Shalom Auslander on wrestling with his anger, his good reviews, his therapist, and Anne Frank
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…."
He and his wife lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for many years.
"We did the 10 apartments in 10 years," he said, before finally moving out to Woodstock. "I just needed to be away from people."
His favorite place when he's visiting?
"7th and Avenue C. I always loved that it was dark and depressing," he said. "We went back, and it was totally chichi. The building was like half-owned by Ford models and there were all these models walking around, and I just hated that."
The previous evening, Auslander had given a reading in Philadelphia with the author Ben Marcus, whose novel The Flame Alphabet has just come out, too; Auslander is set to give about a dozen readings all over the country from now until March, including one tonight at McNally Jackson in Soho. He is in demand, and considering the positive reactions to the new book, should be.
"For me," he said, "I think the hardest part of writing is remaining not giving a shit. And that's to a large degree why I don't read the reviews and things like that because it's so easy to start caring."
Earlier that morning, a friend had sent him a clip from a second glowing write-up in the Times, which he not only refused to read but which made him grow angry at his friend for tempting him.
He began discussing the difference between sufferers and those who have suffered. Kugel's mother is a sufferer; she sees signs of an impending holocaust everywhere and adopts the behavior of survivors that she reads about, hiding food behind couch cushions and screaming upon waking up every morning. Initially, Auslander wanted to call the book Sufferer's Delight. He made a list of potential book titles for The Paris Review recently. The best among the rejected were The Diary of Anne Frankenstein; What Have You Done, Mother, What Have You Done?; and To Those About to Be Consumed by Flames. (The last one was canned for being, Auslander said, "too Sedaris.")
"A sufferer is someone who I think wants to remain in that mode," Auslander said. "There's some benefit to be had by being seen as that. I would hate to. But the sufferers to me .... Sufferers was a working title because it reminded me of who he was around. And how his wife was different and what he didn't want for his kid."
A lot of his work is about breaking the rules in order to get somewhere. I wanted to know where he wants to be going, and if because of or in spite of his writing, he feels like he's ever going to arrive.
"This is starting to feel like it," he said. "I can do it in fiction. In nonfiction it's harder because you're limited to what happened but you're also limited to reality and yourself and that's not always free enough, and with fiction I'm finding its just a lot of fun to let people do the things that I want to do or make the mistakes I want to make in the greater goal of finding out something. Some secret."
Before I could ask if there was some secret he was writing to find out, something maybe a bit more subtle than the false promise of hope, publicist sneaked up behind me. Auslander was scheduled to do an interview on Leonard Lopate's radio show, and the publicist whisked him away. I didn't see it coming. How could I have seen it coming?
A FEW HOURS LATER, AUSLANDER GAVE A READING at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd Street; about a hundred other people have decided to do the same. The stage was an odd, flimsy-looking platform less than a foot above the floor and upholstered in the same beige, flecked-with-gray carpet of the whole store; rather than having a calming effect, it recreates the alarming visual experience of a Magic Eye image.
Shalom appeared on stage wearing the same black cap and blazer from the morning, after a brief introduction from a woman wearing a lovely scarf. If not exactly comfortable in front of a crowd, he seemed to know what he was doing, which Shalom Auslander the people were there to see: the charming and self-deprecating one; the one I met earlier that day.
Before he started reading from the novel, he began by reading the first lines of Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times: "Other fiction writers have gotten this fresh with Anne Frank. But they don't get much funnier."
I thought back to that morning when he asserted, rather vehemently, that he never reads reviews. Was the temptation just too strong? Over coffee, he had also brought up the absurdity of abstaining from the forbidden, starting with Adam in the Garden of Eden:
"It's 'Don't eat the apple,' and there's something to be said that by saying that He [God] knew he was going to, and that He wanted him to because no one who didn't want you to eat an apple would say, 'Whatever you do, you can have everything but don't eat that apple.' It's such a setup."
This had come up apropos of an an anecdote about finding his father's stash of 8-millimeter reels of pornography after looking in a drawer he was told to stay away from. Perhaps owing to this, porn is a prominent feature in Auslander's writing life. For a story in GQ last year he flew to Texas to visit his preferred hardcore pornographer Max Hardcore, where he was then incarcerated; the visit was meant to assuage some of Auslander's deeply embedded guilt about the pleasure he got from his films. He then visited one of Hardcore's actresses, to ask essentially her forgiveness for his perversity; she offered to give him a blowjob in a restaurant bathroom.
This allure of the taboo is still applicable: pornography and glowing reviews of a debut novel may be the hardest thing to stay away from for a 41-year-old man.
After the Maslin blurb, he gets to the goods. He reads from the scene where Kugel actually finds Anne Frank, the aging symbol of hope and suffering, living in his attic. And she's not a martyr; she's just a huge bitch:
I don't know who you are, he said, or how you got up here. But I'll tell you what I do know: I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz. And I know that she died along with many others, some of whom were my relatives. And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is it not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality.
The old woman stopped typing and turned to him, fixing that hideous yellow eye upon his.
It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass, she said.
And as for the relatives you lost in the Holocaust? she continued. Blow me, said Anne Frank.
The audience loved it. Their scarved shoulders shook with laughter. Like Auslander's attraction to his father's porn, they cannot stay away from what is verboten. It is literary contraband, and it is a hit.
Though he has abandoned the severe, exacting orthodoxy of his childhood, the laconic rhythm of ritual and religion steer his prose, ironically giving his fictional disasters a comforting rhythm. He is a funny writer, and though there were genuine chuckles as he read on, nothing elicited the kind of hysterics that Anne Frank's profanity did.
Earlier in the day, I had asked him: "Why write on Anne Frank?" Others, as Maslin pointed out, had gone there before. Philip Roth in The Ghost Writer. Nathan Englander's upcoming book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. It wasn't just the symbolism, or the knee-jerk instinct to inflame.
"I kind of really dig Anne Frank at the end of the story. I do. I hated her before. It was just I was dealing with that image, that picture, and I hated that kid. Not personally, just what she'd become and the emotional space she occupied in my mind. But at the end of it, I'm like, Wow. I'm really glad she got out. I'm really glad she survived. Everything. The book, the war, and she admits survival's ugly. So she's eating carrions and killing the neighbor's cats because survival is ugly. But I kind of dig her."
"She's become a babe," I offered.
"She's like a Jewish Flannery O'Connor," he said. "One of the more heartbreaking but honest parts in the book was when she talks about if her mother had lived, what do you think, they'd have spent the rest of their lives together? No, a month later they'd be fighting again and they'd be at each other's throats. That's probably sad but very true because that's the way life works and it would have worked with her in particular because I just don't think she'd have been cowed by what she went through. Not everybody was."
Once he had finished reading, Auslander took questions; he was expecting the worst.
"Questions? Accusations?" An audience member asked why he hadn't become a stand-up comic.
"I'm a fraction of a degree of self-loathing away. It wasn't a very funny house. I tried, but it was a tough room. Caroline's is never going to be harder than Friday night at my parents' house."
He was gracious and witty, but it seemed like most of the questions came from people who hadn't read his earlier work. Like Auslander, they'd been reading the reviews. When asked how he felt about being so open about his family life, his abusive childhood, he responded, "How else do you clean your dirty laundry? You air it."
It is an obvious thing to Auslander, after 15 years of therapy with his own Professor Jove. When asked about fatherhood, he responded: "I don't know what I'll tell my children. I write to find out. I was told I was born with a target on my back and everyone hates Jews. I'm not telling them that."
His wife and two young children appear in a series of three book trailers with Auslander. The phenomenon of the book trailer is a strange one; they rarely get beyond their own gag to give more than simple plot summary. Auslander's are among the best I've come across, managing to be poignant both through and apart from the book: Auslander paces an office as he phones fellow This American Life-ers Ira Glass, Sarah Vowell, and John Hodgman to ask if, in the event of another Holocaust, his family can hide in their attics. It's a book trailer, but it's also a serious request. As Auslander talks, the video cuts to Shalom playing with his wife and children in the woods, splashing in puddles, pushing tire swings, laughing and hugging. They are sweet scenes that capture the quiet hope in a loving family. I wasn't sure how I could have forgotten about them when I was preparing my emergency-Auslander pack. Isn't that the thing, though, about anxiety? It makes irrational idiots of us all.
Before he we said our goodbyes, Auslander mentioned that his last reading in Philadelphia had been terrible for him because of a stomach flu.
"I hope I can get through without vomiting in front of everybody," he said. "Like on the book. On the lectern. Vomiting. I think if I can do that it'll have been a successful reading. I didn't shit myself. And if you go in with that level of hope, I'm going to leave a happy person. Odds are I'll walk out and go, that was pretty good."
If I had to name a flaw in the logic of his book, it would be that there isn't an accounting of the good things that come to you unexpectedly. It is not all disaster. Can you prepare for the good things, too? Does it negate the goodness in an event if you are anticipating it? Maybe he would think so, but I am not sure. Shalom is an expert at navigating contradictions. It is a quality that shouldn't be underestimated.
Shalom Auslander speaks tonight at McNally Jackson with Jessa Crispin.