If Anne Frank Lived Upstate

Shalom Auslander’s New Novel Takes on Jewish Symbols

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published January 09, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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As if Kugel does not have enough problems, there is a stench coming from the attic, and a mysterious tapping that, upon investigation, he finds is caused by a squatter up there: one Anne Frank, famed diarist. She quickly becomes a demanding harridan, sending Kugel on errands to buy her matzo, when she is not defecating into his heating vents. We keep turning the pages to see what misery she will wreak on Kugel next, and Anne Frank and Kugel’s mother become unwitting co-conspirators, fellow marionettes in a play put on by God, in which the main purpose is to torture Kugel. His mother won’t die, and as long as she is alive he cannot evict the madwoman in the attic. After all, what kind of Jew throws Anne Frank out into the street?

Auslander has been writing for many years about the ways in which we are trapped, and in “Hope” he is quite deft with the effects, on Anne Frank, of literal entrapment.

Slowly, with what seemed great effort, the old woman brought up one foot beneath her, then the other, until she could push herself up to as upright a position as Kugel imagined she could attain. Perhaps she truly had spent the past forty years in this attic, he thought, as she had seemingly come to resemble it; her body had adapted, or evolved, or devolved, into a shape most suitable for attic life…

“Anne Frank in the attic” is a metaphor for what haunts the secular Jew, but the attic is also a metaphor for the fate that has befallen Anne Frank. After she survived the camps — in this alternate version of history — she found the publisher of her diary, to whom she insisted that she was alive. “Stay dead,” he told her, because “nobody wants a live Anne Frank.”

So, having found her way into an attic in upstate New York, she has for years been attempting to write the book that will surpass “The Diary of a Young Girl.” She can never escape the attic; she can never escape being Anne Frank; she can never escape the success of her first book; we can never escape her, can never get her out of the attic. There is something overly perfect about the symbols nesting in the nests of symbols. “Hope” is less a novel than a blazingly good idea. A better craftsman would have paid more attention to the character of Kugel’s wife, who remains just a spoke in the story’s wheels; would have dimmed the aura around Kugel’s mother, who is too daft even for this farce, and might have forgone the Alan Dershowitz cameo, which reminded me of Will Ferrell’s surprise appearance at the end of “Wedding Crashers.”

This novel reads as if Auslander is in love — quite justifiably — with his plot, but far less so with his characters. The book is very funny; there is something very Wile E. Coyote about the ridiculous oppression that pursues Kugel. He is a cartoon character surrounded by cartoon characters, and the pleasure for the reader is not learning the subtleties of his heart or the intricacies of his marriage, but watching him pursued off a cliff after being handed yet another anvil. “Hope” is not as good a book as “Foreskin’s Lament,” not as efficient a work of art as any one of Auslander’s radio essays, but it is vivid and very hard to stop thinking about. Like the piece of liver in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — look it up, Shalom — it is an unforgettable representation of abuse, self- and otherwise.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times and is the author of “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate,” now in paperback from Free Press.

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