Hope: A Tragedy
304 pp., Picador, £16.99
Like Shalom Auslander’s earlier works, the short story collection Beware of God and Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, Hope: a Tragedy mines his dysfunctional Orthodox Jewish upbringing for material. On the surface, its plot seems straightforward. Following their son’s severe illness, Solomon Kugel and his wife move to Stockton for ‘a fresh start’. Stockton is described as ‘famous for nothing’, a place where bumper stickers proudly read ‘Nobody Slept Here’ and ‘Birthplace of Nothing’. The move is complicated, however, by Kugel’s supposedly terminally ill mother, who moves in with them and then simply refuses to die, as well as an arsonist who is burning down Stockton farmhouses like the one Kugel has just bought. To top it all off, one night Kugel discovers that Anne Frank apparently did not die in Bergen-Belsen as historically reported, and has in fact been living in his attic. She is determined to write a novel because, in her words,
‘I’m a writer, Mr. Kugel! I am not a child! I’m not some goddamned memoirist! I am a writer! Thirty-two million copies, Mr. Kugel, that’s nothing to sneeze at! I will leave this attic when I finish this book, and not one moment sooner!’
While reading Hope: a Tragedy, there were several occasions where I could not help but burst out laughing. If you are after political correctness, Auslander’s jokes are probably not for you. Take, for example, the following exchange towards the novel’s end:
A salesman quickly approached him.
Just looking, Kugel said to the salesman.
No problem, no problem, said the salesman. Just so you know, all sale items are marked with a yellow star.
Perfect, thought Kugel. I’m going to buy Anne Frank a Jewed-down deathbed with a yellow Star of David on it.
Given the bleakness of its humour, it is interesting how Beckettian Hope: a Tragedy feels. References to Beckett are scattered throughout, including a mention of Waiting for Godot and an allusion to the closing lines of The Unnamable, ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ These works seem to be appropriate touchstones for Auslander’s novel, as Kugel’s predicament has a similar flavour. Caught between his mother’s obsessive self-persecution (for not having experienced enough tragedy in her life of the Holocaust variety) and his wife’s frustration (first with her mother-in-law, and then with Kugel’s acceptance of Anne Frank’s presence), Kugel fails to display any of the wisdom of his Biblical namesake; his life progressively unravels in spite of his best efforts to salvage it. Then, just when the mother’s relentless guilt begins to grate rather than amuse, and you begin to wish that Kugel would be decisive for a change (instead of just worrying about being decisive), Auslander pulls the literary equivalent of a bait-and-switch by pulling all the strands of the plot together in one fiery conflagration and (sort of) resolving them, in a completely unexpected manner.
A. L. Kennedy calls Auslander’s novel a ‘wonderful, twisted, transgressive, heartbreaking, true, and hugely funny book’, and notes, ‘It will make very many people angry. It will also make very many people very happy.’ Hope: a Tragedy clearly courts this paradoxical reception, even with its title, which takes its cue from a character’s belief that hope is ‘the greatest source of misery in the world, the greatest cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death’. This character subsequently declares that ‘Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years.’ The logic required to understand things from this point of view is certainly bizarre, and will be downright offensive to some people, but I suspect that is Auslander’s intention anyway. Even as his writing serves to shock, Auslander pushes the reader towards the realisation that sometimes laughter might be the best means humanity has of dealing with its historical demons, including subjects like the Holocaust that we might think of as being entirely off-limits.