What if, instead of dying in Auschwitz, Anne Frank had lived, spirited away to America to spend the next 60 years huddled in an attic, tapping out a book she hopes will equal the emotional power of her Diary? Shalom Auslander’s absurdist comedy explodes from that outrageous premise to take on nothing less than the meaning of our tenuous existence and the painful fragility of our most cherished dreams.
With his wife and son, Solomon Kugel has moved to a farmhouse in the town of Stockton, New York, looking for refuge from a city “filled with danger and disease.” One evening an unbearable odor emanating from the attic leads to a bizarre discovery. As much as he wants to be rid of the strange woman who resides there, he must wrestle with a most disturbing question: Would a Jew turn in Anne Frank?
And Kugel has other problems. His dying mother, who’s moved into the household to live out her final days, claims she’s a Holocaust survivor and insists that Kugel’s grandfather resides in a lampshade that’s made in Taiwan. Preoccupied with his unwanted guest and petrified that his farmhouse is next on the list to be torched by a serial arsonist, Kugel eventually loses his job with the area’s “largest residential composting company.” He’s obsessed with collecting the last words of the famous and ponders which of his neighbors would shield him and his family when the new Holocaust his mother incessantly claims is imminent arrives.
Kugel’s gloomy worldview is shaped by his counselor, Professor Jove, who’s convinced the only thoughtful response to humanity’s plight is despair. Yet Kugel struggles against that grim conclusion, clinging despite the evidence to the idea that life has meaning. In these musings, Auslander strives for something more than a series of black comic riffs, and largely succeeds. Many of his protagonist’s observations are as acid-etched as the ones that made Auslander’s memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, such an outrageous reading experience. But there’s an essential sweetness at Kugel’s core, demonstrated in his solicitude for his young son Jonah and in a tender, moving scene when he encounters a deer dying by the roadside.
There are echoes of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth and even Franz Kafka in this wildly original novel. And yet with Hope: A Tragedy, Auslander has created a story that’s uniquely his, with something in it to offend, enlighten and ultimately touch just about anyone.