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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Hope: A Tragedy
By Shalom Auslander
Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $26.95

As sophisticated, politically unpredictable and stylistically diverse as our community of Jewish writers is, it can seem as if the best of them, when they reach for Jewish content, still take down the Holocaust from the shelf. This generalization holds true across generations: grandees, like Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth; middle-agers, like the ingenious Michael Chabon; carpoolers, like Jonathan Safran Foer, Dara Horn and Nicole Krauss. It is by no means universally true, not of everything those writers have written or of Jewishly minded writers generally. David Bezmozgis, Steve Stern and Tova Mirvis, for example, do not find the Holocaust particularly useful for their fiction. But Nathan Englander’s forthcoming book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” addresses the unspoken phenomenon that, to a great extent, in Jewish literature, Anne Frank is forever the woman in the attic.

Shalom Auslander: Upstate New York provides him no escape.
franco vogt
Shalom Auslander: Upstate New York provides him no escape.

In Shalom Auslander’s first novel, “Hope: A Tragedy,” Anne Frank is literally the woman in the attic. We might have seen this coming from Auslander, whose memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament”; book of short stories, “Beware of God,” and droll radio pieces on “This American Life” add up to the most embittered yet hilarious indictment of American Judaism from anyone in his generation. Auslander has publicly said that he has read very little Roth, but in an obvious way he is our younger, less prolific Roth.

In those earlier works, Auslander writes or speaks, through fiction or personal recollection, about the Orthodox world in which he was raised. Because that world is anchored in religious observance, he had far less contact than most American Jews with what we might call Holocaust religiosity. His people were worshiping God, not Anne Frank. Holocaust remembrance and Israel bonds were not important in the Monsey, N.Y., of Auslander’s childhood; daily minyan was. But Auslander’s major theme is still the burden of the Jewish past, the fealty every generation of Jews is expected to pay — in blood, skin and money — to its ancestors, and of that burden there is no better symbol than the little Dutch girl.

In previous Auslander works, the pathogen is religion; in “Hope,” Auslander shows that secular Jewish life is every bit as toxic. Solomon Kugel, our depressive hero, enjoys thinking about what famous people said on their deathbeds and what he might say on his. Like the real Auslander, Kugel does not like his mother very much; but while the real Auslander never has to return to his upstate New York town, Kugel’s mother has moved into the upstate New York farmhouse that Kugel has bought for himself, his wife and their young son. Kugel and his wife, Bree, expect Mother to die soon, but for the time being, she is not cooperating.

Mother has settled in, and she now has a comfortable residence in which to indulge her fantasies of having been in the camps.

“Mother screamed every morning,” Auslander writes. “She had done so ever since reading that this was common behavior among survivors of the Holocaust…. The only item she had unpacked was her gilt-framed, three-foot tall by two-foot wide photograph of the famous Harvard attorney Alan Dershowitz, which she hung, as she always had, on the wall above her bed.”

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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