, Shalom Auslander’s new novel, is very funny despite his hapless hero, Solomon Kugel, having to deal with a mother who insists she’s a Holocaust survivor, the local arsonist, and an unwanted guest in the attic.
It’s hard not to read the tribulations of Solomon Kugel without thinking of Job. Were you?
The two biggest influences are probably Job and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I always liked the story of Job, which seems to me the unfortunate story of everyone, ever: bad things happen, then worse things happen, then you get covered in boils, and then, broken and beaten, you pray to God. Like an idiot, you hope, because there’s nothing else you can do. It’s understandable, of course, and sad, and a bit funny, but what if that all-too-human hope actually makes things worse? What if resignation is the thing with feathers? That’s what I was curious about. Of course, at the end of Job, everything magically gets better, a Hollywood cop-out ending that never rang true to me.
Eventually I realized that the story of Kugel’s struggle with this grotesque in his attic was also becoming something of The Metamorphosis as told by the rest of the Samsa family; at one point in Hope: A Tragedy, Kugel says so explicitly, as he’s considering what to do with her: “Yeah, okay,” he thinks, “it’s a shame and a tragedy and Gregor was a great guy, but he’s been a bug for three months now, folks. He’s not getting better and he’s ruining our lives. He smells like shit, he’s eating garbage, and he’s chasing away the tenants. How long do we carry on this way? Six months? A year? Should we find him a female giant bug and let them have lots of giant bug children in there? Or should I go find a giant boot somewhere, stomp him, and go on with our lives? Everybody’s always crying for Gregor, but, people, think about the Samsas.”
In many ways, this very funny book is about the Holocaust—its weight, its shadow, its appropriation and misappropriation. Are jokes a way to say the unsayable?
Laughter is God’s way of trying to make it all up to us. “Okay, I know this sucks, so: here’s humor. Here’s laughter. Here’s a guy slipping on a banana peel. It won’t fix anything, but it’ll make the whole hideous Life thing a little bit easier to bear.”
You’re often compared to Philip Roth, but it seems like Samuel Beckett is at least as implicated.
Beckett is something of an obsession of mine; that laughter in the dark, at the darkest of all things, the risus puris, he called it—the laugh that laughs at that which isn’t funny. Which is pretty funny.