12:08 pm Feb. 2, 20121
Shalom Auslander has a problem with authority. At least, that's what he wants you to think.
I knew this going in to our meeting and was a bit nervous. He had been promoting his new novel, Hope: A Tragedy, and had given an email interview in which he flat-out refused to answer standard questions and ended the exchange with, "Fuck off."
Among my prepared questions, I had an emergency set of responses to hypothetical confrontations about the role of the press in promoting literature. ("Aren't you a reporter?" "Didn't you just publish your own interview with jailed hardcore pornography star Max Hardcore?" )
Hope: A Tragedy is Auslander's first novel—after a collection of short stories, Beware of God, and a memoir, Foreskin's Lament—about growing up and divorcing himself from his abusive, Orthodox Jewish family. It's the story of Solomon Kugel, a man who moves his wife and child to a farmhouse and discovers Anne Frank alive and hiding in his attic; it couldn't be getting better reviews, and it's deserving of all the praise. The novel is a provocative meditation on the intersection of individual and historical guilt. It's hilarious, to boot. Plus, I had those backup questions. Just in case.
We were to meet for coffee in Soho, and I marched down Houston in the clear cold telling myself that everything was going to be OK. I arrived all of 20 minutes early to de-fluster, and noticed that Auslander had beat me there. He was smoking a cigarette, his exhales swept away by the blustery weather. He was casually dressed, in jeans and a wide-wale corduroy blazer. I recognized him from the thumbnail author photo on his books; I was sure it was him because of his hair, a few inches of salt and pepper curls tufting out from under his black beanie.
One of the most interesting themes in the book, and one that provides much room for comedy, is the role of preparation. Is it better to plan for disasters that will probably never happen? In trying to prevent one thing, are you ignoring what's most likely to get you?
Kugel doesn't expect Anne Frank in his new attic. (Who could?) His mother is obsessed with preparing for another Holocaust and insists that she is a survivor, even though she was born in New York in 1945. The novel's first line reads, "It's funny: it isn't the fire that kills you, it's the smoke."
I realized pretty quickly that while preparing for a disaster myself, I had failed to consider the most likely scenario: That Auslander might be a pretty nice guy. If not a perfect gentleman, he was certainly polite, charming, and engaging.
I introduced myself on the street and we chatted in the cold for a few minutes until he grew concerned.
"Are you freezing? I'm sorry, I just need to make a quick phone call," he said.
We initially claimed a table in the corner, and when the volume of what was supposed to be ambient café music rose, he suggested we scoot over so the sound wouldn't interfere with my voice recorder.
"I hate having to email people after the interview and ask, 'What was it you said?'" he said.
Perhaps one of the dangers of being so naturally subversive is that you might inadvertently subvert the image you're trying to craft. Either that or he had been ordered to be on his best behavior.
"I like the idea of getting in trouble," he said. "I want to sin. Sinning with a purpose is a great thing. If you can do that, then that's the sweet spot. You take something holy and just fuck with it."
The memory of Anne Frank included.
"Somebody will always come over with a quote from her trying to catch me," he said. "It's fiction. 'Oh, she would never be that way because she was the one who said, 'After all, I still believe ...' She said that before dying in Bergen-Belsen. Or seeing all of that. And, by the way, she was trying to get published. She probably had Strunk & White there and Writer's Digest How to Make a Bad Book Good. So I'd love to hear what she had to say after seeing Auschwitz because that was pre-Auschwitz."
The book becomes a mournful meditation on the realities of survival. Survival is often not pretty, and Auslander makes sure we know it. So which is the true tragedy: life or death?
"It's a question mark," Auslander said.
It's not hard to imagine him a round-faced kid with rebellious streak running through his sidelocks.
"I went to Orthodox school," he said. "It's like unschool. Anti-school. You actually know less when you come out because they don't teach you anything."
So he started teaching himself, stockpiling a cache of literature and philosophy. Kafka, Beckett, Spinoza.
"Books were like this dangerous underground," he said. "I always thought that the Feds should be watching. I just thought every time I went to the library and scanned out these books, some wires were going out to D.C. and the C.I.A. was just like, he took out whatever."
Hope: A Tragedy is full of allusions to and outright mentions of The Metamorphosis.
"That to me was the fun part, and it just kind of happened that I realized at a certain point it was a metamorphosis from the point of view of the family and not Gregor. I thought that was funny. At a certain point, the sister was probably right. Practically speaking, a shrink would have said, 'I'm sure you loved him as your brother, but that's not your brother anymore. That's a gigantic insect.' Kafka was so funny because he was like, That's not the way the story's supposed to go. The family's supposed to rally around him, and they don't. And when they don't, he should get angry, but he doesn't, he feels bad and it's funny."
The link between anger and humor is not a new one, but in Auslander's case it seems particularly apparent in his conversation and, more importantly, in his writing.
"Milan Kundera is great," Auslander said. "I love his nonfiction, and in The Curtain he has an essay about Kafka where he talks about going into the dark depths of the joke, which is basically saying, It starts there, but then you take it seriously. The guy wakes up, and he was being arrested and he doesn't know why. It's funny but by page 20, it's not funny anymore, because you're like, 'Holy shit, this guy's serious!' And that's great because that's not just a literary theory, I think. That's life. I think life is a joke that you have to take seriously. You have to engage in it because it is. We're here, we don't fit, the universe doesn't particularly like us. Earth seems to be trying to get rid of us. We're aware of death. Our hands reach our genitals, which our parents tell us we're not to do. It's funny, but you can't just go through it like a madman; you have to actually make a go of it. So it's always: Life is a ridiculous premise taken to ridiculous extremes. And it works."
Like a true neurotic, Auslander's logic is often contradictory. If his religious schooling didn't teach him much, he attributes his storytelling instincts to his familiarity with the Old Testament after years of careful (and enforced) study.
"It was like taking one Shakespeare play and reading it for 18 years. And reading everybody who wrote anything about it ever. And it's not a bad story, but it's a very dark story. But then all of a sudden finding people who did it in a totally different way and who laughed at that stuff was just amazing to me."
Like a good writer, he knows that he should be contradictory. The fun for him is in deconstructing each fluctuation of thought, turning a conversation with himself into a dialectic, considering both the pros and cons of life, death, hope, and despair. In Hope: A Tragedy, this back-and-forth appears as therapy sessions between Solomon Kugel and his therapist, Professor Jove, a celebrity doctor who keeps a kind of anti-inspirational poster with the words "Give up" on his office wall: "It was hope, according to Professor Jove, that was keeping Kugel up all night," the narrator tells us. "It was hope that was making him angry."
According to Auslander, his own therapist mistook Professor Jove for a version of himself.
"He said, 'That's essentially what we do, get people to lower their expectations because life's mostly disappointment.'"
Auslander's been seeing the same shrink for 15 years.
"Obviously it's not working," he joked, but quickly turned serious again.
He credits his doctor with saving him from suicide and pushing him to write about himself. Given all of that, the loyalty is understandable.
"The first thing I told him was, 'If you make me not angry, I'll fucking kill you,' because it was sort of the fuel for writing."
In spite of all the pleasantries and politeness of our conversation, I had no doubt that Auslander is still an angry guy and that he likes it this way. The key to Auslander's work, if not his personal life, is maintaining the balance between anger and insight.
"I think Kugel's trying to find some middle ground," he said. "Some way in-between that isn't just sort of naïve hopefulness, even though that's his instinct. But he reacts very negatively toward the idea of fear."
Maybe that's the thing about compromise: you always hate yourself a little bit, and you start to need the spark of fury to keep going.
AUSLANDER LIVES IN WOODSTOCK WITH HIS FAMILY, and when he's in the city, he usually only has two goals: to see his shrink and leave with his dignity intact.
"I come into the city and we pass all these ads everywhere and I find myself three hours later thinking: maybe I should write about vampires; I really need new Nikes; my jeans aren't skinny enough, I didn't know they made them that skinny. So if I can just get back to Penn Station with an ounce of dignity, without shopping bags and fat burners and just get back to what I was writing that morning without hating it now because there's no zombies…."
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