Blueprints for laughter, life, love and belonging

Fiction works on the understanding that none of it really happened; we agree to believe it anyway, says John Self


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Admirers of Shalom Auslander’s previous bare-knuckle bouts with sacred cows were beginning to wonder where he’d got to. After the hectic motorboating — rarely subtle but usually funny — of religion (in Beware of God), his Jewish up- bringing (in Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, with an acknowledgements page headed “Whom to Kill”) and the memorialisation industry (in Hope: A Tragedy, featuring a foul-mouthed elderly Anne Frank), how about, nine years later, a novel featuring a family of cannibals who have to eat their dead mother?

Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Picador £16.99

Mother for Dinner is not really about cannibals, but about culture and identity in a world where those concepts are used to isolate people, not always unwillingly. “People like putting themselves in boxes,” says one character. “They like putting other people in boxes. They think the boxes will protect them.” Hence our hero, Seventh Seltzer, who works for a publishing house that puts out only “Not-So-Great Something-American Novels”, micro-niche stories: “the Heroin-Addicted-Autistic-Christian-American one”; “the Blind-Alcoholic-Latinx-Sri-Lankan-American one”.

“Nothing so assures the cultural acceptance of a book these days as the rejection of the culture that gave birth to it,” writes Auslander, recalling that America was supposed to be a melting pot, not a silo farm. “Wherever you are from, now you are home,” said the immigration official to Seltzer’s ancestors, the first cannibals to come to America. But they didn’t want to assimilate, they wanted to protect their traditions, which included consuming their family dead.

The downside is that Auslander, as in his previous books, turns out to be better at line than at length, and he swerves between giving his subject a damn good juicing and just going on a bit

Skip a few generations and we have the present-day Seltzers, a Jewish-ish “Can-Am” family ruled by a monstrous mother, like the mothers in Auslander’s other books. In Foreskin’s Lament he wrote about “why I have, as my mother put it in one of her last ever emails to me, forsaken my people”. In Mother for Dinner, the Seltzer mother wonders the same thing: after all, she had 12 sons, each named for his number, with the aim of reconstituting the “Can-Am” community. When the book opens, she’s near death and fattening herself up for consumption by eating dozens of Burger King Whoppers while “clopping” her adult kids on the head when they get out of line. “Don’t you believe those liberals, making Jesus out to be John goddamned Lennon. Jesus was a fighter. He was a warrior.”

Death follows, as death ever does, and up goes the over-the-top stuff: draining mother’s body of blood, assigning the siblings the body parts she directed each one to eat in her final wishes. There is a certain amount of capering, as the Seltzers try to buy enough gas to barbecue their mother, and portions of fries to accompany, while evading law enforcement who just don’t understand their people’s customs.

But this is no more a gross-out comedy than Lolita is pornography: under the bluster rests a simple story of whether we should hold on to our pasts or free ourselves from them. Seventh wants to reject his Can-Am identity, but it leaves him uncertain who he is, and he turns for inspiration to Henry Ford’s Americanisation programme for his employees and to Montaigne’s essays, which 500 years later still keep coming true: “Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our asses.”

Auslander is just as torn as his characters (“he was an asshole, but he was our asshole”), but his division is between telling a story and telling jokes, the more bad-taste the better: how about Seltzer ancestor Julia evading rape by antisemite Henry Ford through pretending to be a Jew?

And there are so many riff s on identity and assimilation, it’s inevitable that some land (such as immigrant groups vying to be more quasi-American by littering their vehicles with miniature flags) while others don’t (the concept of the earth having no borders when seen from the sky? Didn’t Bette Midler cover that in “From a Distance”?).

The downside is that Auslander, as in his previous books, turns out to be better at line than at length, and he swerves between giving his subject a damn good juicing and just going on a bit. Th e upside is that at last, already, here’s a book that’s funny enough not just to make you nod to show you got the joke, but to make you laugh and laugh.

It’s not just identity that drills fiction down into categories: we are now so saturated with hyper-specific conceits that we can say, “What, another World War Two time travel novel?” After Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life comes the anointed Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual, “something new and brave”, according to critics; an “experiment with fiction”.

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford, Faber £16.99

This is because the book is presented as a sort of alternative history: at the beginning a passage of virtuoso slow-mo description (“look, I am being A Novelist!”) describes the explosion of a German rocket in London in 1944, which kills a handful of five- year-old children. Spufford then reverses time, Superman-style, and imagines their lives if the bomb hadn’t dropped. “Come, other future.” And off we go, first to an alternative 1949, where four of the children — Val, Jo, Vern and Alec — are in the same class in school, in the fictional south London borough of Bexford while Ben, alone — his separateness a form of foreshadowing — is at a Millwall match with his dad.

Then to 1964, where the characters are in their mid-twenties and start to distinguish themselves: Alec joining The Times as a print compositor, where he’ll be a trade union stalwart; Val dating and dabbling, before settling with handsome Mike who seems charming enough; Jo breaking through into a singing career, heading out west; and Vern the biggest of the lot, already conning those easily parted from their money into legal involvement with a series of property enterprises: Grosvenor, Albermarle, Featherstone, each one sounding more like a model of stairlift than the faux-rare air he’s after.

In one sense, Light Perpetual does conjure two alternative realities

Ben, again, is alone: in a hospital, suffering from schizophrenia, and grateful for the Largactil that “freezes all the rattling contents of his head” even if it imposes temporary Parkinsonism on him as its price. And it’s in Ben’s section that we first see a primary characteristic of Light Perpetual: a quality of serious noticing. Spufford’s attention to detail, and loving devotion to everything from the hot metal printing press to driving an Issigonis Mini in wet weather is a delight, and he blends the characters’ internal and external experiences to simultaneously drive the story further while sinking it deeper.

It’s a good way to pack in an epic feel while keeping page count under control: the book leaps forward in 15-year stretches, following the friends to 1979, 1994 and 2009, splicing in the expected political developments: Thatcher, interest rates, league tables (football and school). It’s Our Friends in the South. The pals’ paths cross and occasionally twine together, and by the end, when they’re all 70, there’s a vein of sentimentality about place and time which I didn’t mind at all (you know, like people dancing at a wedding to “Holding Back the Years”).

What I did mind a bit was the way all this excellent stuff is bent around the conceit that opened the book. We’re constantly reminded about the diversion of life’s paths, to reinforce that initial point that these people were killed in a bomb, and their lives never really happened. But fiction works on the understanding that none of it really happened; we agree to believe it anyway. Putting frills and thrills around the edges doesn’t change that. In one sense, Light Perpetual does conjure two alternative realities. The first says: this is a very good traditional novel. The second says: a bold experiment? What are you talking about?

Bolder is Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel Open Water, which takes several risks but makes them pay off. It’s a short but unhurried story of love between two young black people in modern Britain — what could be older than boy (photographer) meets girl (dancer)? — which uses the risky conceit of the second person voice to enhance the slow, intimate tone.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, Viking £12.99

They circle around one another, drifting between friendship and love, between youth and adulthood, not wanting to bring the courtship to a head, not wanting not to; completing a circuit, after all, closes it off . She goes to Dublin to study, he stays in London; he goes to visit her; she comes back.

Ecstatic writing on music, details that speak of life below the surface and a demarcation between the internal narrative

The pleasantly slurred quality to the narrative means there isn’t much narrative tension — at least until a scene in a barber shop near the end — though we do get to find out whether they do, or don’t, or do, or don’t take a risk on one another and swim out “into open water”.

As with Light Perpetual, there’s a hell of a lot packed in here. Ecstatic writing on music, details that speak of life below the surface (“I helped raise my brother”), and a demarcation between the internal narrative — tightly wrought if sometimes mannered — and the casual dialogue. “You look like you got hit by a bus,” says one of his friends, “and you dusted yourself off, and did it again for the hell of it. You look like you’re wondering when the next time you can get hit by that bus is.” Open Water makes several references to Zadie Smith; 21 years to the month since Smith was announced as a new writer to watch — they were right — comes Azumah Nelson. They might be right about him too.

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