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Beware of God: stories
Shalom Auslander pp. 194,
$19.95 Simon & Schuster
Eager to please and semi-offend, quick to poke fun at his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, the Holocaust, or even (gasp!) relations between the sexes; equipped with jacket blurbs from the likes of A.M. Homes and Augusten Burroughs: on paper this looks like it can’t fail. Auslander’s book should earn him the crown (or is it yarmulke?) of "next Jewish it-boy" faster than a guiltily copped feel on a second cousin at a Passover seder. Not to mention that it should prove an exception to the trend in short story collections and actually sell a bunch of copies.
There’s only one problem. This is a terrible book, and not just a little bit either. Simon & Schuster should be ashamed of themselves for having allowed Beware of God to go to press, though that the above-described is a marketing department’s wet dream probably explains what happened. I seriously wonder if anyone read these stories before okaying them. Even if they were perused before being rubber-stamped I’d bet my paycheck they weren’t edited.
Most of these stories qualify as, or anyhow strive for, magic realism, though the "magical" conceits they rely on are almost entirely without that genre’s glamour, and so poorly constructed they couldn’t survive ten minutes of group critique in an undergraduate writing workshop. In "Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp," for example, a monkey at the Bronx Zoo achieves "total conscious self-awareness." At least that’s what Auslander tells us has happened. He does little to prove his case. Bobo doesn’t seem to have become conscious of his own monkey-selfhood, or of the true nature of reality, or of whatever Auslander might have meant by this nonsense phrase. Bobo creates expressionist artwork and provides his own political readings thereof; he ponders (and opines on) Judeo-Christian ethics; he falls in love with a female monkey named Esmerelda but becomes enraged when she chooses Mongo, a larger and more virile monkey, over him. The enlightened primate who can paint a "searing assault on political power and corporate gain" also takes $35,000 per canvas and wants a place in Larchmont, "something with a fence and a swing set for the kids." Eventually the reader will realize what Auslander clearly didn’t. Namely, that Bobo is not self-hating; it’s everyone else he hates. The satirical, nightmarish character of the story comes not from the inverted caricature (man-represented-by-a-monkey-which-thinks-it’s-a-man) but from the irresolvable discrepancy between Bobo’s sudden "awareness" (read=American bourgeois values and white-guy angst) concerning what life is supposed to be and his inability to obtain it. Bobo isn’t tormented by his status as lonely prophet, unrespected in his own land; he’s the Jew who wants to be a good Nazi, if only they’d let him come to the meetings. Like that Jew, the monkey’s trauma stems not from a consciousness of limitation but from a profound delusion. And so, in another amusing (albeit unintended) reversal, the supposedly fully conscious monkey is in fact possessed by the particular delusion that he is a secular, middle-class Jewish intellectual.
Auslander has so few tricks up his sleeve that the book, though short, fast becomes a reading chore. Does the dog in "Heimish Knows All" actually speak, and if so, can anyone else hear him as the little boy fears? The reader doesn’t find out, and I’d bet Auslander couldn’t tell you. The story is an excuse to write about jerking off; as if this theme were suddenly rendered novel by the fact that the boy here is an Orthodox Jew, that attribution as shallow and tacked-on as a tail pinned to a donkey.
On Amazon.com you can buy Beware of God bundle-priced with Robert Alter’s recent scholarly translation of the five books of Moses. The book and its accompanying publicity have taken great joy in parading Auslander’s Orthodox upbringing and his willingness to "explore" that culture. But this book is as light on exploration as it is on inspiration or, for that matter, detail. He keeps telling us the characters are Orthodox Jews, or that they live in Sheepshead Bay, but he doesn’t bother to nuance these people or places at all. His satires offer less insight and humor than a Saturday Night Live sketch, though Auslander’s jokes skew dirtier than network TV can get away with these days. After fourteen stories, you still don’t have a clue what Sheepshead Bay looks like or what its residents might do there.
Continuity problems also abound. If the reader is "treated" to watching little Shlomo first discover pornography during the course of "Heimish Knows All," then how can the narrative (a close third person that really wants to be first person but won’t commit) describe the fluttering page of an as-yet-unidentified copy of Juggs as "pornography pink?" A few pages later, Shlomo is at the shul but notices the all-seeing mutt "over the driveway, through the trees, past the main entrance, through the bathroom window." The dog and Shlomo have a short conversation, then some older boys start pushing Shlomo around, then Shlomo runs outside. How were Shlomo and Heimish even talking when they were separated by all that space (and walls and windows)? Where did these boys come from, and how are they getting away with pushing Shlomo around when the last we heard Dr. Kaplan was in the shul’s bathroom also, and Auslander never bothered to write in the scene where Kaplan left? Why is the dog concerned at all with what the boy is doing, even granting the premise that he magically "knows all?"
It’s easy to forget that there are two parts to magic realism. Writers are quick to embrace the wiggle-room and loose ends afforded by the "magic" aspect, but they tend to be less enthusiastic when it comes to holding up the "realism" end of the bargain. A magic realist work’s success relies largely on the text’s ability to affirmatively answer two basic questions: (1) Is the fictional world sufficiently realistic (read=believable) as a world? (2) Is the particular magic realist element internally consistent within said world? If you can say "yes" to those two things, you can do just about anything else and come out on top.
"Waiting for Joe" is a story about two rodents who think their owner is God. Well, sort of. Actually they kind of know he’s just some guy, and they wonder where he went, if he’s coming back, if he’s dead. They have a brief argument about whether or not Joe reads James Patterson novels, and whether he’s still fit to be their savior if in fact he does. That’s funny, but it shatters the story’s balsa-weak conceit. Are these hyper-intelligent rodents that read novels and can critique the human world, or are they pitifully misguided creatures so lacking in perspective they think their owner is God? Both are ideas arguably worth exploring in a short story but they are diametrically opposed; each idea deserves-requires-its own tale. Instead we get this garbled mess, which manages the marginally impressive feat of being simultaneously empty and overstuffed. Honestly, though, I was so bored by the time I came across "Waiting for Joe" (near the middle of the book) that I’d have forgiven it all of its structural and logical sins if it had only made good on its promise of being funny.
There are half-assed references to other, better works of literature peppered throughout this book. He invokes Tim O’Brien’s haunting "The Things They Carried" for his piddling misfire "The War of the Bernsteins." "Waiting for Joe" starts out with the Bible’s own "In the beginning." "Holocaust Tips for Kids," one of the few high points of this collection, benefits from a considerable helping of Barthelme; and of course we have a main character named Bloom, but Auslander trying to harness Joyce is just sad. Ditto Kafka for the unfunny rewrite of "The Metamorphosis" where Motty awakes one morning to find himself "transformed in his bed into a very large goy." Here is Motty the goy: muscular, hairy-chested, wearing a Budweiser shirt, suddenly filled with the desire to do physical labor, foreskin re-established. The writing smacks with self-pride even as the story raises every hackneyed stereotype and does nothing productive with any of them. You can almost hear Auslander sitting at his computer, pounding out this trite tripe and tittering to himself: that’ll show ‘em. And how.
Which is, apparently, the way that Auslander thinks. As I mentioned above, these stories are told in a close, talky third person. It’s the same narrative voice in each story, asking rhetorical questions to the reader, throwing in little one-liners, almost always ending on a pseudo-snappy sentence fragment afforded its own paragraph. (Examples: "Because you never know;" "That was new;" "Tired of the whole damn business;" "Doughnut prayed;" "But Motty had already gone;" "Schmuck;" "They’re all the same;" "Chicken.") Who is this omniscient, disembodied creature that constantly threatens to turn what was already a bad collection into a bad monologue? Well it’s either God or Auslander playing same, and either way the Beware in the book’s title is once again more appropriate than it meant to be.
Beware of God is rarely amusing, occasionally disgraceful, and generally a regrettable mess. If you’re at a bookstore and have a few minutes to spare, maybe read "Holocaust Tips for Kids" or "Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown." The two best selections in the book by far, it should be no surprise that these are not regular stories, but rather amalgamations of vignettes and one-liners. They work because Auslander, who may or may not be a humorist but is certainly not a storyteller, is left without anything to screw up; he can just tell jokes. At an average of a paragraph a shot you can take them or leave them.
This could go on, but probably shouldn’t. It is worth mentioning, however, that Auslander isn’t a disease; he’s a symptom. It’s galling that in a publishing environment where short story collections are always already getting the short end of the stick, a large and reputable house would put what little time, money, and PR it has for story collections into backing a text that by all rights should still be saddled with the one adjective no longer applicable to it: unpublishable. Maybe it’s an easy cash cow for the company. (I certainly hope Homes and Burroughs were well-compensated for taking the credibility hit.) S&S will probably make their money back and then some in the time it takes everyone to realize the book is trash, then it’ll go out of print. Existing copies will be consigned to the bargain bin box at every used bookstore from the Upper East Side toyou guessed it: Sheepshead Bay.
JUSTIN TAYLOR is a writer, living in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org