A Bellyful of Laughs

Shalom Auslander, Mother for Dinner (Picador, 2021)

If you want to get on in America in the twenty-first century, you’ve got to have a dash.

African-American is where it all started, of course. Asian-American came along in time, eventually to be followed by a veritable parade of Something-Americans.

French-Americans, Portuguese-Americans, Lebanese-Americans, Albino-Americans…

But what about Cannibal-Americans?

Shalom Auslander’s new novel, Mother for Dinner, exposes the plight of this under-represented minority. Seventh Seltzer, our Can-Am protagonist (to use the preferred shorthand), believes himself to have got out from under the long shadow of his heritage, only to be dragged back in after his mother dies.

His mother, like her father before her and her brother after her – the shamanic “Unclish” – is a devout follower of Cannibal folk practice. On her deathbed, she draws her children around them and delegates each of them a part of herself to eat after she passes.

“To you, First,” she says, addressing her first child, “I leave my ass. So you can kiss it.”

She is not the most pleasant of mothers in literature.

Mudd, as she’s named – a suitable Jungian derogative for the fecund, foul ground of life – names her children in honour of the order of their birth: First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Zero, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth.

She had wanted twelve boys. When six died she was distraught, more because it ruined her naming system than because of the actual loss. Then, when her eighth-born child was a girl, she made an allowance by calling her Zero.

Can-Am lore, like Mudd’s naming system, has a distinctly improvisational feel. In fact, the more obviously made-up the traditions sound, the more vociferously Mudd and Unclish defend them.

Seventh’s father, from whom Mudd is now divorced, sums it all up as “ancient bullshit”.

Their holy book is The Complete Guide to Field-Dressing and Processing Your Deer. The ancients, Unclish solemnly states, hid the book from prying non-Can eyes by switching out the word “person” in favour of “deer”. Only the Can-Am community knows the real truth.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson, whose refusal to come out as Can-Am is a source of abiding shame in this “community”. The “community” also frowns on Gilligan’s Island, a show created by the Jews to make Cannibals look bad.

As the book goes on, we come to wonder whether this “community” ever stretched further than Mudd and Unclish. Sure, they have their ancient customs and ceremonial daggers, but at lot of the lore seems curiously convenient.

Seventh works as a book publisher. He spends his days sorting through piles of manuscripts, each one telling the next Something-American odyssey; a tale of oppression, followed by hope, followed by disillusionment, and the resolution to fight for change.

His own Can-Am version of the “Not So Great Something-American Novel”, Out of the Shadows, is continually passed over in favour of the latest “One-Legged-Pakistani-British-American-Fiscal-Conservative-Social-Democrat-Transgender-Polygamist” novel, or “Queer-iOS-Supporting-Non-Corporeal-American” novel.

That Seventh so easily disparages the mass of identical Something-American narratives and yet wants to have his own published demonstrates Auslander’s astuteness when it comes to dealing with his central theme: American identity.

Americans don’t want to be imposed upon by the past and yet, in the absence of any belief in their own nation and culture, it is only through looking for supposedly “deeper” and “truer” pasts that they can shore up their identities. In the world of Something-Americans, the Something always rings truer.

 And yet, being Americans, they want to be free, even of their own self-imposed Somethingness.

There are no neat solutions to this psychological splitting, this national fragmentation, and Auslander doesn’t try to provide any. Instead, he lays on the laughs. Humour is perhaps the only way to navigate a topic like this, and his note-perfect delivery leaves us bemused, frowning, groaning, and, on occasions, totally disgusted.

Auslander has understood the obscenity of the situation. Can-Am tradition is simply a concretising of the whole Freudian, Levi-Straussian, Žižekian mess that weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The Motherland. Tell me about your mother…

Mother for Dinner is a brilliant astute comedy that explores a delicate subject without an axe to grind. A veritable feast.

  • Joe Darlington

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