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“Is it love that binds a family together, Seventh wondered, or just the guilt estrangement would cause?” Posed by Seventh Seltzer, the question is one that resonates throughout Shalom Auslander’s novel Mother for Dinner. As the seventh son of one of the last remaining Cannibal-American (Can-Am) families, the character’s situation is, without a doubt, unique, but there is a universality to his dilemma. Who hasn’t, devourer of human flesh or not, looked at their own family and pondered something similar?
Bringing a fresh perspective to the well-worn themes of identity politics, oppressive family ties, and the inadequacy of the American Dream, the novel opens with happily married publisher’s reader Seventh receiving the phone call he has been dreading. His estranged mother, known only as Mudd, is dying and has been fattening herself up by eating 12 Burger King Whoppers a day (double bacon, extra cheese, no lettuce), which is, Siri informs him, 4,380 Whoppers a year.
Her final wish is for her 12 surviving children to return to the family home in Brooklyn so that they can consume her remains, as Can-Am lore dictates. Despite being advised by his psychiatrist against engaging with his mother, Seventh relents and returns home for the first time in a decade.
This visit brings to a head the struggle he has been battling with since childhood. For the protagonist, “Identity had always been a prison he longed to escape – white, black, brown, American, European, Russian, male, straight, 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.”
In his working life, he spends his days buried beneath copious versions of “what he had taken of late to calling the Not-So-Great-American Something-American Novel.” For the writers whom Seventh encounters, these novels are a platform to give voice to what they see as their marginalised voices: the Heroin-Addicted-Autistic-Christian-American-Haemophiliac and the Pro-Choice-Lesbian-Croatian-American. The irony is that Seventh himself belongs to the most marginalised tribe there is, yet he cannot voice his story; secrecy is most sacred Can-Am tenet.
Much of the novel, and indeed Seventh’s sessions with his psychiatrist, revisit the impact an overbearing mother can have in adult life. Once he is home and reacquainted with his siblings, their mother does indeed give up the ghost and whispers the words Seventh had feared: “Eat me.”
Despite having fled Mudd and her Can-Am fanaticism, he unexpectedly becomes the defender of his tribe and goes about convincing his siblings to honour Mudd’s dying wish. In essence, he raises his own shackles overhead and cheers his own bondage. Like so many of us fear, he becomes his mother or, at least, takes on certain of her traits.
For Mudd, her children’s main purpose is to themselves reproduce and perpetuate the Can-Am line. “Someday you’ll realise there are more important things in this world than your own happiness,” she tells her offspring, whom she has named in accordance with the order in which they were born into the Seltzer clan.
But like even the most toxic of mothers, Mudd is not entirely unsympathetic as she perpetually mourns the loss of her beloved sixth child who died of an unspecified illness when Seventh was four. “She was weakened, softened. Once bellicose and abusive, she was now merely melodramatic and pathetic.”
The third pillar of Auslander’s satire comes from the characters’ disenchantment with the American Dream. Through Seventh’s childhood, zealot Mudd regaled him with tales of Julius and Julia, the mother and father of the Can-Am community, who travelled to America at the turn of the 20th century. Upon arrival, Julius found work in the Ford factory for $5 a day, only for Julia to be violated by the factory’s owner in every vehicle to come off the production line. A century later, Seventh states that he’d throw himself out of his office window if he were certain the fall would kill him.
As readers familiar with Auslander’s previous works know, his humour is bleak while just about avoiding overstepping the line. His memoir, which follows his upbringing in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish household, is titled Foreskin’s Lament, while his novel Hope: A Tragedy conjures a cantankerous octogenarian Anne Frank living in the protagonist’s attic.
Mother for Dinner is no different, with the novel’s opening pages pondering the unappetising taste of women who have been mothers. “When a dead mother beckons, no one wants seconds.” Another recurring joke stems from Mudd’s hatred of actor Jack Nicholson, whom she is convinced is a member of the Can-Am community but unwilling to publicly embrace his heritage. For Mudd, telling someone they are “worse than Jack Nicholson” is the most venomous slur she can conceive of.
Seventh’s lack of self-awareness is another recurring joke through the novel. Desperate for his daughter to be free from the shackles of her heritage, Seventh withholds his Can-Am background from her. However, when she asks, “What am I?”, he simply replies “sweetness,” a term redolent of the very thing he has spent his life fleeing: the act of eating.
Although many critics focus on the parallels between the Seltzer clan and the writer’s own Jewish roots, many of the novel’s themes ring true for anyone born into a family or region with an oppressive sense of identity. Being from a deeply inward-looking working-class area in the north of England, I know exactly what Seventh means when he describes the “You’re Not Me Look.” It’s the glance you receive when walking into a bar slightly outside your part of town, and it isn’t native to the outer boroughs of New York.
Not surprisingly, the novel’s language does not shy away from, and even indulges in, the brutal physicality of its subject matter. “Mudd was going bad. Fast. Her extremities were beginning to swell, and beneath her dingy nightgown, her corpse had turned a dull, two-day old roadkill grey.” Later, Seventh and his siblings debate which grill would be best to cook a large piece of meat, “a real mother,” with a petrol station attendant.
The novel is also especially relevant for those of us past 30 casting a wistful eye over their lives, with First, the eldest of the Seltzer’s clan, saying. “You get older, you can’t do it anymore, and you begin to wonder if it was worth it.” Much is also made of the fact that Zero, Mudd’s only female child, is only 20. Although she often speaks much reason, her words are tempered by youth and inexperience, at least in First’s estimation.
If Mother for Dinner does have a flaw, it is one common in this genre, as the novel does occasionally begin to feel weighed down by its own parody, with each of the Seltzer children being able to talk with remarkable eloquence on the subject of identity politics even with their mother’s corpse being drained of blood just feet away.
One of the greatest achievements of Auslander’s satire, however, is to make the act of devouring Seventh’s mother seem perversely sympathetic – or at least no more ridiculous than many of the ceremonies at the heart of the major world religions. The ritual requires the deceased’s relatives to hang the body “as one might a deer or a cow.” As grotesque and dehumanizing as these instructions at first appear, Seventh’s uncle, an expert in Can-Am lore, later explains: “[The dead] are no longer the physical beings they once were, and our connection to them, physically and spiritually, is severed. This is grieving with a purpose – it is not mere sorrow; it is grieving so that we may move on.”
When such sentences begin to sound emotionally healthy, you realise you have truly been consumed by Auslander’s satire. The writer’s other great talent, not always found in parody, is to create a character for whom we feel genuine tenderness. Even though Seventh may come to the realisation in the final paragraphs that he is an “asshole” born of “asshole ancestors” with “asshole beliefs,” we feel wryly pleased he has found a version of himself with which he feels comfortable.
Mother for Dinner
By Shalom Auslander
272 pages. Picador