At the start of Annie Hall, Woody Allen famously transformed the punchline of an old Borscht Belt joke into a life philosophy when he defined human existence as ''full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.'' That sentiment would probably appeal to Solomon Kugel, the protagonist of essayist Shalom Auslander's poisonously funny debut novel, Hope: A Tragedy. Racked by constant worry and swimming in a pool of neuroses deeper and darker than the Mariana Trench Kugel's mind plays host to a parade of nagging fears, morbid digressions, and firmly rooted paranoia. And yet, he considers himself an optimist. Why would he spend so much time pondering worst-case scenarios if he weren't truly hoping for the best case?
This isn't to say that he doesn't have legitimate problems. There's an arsonist on the loose in his town, he's living with a mother who clings to life even as she trudges into dotage, his wife is growing increasingly unhappy, and Anne Frank is living in his attic. Yes, Anne Frank. Kugel discovers that the famed diarist and Holocaust victim, far from dead, has actually been sequestered in American suburban attics as she pens her follow-up book. She's not the beatific teen whose visage graced millions of book covers, but instead a gnarled, bilious creature who does all she can to ruin Kugel's life. It's an absurd, and risky, premise, but Auslander isn't just rooting around for shock value; he turns his character's unwanted occupant into a nasty symbol of guilt and the inconvenience of history. Viktor Frankl this is not, but it does try to parse meaning in suffering, whether it be genocide or the arsonist's lowercase holocausts. Taken as a whole, Hope: A Tragedy is like an unintentional bark of laughter at a funeral: an inappropriate, instinctive reaction to something perhaps too horrible to respond to in any other way. A–