus: You make a pretty ballsy move with your decision to include Anne Frank as a major character in the book. Not only do you create an alternate history for her where she survives the Holocaust and is living in hiding in America, but you also, almost gleefully, make her into this hilariously vulgar and angry old crone. You seem to be deliberately pushing against a view of Frank as merely a hallowed symbol. Was this on purpose? How did she make her way into the story?

Auslander: Well, it’s that old thing about sacred cows making the best burgers. I consider it part of the job to tread on hallowed ground; most of the job is just being honest about your own fucked-upness, of course, but hallowed-ground treading is pretty important, too. Anne’s a grotesque, but to me she seems more sympathetic at the end of the book – as a tortured survivor – then she does in real life, as the martyred angel. And don’t forget, she’s stuck on her second book – that’s not Auschwitz, but it’s no picnic. The papers have all chopped their review sections, did you know that? One bad review and you’re toast. I like the idea of Anne Frank, 83, worrying why Bookslut hasn’t mentioned her new novel. That has nothing to do with your question, though.

Rumpus: Kugel, the protagonist, is obsessed with death and the perpetual, ambient threat of calamity and harm being visited upon he and his family. The titular idea of the novel is that he lives in this state of abject fear because he hopes against these inevitable things, against death and tragedy. How much of this came out of your own experience of being a husband and father of young children?

Auslander: Only all of it.

Rumpus: There’s a character in the book, a real estate agent named Eve, who diagnoses a certain type of modern, privileged unhappiness as “buyer’s guilt”, the idea that the frictionless proliferation of material wealth is undeserved and people feel guilty for being happy. Essentially the universe is not a meritocracy and we in the first world feel guilty for not having suffered enough for our sins when others no better or worse than us have suffered terribly. Do you think people of privilege have a sub-conscious desire to suffer? Does this account for some of our modern malaise?

Auslander: It would certainly help account for the Kardashians. I spent part of my advance on a motorcycle, and every time I look at it, I think, “Man, I’m a fucking asshole.” I could have fed a lot of… whoevers, whoever’s starving these days. I could have clothed a lot of kids or old people. That’s the reality of life: you can’t wake up and go to the bathroom without being a complete shit, ethically-speaking. You’re wasting water while people are drinking sewage in Somewhere, your slippers were made in a sweatshop, your dog who licks your face is a pure-breed when millions of strays need homes, the toilet paper you wiped your ass on came from the last tree on Earth. So what do we do? We watch the Kardashians. Because it causes cancer and we’ll die, painfully, as we so deserve.

Rumpus: History in the book, or obsession with history, is portrayed almost as a pathology. Kugel’s mother didn’t experience the Holocaust, yet believes she did, and does things like sit him down as a child and show him a bar of soap that she says used to be his great-grandmother. Your very funny (and horrifying) recent piece in the New York Times, “Grabbing Life By the Horns”, suggests that you might have had a similar experience. Is there some balance to be struck between knowing the truth of evil in the world and letting history dominate your existence? Do you think people make history into a proverbial albatross about the neck?

Auslander: I was raised to believe that, as a Jew, I had been born with a target on my back. Now, the fact of the matter is, over the course of history, far more Jews have died of old age than of Zyklon B. I don’t know what to tell my sons, but I’m not going to tell them people hate them for being Jews. I’ll probably tell them that people hate them because people hate. It sucks, and it’s bloody, but don’t take it personally, kids. It’s a start.

Rumpus: I was intrigued by the Professor Jove character, who serves as a sort of life coach or philosophical advisor to Kugel. He has a pessimistic, Hobbesian view of humanity and he’s perpetually absent when Kugel tries to contact him throughout the novel. He seemed to me to be some combination of an absent God and the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. How did he come to be in the novel?

Auslander: He’s the Obi Won who appears and says, “Give up, Luke. Fuck it. Seriously, I’ve been here.” I could have used that person in my life. After a few years in therapy, I realized my shrink was much more cynical than me. “You’re mother is never going to love you,” he would say. “Fuck you,” I would argue, “she will, too. I just need to win the Pulitzer.” And he was right – half of happiness is realizing that happiness is probably a bit of a high bar. And I was right, too – a National Book Award isn’t going to bring Mom back to me. It’s Pulitzer or nothing.

Rumpus: You’ve now written produced a collection of short stories, a memoir and now a novel. You seem to be crossing things off of a literary checklist. What’s next, a libretto? A whore’s dialogue?

Auslander: My sad, desperate quest for respect and validation continues, yes. Thanks for pointing that out.

(Author photo by Franco Vogt.)

***

Read Ben Pfeiffer’s review of Hope: A Tragedy.


Peter Mack lives in Portland, Oregon. More from this author →