Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander review – cannibal identity politics

Sam Leith
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

In his new novel, Shalom Auslander applies his satirical scalpel to the delicate issues of identity politics. And anyone who has read Auslander before will know that when I say “applies his satirical scalpel”, I mean something more like “tosses a hand-grenade and runs away laughing”.

The protagonist of Mother for Dinner is Seventh Seltzer: loving husband, father of a young daughter, and a publisher’s reader in New York who is weary of the cynically pious turn in his industry towards foregrounding marginal voices. The manuscripts he sifts through are all, he complains to himself, “another tedious version of what he had taken of late to calling the Not-So-Great Something-American Novel. It was all anyone wrote these days, and all Rosenbloom, his boss, cared to publish.”

For Seventh, “identity had always been a prison he longed to escape – white, black, brown, American, European, Russian, male, female, straight, gay, They, Them, atheist, monotheist, polytheist – the ever-growing lists of cellblocks from which there was no release. And yet lately, all around him, the prisoners were proudly raising their shackles overhead and cheering their own bondage.”

Seventh has a hyphenated identity of his own. He’s Can-Am, or Cannibal-American. Now there’s a disenfranchised minority if ever there was one. Their most sacred rites are proscribed by law (the first rule of Cannibal life, we’re told, is “NO COPS”), the media stereotypes them with comical images of bones through noses and bubbling pots, and their history is one of persecution, marginalisation and pursuit by torch-wielding mobs.

Seventh has his unusual name because his mother (known to all as Mudd) was an identitarian fanatic determined to give birth to 12 sons through whom the fading Cannibal nation would be reborn. Most of her children disappointed her: assimilating or, like Seventh, marrying out. Seventh’s psychiatrist refuses to take seriously his claim that he’s an ancestral cannibal. But like all monstrous mothers, Mudd is impossible to fully escape. Seventh hasn’t been home in years, but then the call comes: Mudd is on her deathbed. The children convene at the family home in Brooklyn to say goodbye. And, as semi-assimilated Cannibal-Americans, that means more than just a clasped hand, a whispered word and a silent tear: they’re supposed to eat her.

Having decided somewhat prematurely that her death was approaching, Mudd has been fattening herself up for the Consumption by eating nothing but Burger King Whoppers, 12 a day (double bacon, extra cheese, no lettuce), for years. She’s enormous. Here’s the exchange when Seventh arrives at her bedside:

Seventh? Mudd moaned. Is that you?
Seventh took her enormous, bloated hand in his.
I’m here, Mudd, he said. I’m here.
Mudd looked up at him, her eyes glassy and dim.
You’re late, she said.
There was traffic, he said. On the bridge.
What kind of an idiot takes the bridge on a weekday, she said.

When she croaks, her fractious group of grownup children are going to have to chow down if they’re to honour Cannibal tradition and her final wishes; and, more prosaically, if they’re to inherit the proceeds of the sale of her house.

Auslander’s previous books were deeply involved with Jewishness, and for all Mudd’s antisemitism (she calls Jews “Sherwoods” after the hated creator of Gilligan’s Island, which portrayed cannibals unsympathetically), this is a very Jewish tribe of cannibals. There’s a positively rabbinical exchange, for instance, between Seventh and a sibling who turns out to be vegan over what counts as “eating”: “There,” says Seventh, having consulted Siri on his iPhone, “If you spit it up you’re not absorbing. If you’re not absorbing, you’re not ingesting. If you’re not ingesting, you’re not eating.”

The novel’s most peculiar and most delicate turn is that Seventh – who begins by wanting nothing to do with his heritage – finds himself starting to feel responsible for the fragile chain of culture and tradition that connects him to his ancestors. He starts to, well, digest Mudd’s point of view.

What follows is grotesque, extremely funny, weirdly touching and acute about families – and contains a thread of sensitive exegesis of Michel de Montaigne as well as some highly questionable aspersions both on the memory of Henry Ford and the still living person of Jack Nicholson (who, it’s claimed, is a Cannibal-American who betrayed his people by failing to thank them when he won an Oscar).

All this mugging and clowning and ferocity, all this bad taste, is to a purpose. Auslander’s last novel, Hope: A Tragedy, had its protagonist discover a foul-mouthed and geriatric Anne Frank hiding in his attic in New England. In this book, he pursues another version of the same theme: the intolerable weight of history, of its deadening solemnity, and the individual’s rage to throw it off. And you know what? Auslander’s resolution is of such life-affirming sweetness that – never mind that the word “asshole” appears eight times in a single short paragraph – you could almost call it sentimental.

• Mother for Dinner is published by Picador (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.