Auster Paul

Paul Auster: Invisible

Paul Auster’s Roth-like run of productivity continues. After producing just one short book between 1994 and 2002, since then he has published seven novels, with another one due in a few months’ time. The high points of this recent run were the first two – The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night – and results since then have been mixed. His UK publishers Faber are trying to sell his most recent novel as a blockbuster of sorts – just look at the cover below – with “page-turner” featuring in three of the quotes used. Well, Auster’s books are page-turners, but anyone raised on airport thrillers will not find much to please them here; and nor may seasoned Auster fans like me.

Invisible was a disappointment almost from start to finish. It is a four-part story telling of part of the life of Adam Walker, three of them by Adam within a framing device, and then a coda in another voice.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, as it means I have no desire to reveal spoilers – I wasn’t remotely interested in Adam’s story, which was the usual Auster stuff of chance encounters, mysterious strangers, sexual impulses and political engagement. Part of the reason for my lack of interest might have been the fact that I had been led to believe there was a surprising end to the story, so I was more interested in the framing device than in the ‘main’ story within it. Not Auster’s fault.

As it turns out, the ending wasn’t so much surprising as just unsatisfying, an odd coda somewhat resembling ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Worse, the main body of the book was somewhat flabby, and waffly – Auster (or his narrator) saying everything several times, seemingly to enforce feelings that his cool prose never really evoked otherwise. It’s very hard to say what Adam’s story was about – thematically – because it just seemed to be about exactly what he tells us: revenge, shame, all the big ones. That said, Auster remains as efficient a storyteller as ever, and the pages almost blur beneath the hand – it took me just over a day to read its 310 pages, a breakneck speed for me these days.

Looking around for commentary on the book, I found James Wood’s review (and appraisal of Auster’s other books) from The New Yorker. I think Wood has the book nailed, but more worryingly, I found it hard to dissent from his comments on Auster’s work generally (the parody that opens the piece is painfully accurate). The weaknesses which Wood identifies, however, are not fatal. Auster has a kind of hypnotic effect in his prose – that storytelling magic – which enables or encourages the reader to bypass all kinds of implausibilities, the sort that look ridiculous when Wood isolates them. And because his books are page-turners, the reader tends to notice not so much specific phrases as overall effects.

Nonetheless I reread my earlier reviews of Auster’s recent books, and wondered, with a creeping sense of dread, if I would like the novels of his I’ve praised before if I read them now. Is this one of those moments where one begins to part company with a well-loved writer? Or is Invisible just a dud? I’m not sure I’ll dare, yet, to pick up his forthcoming Sunset Park to find out.

Paul Auster: Man in the Dark

Paul Auster seems to be experiencing a late (if his 60s isn’t too early to be saying late) creative surge akin to Philip Roth’s. This will be the third new book from him that I’ve written about since I started this blog 18 months ago. His last, Travels in the Scriptorium, seemed to me to be a little too inward-looking; but the previous novel, The Brooklyn Follies, although played pretty straight, gave me greater insight into Auster’s work and crystallised him for me as a writer it is necessary to read. Others must have agreed, as it is the latter and not the former title which gets “By the author of” billing on the cover here.

Man in the Dark continues Auster’s tendency toward slimness of late, at 180 pages top to tail. It also continues many other tendencies of his, but in a much more satisfying way than Travels in the Scriptorium. There, the visitations were from old Auster characters; here, themes and settings recur. We have meditations on cinema (The Book of Illusions), political engagement (Leviathan), a dystopian world (In the County of Last Things) and stories within stories within stories (pretty much everything Auster has written).

Here, the frame is the narrative of August Brill – most of the names, as usual with Auster, are five-letter monosyllables – an elderly writer trying to get to sleep in his daughter’s house. Brill is a retired journalist, conscious of his role in producing “decades of ephemera, mounds of burned-up and recycled newsprint,” and in the process of writing a memoir as a promise to his daughter. We do not get the memoir, at least not at first, but instead a story which Brill tells in order to pass the hours of insomnia. “That’s all I want now – my little story to keep the ghosts away.”

The story tells of Owen Brick, a young man who has woken up in an alternate world, where civil war has erupted in America following the 2000 Presidential Election, when George Bush was declared victor by the Supreme Court. This led to states on the east and west coasts seceding from the Union, and military attacks on them by the remaining federal government. However, the secessionists are aware that this is all the product of a man’s imagination, and recruit Brick to travel back to the real world and kill Brill. (“He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate the head, and the war stops.”) On the way, in the warring world, Brick endures frustrating, circular encounters with locals:

Excuse me, Brick says. Could you tell me if this is the road to Wellington?

The woman stops and looks at Brick with uncomprehending eyes. He notes a small tuft of whiskers sprouting from her chin, her wrinkled mouth, her gnarled, arthritic hands. Wellington? she says. Who asked you?

No one asked me, Brick says. I’m asking you.

Me? What do I have to do with it? I don’t even know you.

And I don’t know you. All I’m asking is if this is the road to Wellington.

The woman scrutinizes Brick for a moment and says, It’ll cost you five bucks.

Five bucks for a yes or no? You must be crazy.

Everyone’s crazy around here. Are you trying to tell me you’re not?

I’m not trying to tell you anything. I just want to know where I am.

You’re standing in a road, nitwit.

Yes, fine, I’m standing in a road, but what I want to know is if this road leads to Wellington.

Ten bucks.

Ten bucks?

Twenty bucks.

Forget it, Brick says, by now at the limit of his patience. I’ll figure it out for myself.

Figure out what? the woman asks.

Brick’s sense of alienation is reflected by his creator’s. Brill is tortured by his memories of his wife’s death, and also that of his granddaughter’s boyfriend, Titus, who was killed while serving in Iraq. Brill’s story is a way of forgetting what he cannot help remembering.

Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.

The last sentence recalls Samuel Beckett (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”) and indeed Brill’s self-examination – his unwillingness to continue but inability to stop – as a whole brings to mind the famous last lines of Beckett’s trilogy (“…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”). This is no surprise, as Auster has not hidden his debt to Beckett (explicitly, a character in The Music of Chance was named Pozzi to chime with Pozzo from Waiting for Godot). Brill has Brick make the following exchange with his girlfriend as he decides whether or not to kill his creator:

So what am I supposed to do?


What do you mean, nothing?

We start living again. You do your job, I do mine. We eat and sleep and pay the bills. We wash the dishes and vacuum the floor. We make a baby together. You put me in the bath and shampoo my hair. I rub your back. You learn new tricks. We visit your parents and listen to your mother complain about her health. We go on, baby, and live our little life. That’s what I’m talking about. Nothing.

As well as Beckett, Kafka seems never far – Brick’s situation pretty well fits popular understandings of the word kafkaesque (the second time I’ve (mis)used it this week) – and the echo in the name of Brill’s granddaughter, Katya, is hardly accidental. But wait – Camus gets a look-in too, explicitly named in the text, and also when Brick’s reflections on suicide seem to recall The Myth of Sisyphus.

All this may well make Man in the Dark (the title seems to refer to Brill’s nocturnal state, Titus’s death, and the human condition) seem a sterile and self-indulgent confection. There will be many, even admirers of Auster’s earlier work, who consider it so. For me, however, it was a valuable and welcome return to Auster’s world – or worlds. He is a writer who successfully straddles literary styles, interested and able to invoke both ideas and plot with economy.  His great strength is that it would be impossible to say what aspects of the novel are foremost in his intentions, as the all-round performance is so convincing.  This risks trying to make him all things to all men, but it is a risk he takes and which pays off.  Most interestingly, in a world where readers consider story to be either the only important thing in a novel, or a superfluous curse, Auster takes the faint praise of pageturning and runs with it, dragging the reader along, challenging him to keep up.

Paul Auster: Travels in the Scriptorium

Something told me that after the ‘vanilla’ Auster of The Brooklyn Follies, old austere Paul wouldn’t be able to resist turning back on himself, and possibly up his own fundament, with his next project.  And with Travels in the Scriptorium, he hasn’t disappointed.  By which I mean he has.

The elegant, luminous cover conceals a story which, although plainly told as ever, is about as self-regarding as Auster gets, and that’s plenty self-regarding.  Mr Blank (the name neatly describing his master’s voice) sits in a room pretty much like that we see in the picture.  A bed, a desk, piles of papers, and not much else.  He is – possibly – being held captive, though he can’t quite bring himself to try the door or window and make sure.

Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born.  What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt.  At the same time, he can’t escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice.

Trapped like this by himself or others, “lost in a fogland of ghost-like beings and broken memories,” Mr Blank awaits visits by various people.  There is Anna, whom some will recognise as the central character from Auster’s early novel In the Country of Last Things.  Anna bathes Mr Blank, helps him to the toilet, and performs more intimate duties – which means that if Mr Blank represents Auster (and there’s little doubt about that), then this is intellectual masturbation of a very special kind.

Other characters from Auster’s earlier works run through the pages, either in person or in reference, from Benjamin Sachs (Leviathan) to Marco Fogg (Mr Vertigo).  There is a feeling that Mr Blank is being punished by them for ‘sending them out’ into the world as his fictional creations.  This is the sort of solipsistic storytelling that would have caused me endless delight about ten or fifteen years ago, but which now seems somewhat pointless self-indulgence, particularly when it hardly has as much to say about the relationship between creator and creation as, say, Frankenstein does.

Nonetheless there are moments of interest, and an oddly touching acknowledgement of the writer’s mortality and hopes for immortality in one of the closing pages:

Without him, we are nothing, but the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist forever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.

Travels in the Scriptorium may please some Auster fans but is likely to be offputting to anyone new to his stuff.  For them a good starting point would be The Book of Illusions, which I think shows the best of his storytelling virtuosity, and packs an emotional punch too.

Paul Auster: The Brooklyn Follies

About halfway through The Brooklyn Follies, the narrator Nathan Glass asks:

Why do I linger over these trivial details? Because the truth of the story lies in the details, and I have no choice but to tell the story exactly as it happened.

It could be a manifesto for Auster’s fiction. Often his novels seem to be almost randomly written, made up as he goes along – and as has been observed before, his endings can be so weak they are better termed stoppings. It is his strength and weakness, but in my experience, as you work through Auster’s output, it’s something you’re more and more willing to make allowances for, and eventually even to relish.

In The Brooklyn Follies, which for the paperback Faber have issued in an out-of-sync cover, all bright and eager for a Richard & Judy sticker, this habit reaches a sort of apotheosis. On the one hand it’s more grounded than a lot of his stuff – no sentient dogs, no future dystopias, and most of all absolutely no postmodern paddywhackery – but on the other hand the web of coincidence and chance that ties together the story strands and characters is more tenuous than ever before. This is a story of religious cults, art forgery, abandoned children, blackmail, unrequited love and everything else (it seems) that Auster had lying around in his latest red notebook. At just about any plot hinge in the book, one could reasonably shout out in protest at the implausibility.

And yet for those softened up into Auster’s ways, it has a bizarre charm, an almost soothing quality. It is the ‘trivial details’ of storytelling itself that is being celebrated here, and – it occurred to me for the first time – the reason why endings are unimportant in Auster’s fiction is because the ending is outside the story, and the perpetual present of the story is what matters. Or as Glass (another monosyllable surname, one first seen I think in The New York Trilogy, but with a friend called Wood to balance it out this time) in the book says:

When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.

And it’s for this reason – charming and paper-thin, engrossing and ridiculous, serious but disposable – that The Brooklyn Follies is almost impossible to rate, and could equally appal or appeal depending on one’s mood. But I’ll rank it on the basis that while it’s in some ways quintessential Auster – and a book which has helped me understand his whole output – it’s not a good place to start. And that balances the reader with the author – who never seems to find a good place to end.