Non-fiction: A fictional account

Shalom Auslander’s new novel – which some will consider an insult to the memory of Holocaust victims – is an exploration of one man’s irrational determination to protect his family against genocide.

Aushwitz 521 (photo credit: Frank D. Smith)
Aushwitz 521
(photo credit: Frank D. Smith)
Shalom Auslander’s new novel begins with Solomon Kugel, an inveterate “starter-anew,” his wife, Bree, and their young son Jonah, moving into an old farmhouse in Stockton, New York, a sleepy rural village where nothing significant has ever happened.
Kugel should be happy. But he isn’t.
Prone to existential angst, so desperate for things to turn out well that he always anticipates disaster, Kugel finds lots to worry about. An arsonist is on the loose, burning down farmhouses like the one he has just purchased. Against Bree’s wishes, his terminally ill mother, a native New Yorker who is convinced that she survived the concentration camps, has joined the household. And Kugel is about to discover that Anne Frank is living in his attic, working on a sequel to her diary.
Some, no doubt, will find Auslander’s subject, and his recurring jokes about lampshades, an insult to the memory of victims of Nazi atrocities. Nonetheless, it seems to me, Hope: A Tragedy, is, at its best, a provocative, perverse, wickedly funny and at times moving meditation on rationality, faith, the aspirations, anger, anxiety, and self-absorption of middle-class Americans, and the lessons and limitations of history.
Desperate to protect his family from illness, insult, indifference and violence, Kugel consults a therapist, Professor Jove, “the distillation of all Western and Eastern thought of the past two thousand years combined.” The antithesis of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss, Jove believes that hope is the greatest source of misery in the world, setting us up for one dispiriting disaster after another. In its own way, he claims, Hitler’s Final Solution was optimistic, as was “the ludicrous dictum to which it gave birth: Never Again.” When anyone promises progress and an end to pain, Jove advises, “Run. Hide. Pessimists don’t build gas chambers.”
Even more rattled than before, Kugel now fears that evil might or might not now reside in the backyard, but “the motherf**ker” is out there, 24/7. With his sensitive stomach, he knows he could never survive a genocide: “I wouldn’t even make it to head shaving.” He imagines Bree, who is allergic to dyes, asking “Pardon me, Herr Kommandant, but do you have a clear soup? I’m very sensitive to coloring.”
Kugel wonders who among Stockton’s 2,400 residents and his co-workers at EnviroSolutions might allow him to hide his family in their attic if “something happened.”
The quintet (he decides, after some hesitation, to include Anne Frank), would need a large space because “he would sooner force Jonah into a cattle car” than have him share a bed with his grandmother.
Although he would prefer a place close to his home so that he could retrieve items he had forgotten and not have too far to travel when the crisis ended (hope, it seems, springs eternal), Kugel concludes that the Dooners, the only neighbors he knows, would turn him away because he had once borrowed their lawnmower and forgotten to refill the tank. “The difference between life and death on this crap-sack planet,” he concludes, perhaps not all that irrationally, can be “a half a gallon of gas.”
Acutely aware that smart, sensitive people tend “to end hanging by the neck in the shower,” Kugel ponders whether a loving father should drop his baby on his “delicate eggshell skull” – or sit his young child in front of the TV set and turn him “into spongy, uncomprehending, witless mush.”
Obsessed with last words and gravestone epitaphs, he thinks “Life: Examine at Your Own Risk” is not all that bad.
However, Kugel is not nearly that cynical.
And neither is Shalom Auslander.
Although Kugel remains far from Solomonic, Auslander will allow him to sense that human beings can – and should – go about their business without worrying every waking moment about the storm to come. And that there is good reason to believe that life with Jonah and Bree and chocolate ice cream can be enjoyed.
Kugel resolves to have a “Big Talk” with his son – and introduce him to Anne Frank. “It ain’t the best world, kid,” he will tell him, “but it ain’t the worst. Maybe Godot shows up in act three; maybe the audience is just leaving too early.”
Hope: A Tragedy does not end on this faith-based sentiment, of course. Kugel will reach out for “help, for saving” to a man who might be Professor Jove or his mother’s hero, Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz, or neither of them. And Auslander will give the last words to a minor character, well qualified to issue a reminder that since reality is a “nightmare,” most of us will “crack and crumble” when confronted with “hideous, horrible non-fiction” accounts of human existence. And then, for better and worse, they will allow fiction back into their consciousness because the alternative, all by itself, is “too damned much to bear.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.