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Shalom Auslander: Mother for Dinner

This is not the first book about cannibalism on this site. If you are likely to be offended or upset at a book about cannibalism in Brooklyn, don’t worry. Auslander has many other ways of offending you in this book.

Our hero is Seventh Seltzer and he is a Cannibal American. It seems that their people had continued cannibalism, though only for ritual reasons, even when they emigrated to the United States. We have their (US)-origin myth. Or rather we have two. The original immigrants to the US were brother and sister (and also husband and wife – yes, we have incest as well) and came over in 1918. Where they came from is not clear. We do not know the name of the country, where it was, what language they spoke or, indeed, much of anything. One myth has it was an earthly paradise, another one as a hellhole.

Whatever the true story Julius and Julia arrived, pretended to be married to gain entry and then found that the US was not the dream they had anticipated. No matter. Julius managed to find a job with the Ford Motor Company and off they went. They eventually gained US citizenship, with an elaborate ceremony involving a giant pot (i.e. melting pot). However, Henry Ford took a shine to Julia and kept her more or less as his sex slave with Julius fully occupied cleaning the toilets. Julia found a way out but it cost Julius his job and off they went to Brooklyn. They begat John, who became a mafioso and was eventually gunned down by the police (brutally murdered/killed in a robbery,depending which version of the legend you believed). John begat Humphrey, which is where we begin.

Humphrey was a puny man but he married a fellow CA (=Cannibal American) who was a very large woman. She announced that, to continue the CA tradition they would produce twelve sons. Humphrey was not enthusiastic but had little choice. The first boy was named First, the Second Second and so on. It went wrong when, Sixth, then aged four, died. His wife, whose name we never know but whom her children called Mudd, had been a ferocious woman but who now calmed a down a bit. The boys kept on coming till finally a girl was born. She was clearly not part of the plan so was named Zero. She was the sweetest of the lot, despite being despised by her mother.

Most of the children married non-CA partners to Mudd’s disgust and, indeed, many of them got away as soon as possible. Our hero, Seventh, had married Carol a woman whose family came from the Dominican Republic. Our father insisted he had no prejudices, as long as Seventh was not from Haiti. Seventh did not tell Carol or her family about his family, maintaining that his parents were long since dead. The couple had a daughter, Reese.

Seventh worked as an editor for a publisher which gives Auslander ample opportunity to mock both identity politics, which much of this book is about, and the modern US novel. Every submission is a Not-So-Great Something-American Novel. It was all anyone wrote these days, and all Rosenbloom, his boss, cared to publish. He sums up the standard format for us:

Arduous New World Journey
Dashed Dreams Leading to Utter Hopelessness
Determination in the Face of Systematic Repression
Fight for Acceptance
Desire Revealed as Tragic Flaw
formerly Defiant Resumption of Hope
but now Triumphant Rediscovery of Unique Cultural Heritage

Seventh rejected every manuscript he read. It wasn’t their sameness — he was in publishing, after all; he was used to sameness. It was part of a larger problem with which he had struggled his entire life: identity. From the Pro-Choice-Lesbian-Croatian-American one to the Heroin-Addicted-Autistic-Christian-American-Diabetic one, none had anything new to say.

Seventh has more or less cut off relationships with his CA family. However, he does now and then phone Mudd. Mudd is viciously racist. All races are bad except, of course, the CA and she has a lot of criticism about various racial groups. This issue is echoed in the novel submissions he sees. Very soon, Rosenbloom says, everyone will have their own nation, their own little square and all will want novels about their square.

However, there is one issue where the CA differ from other racial groups. Like others, they still practice some of the traditions brought over from the Old Country and one of those traditions we gradually learn is cannibalism. In their case it is fairly limited. It consists merely of the immediate family of a deceased family eating the corpse of the dead person. This happened with Sixth and with Aunt Hazel. it is soon to happen with Mudd, as she is getting old. She is preparing herself by stuffing herself with large amounts of hamburgers.

Not surprisingly, Seventh and his siblings are not particularly looking forward to eating Mudd after she dies. Indeed, Seventh is determined to resist. When he gets the summons to the Brooklyn house that Mudd is dying, he plans to refuse but then calls a cab. They are all there. Mudd announces who gets to eat what part of her and why. When she finally expires, they are left with a choice – to follow her wishes (which, of course, are culturally unacceptable and illegal in the United States) or to go the conventional route.

They soon realise there is a catch. If they don’t eat her, they do not collect the share of their inheritance which, given the increased value of the Brooklyn house, could be quite a lot. Several of them have financial problems and would welcome the inheritance. What to do? They call Unclish. Unclish is the CA unofficial leader and keeper of the flame and their father’s brother. Unclish says they cannot cut her up here and she must be take to the CA University. This is something they had all heard of but never seen and we soon learn why. It was built but abandoned as all the CA children went to conventional US universities. The building, however, is still there. So off they set.

Auslander is one of the funniest US authors writing these days, not least because he knows how to go just too far. He brutally mocks identity politics, racism and the whole idea that we are all somehow different based on on our ethnic background, religious affiliation, sexual, dietary and other choices, gender identity and so on. We are not human beings, we are Gender-Neutral-Albino-Lebanese-Eritrean-American or Blind-Alcoholic-Latinx-Sri-Lankan-American or whatever tribe we have chosen to identify with.

You may well be offended when reading this book but that is the point. However, it is certainly one of the funniest books I have read for a while. From Jack Nicholson jokes to the Great Cannibal American Novel, which Seventh writes, nothing is sacred And is there any positive, you ask? Yes there is. It is Montaigne.

Publishing history

First published 2020 by Riverhead