Riverhead: 293 pp., $26.95
There's a fundamental and perhaps fundamentally irresolvable tension at the heart of Shalom Auslander's first novel, "Hope: A Tragedy" — the tension between text and context, or between the artist and the art. Anyone who's read Auslander's two earlier books, the 2005 short-story collection "Beware of God" and the 2007 memoir "Foreskin's Lament," may know what I'm talking about: He is scabrously funny, especially on faith and meaning, but his stories have a habit of breaking down. This is partly because his great subject, God's capriciousness, is a closed loop and as such can be difficult to frame as narrative. "Pascal's last words were: May God never abandon me," he observes early in the novel. "A moment later, God did."
In such a universe, it's not that bad things happen to good people, but that everything that happens is ultimately defined by its own meaninglessness, by the futility of being alive. "Jonah was beautiful and innocent and pure," Auslander writes of the young son of Solomon Kugel, this novel's protagonist, "so Kugel felt terrible guilt for bringing him into this world. To father a child was a horribly selfish act, a felony, in fact — everyone here in this world is a kidnap victim from some better place, or from no place at all, and Jonah had been dragged here…against his will, without provocation, without consent, without any good … reason whatsoever beyond [his parents'] own selfish desires."
Don't get me wrong: I'm an admirer of Auslander's, and not just because I think he's onto something. He's also willfully outrageous, a black humorist with an Old Testament moralist's heart. At the same time, this issue of narrative is important because narrative is the territory "Hope: A Tragedy" occupies. The story of Kugel's escape from Brooklyn to the rural New York village of Stockton — a place "famous for nothing. No one famous had lived there, no famous battles had been waged there, no famous movements arose there, no famous concerts had been held there" — it is a book, in many ways, about the end of history, except that history refuses to end.
Auslander makes this clear from the outset, when Kugel discovers hiding in his attic an elderly Holocaust survivor who may or may not be Anne Frank. "I don't know who you are," he tells her, "or how you got up here. But I'll tell you what I do know: I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz." She corrects him — "It was Bergen-Belsen" — and then she "yank[s] up her shirtsleeve, revealing the fading blue-black concentration camp numbers tattooed on the inside of her pale forearm."
The presence of Frank recalls Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," in which the martyred Dutch girl ("the Jewish Jesus," Auslander calls her, all irony intended) appears as a projection, a fantasy of the author's fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. With "Hope: A Tragedy," however, Auslander has something more transgressive in mind. His Frank is abrasive, abusive, a narcissist who after 60 years in hiding is concerned almost exclusively with her book sales. "Thirty-two million copies," she shouts, when Kugel tries to coax her from the attic, "that's nothing to sneeze at! I will leave this attic when I finish this book, and not one moment sooner! Not one moment sooner! I am a writer, Mr. Kugel, do you hear me! A writer!"
Auslander offers that most human of declarations, the battle cry of the self-absorbed. And why not? For this is one of the key themes of this novel, that we are selfish animals — the more selfish the better, since this is what helps us survive. "Survival has its own morality, Kugel," declares Professor Jove, Kugel's therapist, who believes the Final Solution is the ultimate statement of, and argument against, optimism as a social good. "Only a fool would expect someone drowning in quicksand to behave any differently. And, brother, we're all in quicksand. Up to our eyeballs, from the moment we're born."
That's great stuff — angry, funny, shocking even, writing that strips away the niceties. Indeed, some of the novel's best moments are the most provocative: Kugel's growing frustration with Anne Frank ("Six million he kills," he thinks, "and this one gets away"), or his fantasy of explaining the Holocaust to his son through the lens of"SpongeBob SquarePants" ("Anyway, one day the Planktons rounded up all the SpongeBobs and put them in, well, a sort of a camp. What kind of camp? Well, a death camp.").
Then there are Anne's reflections on her mother, with whom (as the "Diary" acknowledges) she had her issues as a child. "We clashed, for any number of reasons," she tells Kugel. "In the end what brought us closer together was genocide.… We cried in that camp … and held each other, shivering, dying, and she told me how special I was, and I told her how much I loved her, and we both apologized, again and again…"
It's almost impossible to read that passage without choking up, and yet in the next, Auslander pulls the rug out again. "What do you imagine would have happened," he writes in Anne's voice, "if she had survived? If we had reunited somewhere in Europe after the war; if we'd gotten a small flat in Paris, Milan, Berlin, somewhere? We'd have killed each other, that's what, Mr. Kugel. We'd have hated each other more than we ever had before."
What Auslander addresses is the fallacy of narrative — or its limitations, at any rate. Still, in the end, this remains the novel's one abiding problem, that its narrative never fully resonates. In part, that has to do with the flimsiness of the supporting characters: Kugel's wife, Bree, who is portrayed in two dimensions, or his mother, who fantasizes about having survived the death camps despite being born in Brooklyn in 1945. Compared with Anne Frank, or even Kugel himself, they seem like shadows contrived to make a point. The same is true of a secondary plot, about an arsonist on the loose, a device meant to deepen Kugel's sense of danger in the world.
But even more, the resolution Auslander's narrative requires is the very thing he most means to defy. "Jean-Paul Sartre's last words: I failed," Kugel thinks, and then: "Who didn't?" Or as Anne Frank puts it: "We all burn, everyone burns."