Life & Culture

Shalom Auslander on his new book ‘Feh’: ‘We’ve been told a terrible story about ourselves for thousands of years’

Novelist and screenwriter Shalom Auslander is one of America’s sharpest comic provocateurs. He talks to Nicholas Lezard about his new memoir, Feh, about his love for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and why he would take any seat going on a plane to the UK


NL: You’ve said that Feh is the most optimistic book you’ve ever written. Would you care to expand on that? Because some people, unfamiliar with your previous work, might not consider it all that optimistic.

SA: I think most of my writing is optimistic, as it’s essentially about exodus, about leaving, about moving from darkness to light. Dark and blackly comic, sure, but optimistic. The Exodus part of the Torah is one of the few optimistic bits – until they actually get to the Promised Land, of course. Bit of a mixed bag since then, to be honest. My first memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, was about my relationship with God. Feh is about my relationship to both myself and to mankind – about how we all feel about ourselves and each other. It’s about the realisation that I – and most of humanity – have been told a terrible story about ourselves, for thousands of years, a story in which we’re the antagonist, the Bad Guy, the evil ones – that we’re feh, the Yiddish interjection used to express disgust or revulsion. I’m feh, you’re feh, we’re all feh from Day One. That’s the Feh story – God creates us (he’s the heroic, perfect protagonist – we are his only mistake) and Day One, we steal. Then we lie. Then our son murders his brother. Then our great-great-great grandfather steps off the Ark, gets drunk and has sex with their daughters. Feh. The End. This memoir is the story of my trying to rewrite that story, to get out from under it, after 50 years of being crushed by it – because it’s a fiction, and a divisive, dangerous fiction that’s become so much a piece of who we are that even atheists and scientists repeat it. Ultimately, this is a story about being tired of a miserable story, and about being tired of all the judgment and hatred that story has implanted in us all. That’s the optimism – I think if we recognise this, we can begin to change. Maybe.

NL: When you say “we” – how much do you think Feh is a Jewish story, and how much a universal one? Obviously, it’s purely personal, but it does seem to resonate.

SA: I wish it was just a Jewish story. At least then we’d be the only ones damaged by it. When I was much younger, I thought it was, simply because most of the people I knew were Jewish. But as I began to read beyond the religion, I began to hear echoes of this story everywhere, the same damned story, first in Kafka (Jewish, but secular), then in Beckett, Swift, Voltaire. I was intrigued, because they were suffering from the story but laughing at it in some ways (blackly, which appealed to me as a method for dealing with it that didn’t involve jumping in front of a bus) but the more I read, the more I heard it in places I didn’t expect it – in philosophy, history, science. It was when I met and subsequently lost Phil Hoffman that I began to ask where this story came from, how it could be so ubiquitous. Phil was Irish Catholic, and as feh as I was, perhaps even more so. As I write in the book, feh knows feh – we know one another instantly when we meet – and we became extremely close, extremely quickly. Much of his pain and sorrow came from this feeling of feh – that no matter how much adoration he received from strangers, the story he had been told in his life since he was young was that he was feh. When he died – of feh, in my opinion – I began to wonder where this story came from, and why it is so powerful. That difficult time happened to coincide with my reading a number of works about how story is the way our human brains understand the world – it is our human operating system. It’s how we raise our kids, how we learn, how we teach, how we understand. And here was this ancient story, the sort of Ur-story of mankind, that we tell about ourselves being evil. It began to seem like some sort of sick experiment, like some Job tale – what would happen if we were to take a creature that thinks in story, understands in story, dreams in story, and told it a story from birth in which it was the vile, harmful, ruinous antagonist? What kind of world would we end up with? For the answer, just scroll over to CNN or FOX.

NL: You were hoping to work with Hoffman on Happyish, your satirical comedy drama about a depressed middle-aged man, which aired in the US in 2015. What did you think of the show in the end?

SA: I was quite pleased with how Happyish turned out. It would have been better with Phil, obviously, but Steve Coogan did a good job. I believe he’s your neighbour in that seaside paradise of yours, Brighton.

NL: So what does the future hold? Will you be writing fiction or non-fiction or doing more stuff for the screen?

SA: Naturally, I imagine I’ll be picking up my Nobel Prize and my Pulitzer Prize and my Booker. Of course none of that will come to pass, the book will fail miserably, the only ones who buy it will do so in order to burn it, I’ll chastise myself for ever having hoped for anything good in the first place, and then I’ll blame it all on God. I also have to do a bunch of interviews for the book, during which I imagine I’ll be asked a lot of questions about the awful situation in the Middle East for which I have no solution, and in trying to answer it I’ll say something relatively benign that large groups of people on one side of the issue or the other will nonetheless be enraged by, or I’ll say something mildly amusing which will enrage people on both sides of the issue, or I’ll just not answer the questions at all and be accused of not caring, which frankly, given the other options, might be my safest bet.

NL: I hope you are pleased I haven’t asked you such a question in interview, but to go back to my last one: once you have turned down or not even been awarded the Nobel, a Pulitzer, and the Booker, what will you be working on next? I note that one of the funniest remarks in the book comes from your wife Orli, who looks around the luxurious suite a TV company has put you up in, and expresses her deep and justified misgivings by saying, “They’re going to f*** you silly.”

SA: She was right. And they did. And they do. I’m not sure the film/TV industry in its current form is worth the trouble. I live in Los Angeles, sadly, and I occasionally pass by the Amazon Studios, which is fronted by an elegant, historic, white colonial-style mansion with black shutters and grand columns, and I think, “Wow – that’s the prettiest Shit Factory I’ve ever seen.” As for other forms of creative disappointment, there’s a stage play in the works of my novel, Hope: A Tragedy, so I hope (ha-ha) that will happen, as well as a film adaption of my latest novel, Mother for Dinner. Of course even if these projects do start to gain some traction, I’m sure God will just kill the director, or the lead actor, or both the director and the lead actor, or He’ll just cause all of Los Angeles to sink into the sea. That’s just the way He is. In the meantime, I write The Fetal Position on Substack; if God’s gonna ruin that for me, he’s going to have to take down the entire internet – so I win either way. Check and mate, O Lord. Check and mate.

NL: Mr Auslander, it has been a pleasure to speak to you, and thank you for your time. Will you be coming to the UK any time soon for publicity purposes? British readers seem to like you, for some reason. Maybe it’s a shared sense of humour.

SA: Not enough of them, since my publisher can’t afford to fly me over there. Is there something cheaper than Economy? Is there a “Writer” section, or is that just the toilet? Tell my publisher I’ll fly Toilet.

Feh: a Memoir, by Shalom Auslander (Corsair, £22) is published on July 23

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