Shalom Auslander has emerged as a cultural phenomenon and phenom. You can spot an Auslander piece, whether in the New York Times, or GQ, or The New Yorker by its superficial bark, and contrasting serious, often existential bite. He writes with the comedic timing of a cynical seasoned veteran, but with the ferocity and intellect of an impassioned philosopher. His new book–his first novel–Hope: A Tragedy depicts Solomon Kugel’s struggle with a mom convinced she went through the Holocaust, a child allergic to the world, and a wife who doesn’t understand why throwing Anne Frank out of their new house crosses some serious Jewish boundaries. And yes, the real Anne Frank lives in Kugel’s attic. Beneath the story lies deep questions about history, the consolations of philosophy, and of course that omnipresent ghost in Auslander’s world, God. Here, in this interview, Auslander discusses the main themes of his book: the burdens of memory, the need to give up hope, and the questions facing a father trying to raise a family in a crazed world.
Jewcy: This book and your writing in general evinces a struggle, whether with ideas, family, God, or here, the idea of memory and hope, do you find writing to be exploratory in that way?
Auslander: For better or for worse, and probably worse, I spend a lot of time thinking about these kind of things perhaps because of my background: religious, theological, philosophical questions were raised early for me, and now I am trying to find a place for some type of answer, or maybe it’s just a question of liking fucking with things.
Often those go hand in hand, no?
Yes, I would say I don’t just enjoy fucking with things just to fuck with them; there’s a definite awareness what is everyone’s real sensibility, so I don’t know that I sit around and think about certain ideas I want to struggle with, I just think my characters are going to be people somewhat like me, if not in age weight and nationality, they are going to be people who think and struggle with these things. I don’t know how to write about a person, although it would be fun to, about a person with not a care in the world. Instead, I ended up writing about someone trying to give up hope.
Does it annoy you that sometimes you get portrayed as an angry cynic?
Look, I work very hard not to read reviews or comments, having said that, it was Mark Twain who said- “against the assault of humor nothing can stand,” and because of that people are afraid of humor, and the only real weapon is to say “he’s just doing it to be whatever. I don’t have to address the comments, because he’s just being whatever.” it’s funny because it’s used the other way also, like Jon Stewart, who says it’s just a comedy show, but bullshit it’s not just a comedy show, I think it’s an easy way for people to dismiss anything and everything.
One of the main ideas of the book is the idea of memory that can inspire but ultimately can also act as a huge burden, something that informs a lot of Jewish History, and obviously informs your book. Ultimately in the end, memory kills your character, Kugel. Can you speak more about this idea?
You are right, and that is where the book ends, that’s what happens, I didn’t map his death out, although when it did happen it was very obvious that it needed to happen. Look, it’s not specifically a Jewish problem, I think history is a bitch, you know, Adam had it easy, because he could sit there and tell Eve and his kids that things will be great, we are the best species on the planet and maybe you can continue that lie for 100 years or so, but 2011, we know too much, so how do you, distinctly when you have a kid, how do you tell your kids, why the fuck did I have this kid, it’s so selfish to commit someone to this madhouse, what do I tell him as to who we are as people, do I lie to him, do I not? In the book everyone has an answer, and I’m not sure if anyone is right or wrong. There are times when I’m exactly like the mother and I think that maybe paranoia is the way to survival, certainly it’s working for Israel. I don’t know. And that’s the same with Google, there’s no forgetting anymore, to a certain degree – nature has memory as a survival instinct, forgetting as a survival instinct, and we’ve erased that, because knowledge is power, but it’s often crippling.
So, is this idea, the idea of no hope, of a mad world, is this where the satire of Steven Pinker came from – of his idea of our progressing into a non-violent culture?
Hey you know, I hope to whomever that he is right, it’s just hard to believe it. I didn’t know he had a book coming out; he had an excerpt two years ago in a magazine that I kept and decided I wanted to respond to this claim. Because, not as an attack, he’s crunched the numbers, but I’m just think, hopefully, when I’m reading this in an oven, this will cheer me up. I am right there with him, and rationality and math is math, but I don’t know. Go to tell that to a gypsy, or go ask a Kenyan right now what he thinks. I doubt there are a lot of Amazon prime orders for this book in Africa, Look I can see the argument, but I can’t see that were are getting better, we are just a little less worse, a little less awful.
Was there ever a point that you worried about the propriety of the book, perhaps of having Anne Frank say, “Blow me?”
Look, whenever you poke fun at a sacred cow, people will complain. But, I don’t think there’s anything in the book that attempts to say that we shouldn’t remember. Trust me, we are not going to forget anytime soon, but perhaps as Anne Frank herself says – there’s a difference between never forgetting and never shutting the hell up about it. I just think people misinterpret this obsessive need to never forget. The main point doesn’t come from a need to never forget because we will never forget, but rather, this obsessiveness stems from a sense of guilt, like the mother in the book has, of not having suffered enough.
Your idea – about hope, or the lack thereof, in some way’s it seems like a very generational, post-Jewish Question. We grow up being told that books, religious books have the answers, but for many they don’t, then many turn to other books, to literature, and they don’t really have the answer either, so where do you go from there?
Well, that’ seems to be the main question of the book. I don’t know the answer. For me, the next place was philosophy, and though some will debate this point, but philosophy is just a bunch of smart people asking more questions, but I already have plenty of questions, and I kept thinking of this quote from Jules Renard in his journal – paraphrasing here- to the degree that writers and artists cant tell me why we are here or why we die then I don’t give a damn about what they have to say, and that’s a very emotional reaction to the same question – this is what we do, we ask questions and there are no answers. Some people think asking is the point, it doesn’t help; also, I guarantee you the answer will be a bummer, whatever it is, we will respond with a shrug, and “that’s it?” For me, it’s never going to make total sense, no answer will help me solve the problem of was life worth the hemorrhoids, the family members or friends with cancer, or burying children, there are no sides to this algebra equation that balances.
This main idea, giving up hope to live a better life, there’s a bit of a Buddhist idea here of confronting the immensity of suffering before we can embark on the path of contentment. But you only go half way; you only take a look at the suffering.
I don’t know if Buddhism really helps me either. To me all of this, it’s just a shrug, and I don’t know if there is anything more than a shrug that I can hope for, you know there is the Buddhist idea of trying not to answer the question of why, but rather we should be asking how, and here’s the how, how to live, and that is supposed to help that when you reach that level somehow you can go on living when the worst thing in the world happens, but would you want to reach that level where its OK when children die, on any level? Even Buddhism, ultimately is still a promise, a hope, a hope that in giving up hope we can obtain real or true happiness, which doesn’t really work for me.
In one part of the book, Kugel looks at his old books and refers to them as old bottles of medicine that didn’t work. And yet, you add yourself to the larger world of literature. Did you feel any tension in still taking part in that great conversation of literature?
Ha, yea, that’s a good point. But look, I don’t have any answers more than they did. I am as useless as anybody. All I know is what I fear, and what hurts, and what I am worried about. To a large degree writing for me is pouring all my fear into one work or the other and seeing it for what it is, and what it is, is usually funny and pathetic, it’s kind of like, yea, someone might say to me chill out have a cigarette.
I imagine that’s not lost on you that you’ve thought it through.
Yea – I’ve tried it, trust me, cigarettes used to help, now I can feel the tumor growing, and I can only think that I am killing my son’s father. It makes me sick with anxiety. Look, my main point is, that it’s all a guess, we are all trying to make ourselves OK with something. Even if it’s just saying I am not OK with this. And that’s what the book is about.