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Laughing at the darkness

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It's writers like Shalom Auslander who challenge us—as readers, as Jews, as human beings. Who take something that seems so cut and dry and complicate it, make us think. His memoir, Foreskin's Lament, about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and his complex relationship with God, established him as a powerful, controversial, and comedic writer.

In his newly released debut novel, Hope: A Tragedy (Riverhead), Auslander makes us laugh and cringe at the same time, and pushes the boundaries in a work he has called "a comic novel about genocide."

Solomon Kugel, a neurotic, yet optimistic Jewish compost salesmen moves to upstate New York with his wife and son for a fresh start—a place without history—hoping to leave the past behind. Kugel's mother, who is near death and has rewritten her own personal history to include surviving the Holocaust though she was born after the war ended, moves in. And when Kugel hears tapping in the middle of the night, much to his dismay, he discovers an ancient woman hiding in his attic, typing away on a lap top, claiming to be none other than Anne Frank. The story unfolds as Kugel struggles to keep his family together, remain hopeful for his son, all while dealing with the tragic history that he has to live with—literally.

Auslander, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Monsey, New York, has published articles in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Tablet, and The New Yorker. He is a regular contributor to the Public Radio International program This American Life. His short story collection, Beware of God, was published in 2005.

Auslander will visit Spertus, Chicago's center for Jewish learning and culture, for two programs in February. In advance of his trip, Oy!Chicago talked with Auslander about his foray into novels and what to do when you find Anne Frank hiding in your attic:

Oy!Chicago: This is your first novel. Why this? Why now? 
Shalom Auslander: I was exhausted with talking about reality after Foreskin's Lament and I thought it would be fun just to do some fiction. There's this rule in fiction that the main character has to have this fatal flaw, at least that's what the Writer's Digest books all tell me, I thought it would be funny if could turn something that was generally thought of as positive like hope, into a flaw.

As I was writing [Kugel's] character and letting him talk about the things he had hopes for, one of them turned out to be not dying in a gas chamber and I thought, oh that's interesting. It wasn't until very late in the writing process that Anne Frank even appeared…If you're going to take this leap and try and get away from all of your past and start over, what's the worst thing that could happen? Well, the worst thing that could happen is that you could take your mother with you and the second worst thing is that you could find Anne Frank in the attic—sort of represents all of the bad shit of history.

You call your book "a comic novel about genocide." How do you make such an oxymoronic concept work so well? 
I think what you're describing is black comedy…I think the blacker the world gets the more we have to laugh at it. But to me, life is a black comedy—we're born, we don't know why, we don't know where we came from, we are aware that we die. We're on a planet that doesn't seem to really want us here that much…and we fall in love and then we die. I don't know how else to look at life other than a black comedy.

It's very easy for someone to just go oh that's awful, or be offended, but when you can get through to somebody, [who can] then reserve that [initial reaction] until you're through, you'll see that what I'm doing is I'm laughing at the darkness. I'm not laughing at people who suffered or the Holocaust or anything else—though I'm sure others will say I am. It's laughing at the idea that [tragedy] happens over and over again and we're very ill equipped to either stop it or deal with it, but we have to.

In the book, there's this recurring theme that hope is a flaw, it's what's wrong with the world. Do you think that's true? 
It was a lot of fun to give voice to that perspective and let someone say something that you think is horrible or wrong but make a really good argument for it…that part of what leads to all the sadness and disappointment is that we expect far too much from the world around us. The idea that everything is going to work out okay generally makes us want to kill each other when it doesn't. As for me though, I have two little boys—I can't go embracing that.

The other theme is this idea of how we deal with our past, with our history. Do you think that is just a Jewish problem? 
If the world my parents and rabbis described to me as everyone just hating the Jews existed, it would suck for Jews but it'd be kinda happy for the rest of the world, but it doesn't actually come to that at all. I used the Holocaust because it's my point of reference for THE WORST BAD THING THAT EVER HAPPENED, but if I were Armenian it would be discussing the Armenian Genocide, if I were African perhaps it would be slavery, it could be WWI, it could be anything. There's no shortage of horrors in the past and the real question is Jew or otherwise, what the fuck can we do?

How much of you is in Solomon Kugel? 
Part of me is Kugel, hoping that you can just move into the woods and start over. Part of me is Anne Frank, that some mornings I wake up and I just don't want to leave the house—the world seems such a horrible place on such a regular basis that I'd rather just lock all of us up in the attic and use my iPhone to order food and download movies for the rest of our lives. And then there's a part of me that I've moved away from but that is also like Mother—I came from the idea that paranoia and fear will be your greatest protector. If we're just frightened enough then it will never happen again. If you expect the unexpected then it won't be unexpected when it happens. 

On Saturday, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m., Auslander will be the guest of honor at a special Spertus reception. On Sunday, Feb. 12 at 2 p.m., Auslander will present the winner of Moment Magazine's memoir writing contest and discuss personal influences on his work, including the quirks of faith and family.  

Tickets for either program may be bought online at spertus.edu or by calling (312) 322-1773.

Auslander's books will be for sale at these programs.
(Please note that these books and programs contain adult content.)

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