Paul Auster & Me

 

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A view behind the scenes of my blog

 

As a new novel by Paul Auster is about to hit the shelves, I noticed that I have reviewed a few of his books here. Enough apparently, to make my blog findable for people searching for a very specific/unflattering phrase (see picture). If you’re interested in my opinion, here are the links

Sunset Park: “These are the games of a tired old author, coasting on past successes, making use of the same characters and the same tools for the millionth time, with radically diminishing returns. Auster’s writing remains as unremarkable as ever, and his characters as flat as ever. […] It’s as if he’s given up on himself, given up on creating work that is at least up to his own standards.”

In the Country of Last Things: “Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications.”

Invisible: “The staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction.[..] This novel is like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.”

The Brooklyn Follies: “This novel is a huge failure. As a movie it would have succeeded, and as a novel written by a different writer, it would also have succeeded. Auster has his strengths, and I still remember the novel’s characters vividly, but writing prose just is not one of them.”

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Paul Auster: Sunset Park

Auster, Paul (2010), Sunset Park, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-25878-9

Given the fact that I have written a few unflattering reviews of Paul Auster novels, in particular of The Brooklyn Follies, In The Country of Last Things and Invisible, I was personally quite surprised that it was still possible for any new book by the graying Brooklynite to disappoint me. In his last novel, Invisible, though up to his usual tricks, Auster managed to wring some new and interesting effects from his writing, thus producing his best novel in a while. In some ways, it could be described as a return to form, especially after dismal showings such as Man in the Dark or Brooklyn Follies. If a return to form was, indeed, a correct description, there’s no doubt that Sunset Park, his most recent novel, marks an immediate loss of said form. To repeat: it’s not just that this is a bad novel overall, it’s substandard even for an entry in Paul Auster’s severely underwhelming oeuvre. Sunset Park is, vaguely, the story of a college dropout, and his family, both his immediate family, and a kind of adopted or associated family of friends and acquaintances. Like much of his recent work, especially Travels in the Scriptorium, this novel is crammed with allusions to and echoes of books from better days; additionally, Auster uses other people’s work as a crutch for his narrative to work and to lend it depth. What power the book has is exclusively due to the way Auster makes use of texts like Beckett’s play Happy Days, and William Wyler’s movie The Best Years Of Our Lives. Between his old work, and the work of Beckett and Wyler, Auster hangs a wispy thin story, with forgettable and clichéd characters, and a pervasive melancholy reminiscent of the weakest of Philip Roth’s recent books. It’s an old man’s pessimistic look back at books he liked, books he wrote, a sentimental gaze into the abyss of age. Auster’s voice is so strong and distinctive in Sunset Park that we keep forgetting that the book’s protagonist is a 28 year old man, because the voice, outlook and resigned pathos that most marks this character is that of a man several decades his senior. If this voice wasn’t deadeningly dull, the incongruity could have given rise to interesting readings. On the other hand, this distinctive voice is the novel’s main selling point.

Dull it is, yet Auster seems additionally committed to giving the whole proceedings an air of creepiness by having his protagonist engage in anal sex with a very child-like looking minor. When Miles Heller, Sunset Park‘s central character, meets the girl, Pilar Sanchez, he thinks that

she was even younger than sixteen, just a girl, really, and a little girl at that, a small, adolescent girl wearing wearing tight, cut-off shorts, sandals and a skimpy halter top.

Granted, these are just appearances, since Miles met Pilar the month she turned seventeen, but that difference is a legal difference only. Not only does Miles see Pilar as a young girl, he also plays games with her that his father played with him, and the decision (suggested by Pilar) to not have vaginal intercourse is never framed in explicit terms like these. Instead, Pilar offers to have sex up the “funny hole” and not up the “mommy hole”, and

he has abided by her wishes, restricting all member penetration to her funny hole and putting nothing more than tongue and fingers in her mommy hole.

The whole affair is, from the start, clothed in terms of childhood, of paternal relations and the like. Miles teaches Pilar about the world, about literature and tells her stories about baseball. Miles is a man who matured prematurely, who left his own home before he would have needed to, and his paedophiliac attraction to Pilar clearly stems from this aborted childhood and the resulting feeling of being ensconced in exile. In some ways, his relationship to Pilar is a re-enactment of the relationship he had with his father. Yet there’s never even a shred of doubt that the two are engaged in a deeply intimate and sexual affair, one that eventually leads to a proposal of marriage. Miles knows that what he does it at least illegal, he has “qualms and inner hesitations”, and he is afraid “some riled-up busybody” could denounce him. Everybody else is fine with it, really, including Miles’ family, most of Pilar’s, and the few friends Miles manages to acquire in the course of Sunset Park. This is somewhat sordid, or, as I said: creepy, and yet there’s nothing gratuitous about it, since the book’s structure, which keeps repeating similar motifs and tropes, completely absorbs it. Readers not used to Auster’s brash non-committal attitude and his pervasive use of misogyny (cf. especially my reviews of The Brooklyn Follies and In The Country of Last Things) may be put off by it, yet since the book is very much geared towards Auster fans that’s not going to be a common problem.

Also, the affair with Pilar takes up comparably little space in the 300 page strong novel. After Miles is threatened with exposure, he leaves Miami (where he met Pilar) and moves, as is to be expected of an Auster novel, to Brooklyn, more specifically, to Sunset Park. In Auster’s work, Brooklyn has, long since, ceased being a real place, and has become a theater of Auster’s various selves, its streets, history and residents used as literary more than as topographical markers. There are multiple ways in which this, too, is the case in Sunset Park as well, most obvious in the fact that Miles puts his affair to the Latino girl on hold and moves to a neighborhood that is predominantly Hispanic. This distancing act, which for Auster is often part of a strategy that disowns commitment and putative ideals that might be part of the novel’s discourse, actually has a positive effect in Sunset Park, where it puts Miles and his creepiness at some remove from us and the author. That said, there are a lot of things that are at a remove from us as readers, mostly because as Auster gets older, he seems to draw more from his own work than from his imagination or thinking which wasn’t exactly bountiful to begin with. Now, though, Auster’s work reads like a catalogue of past Auster. Most of the similarities are, however, restrained to Miles Heller’s story. As we enter the book, we find Miles working a job that involves cleaning out abandoned houses, remove objects and trash from them. The description of the job, which extends over the first four pages, contains undoubtedly by far the best writing of the whole book, yet draws inspiration (or offers homage) to In The Country of Last Things (cue Baudrillard reference). Miles’ mind, adolescence and education, as its offered up to us, in turn, corresponds closely to almost any other male character of the same age Auster has ever written, to Moon Palace‘s Fogg, for example, but especially to The Brooklyn Follies‘ Tom. Sunset Park is like a museum of Auster artifacts, and since Auster has written a few decent books before and quite generally has been writing actively and intensely for decades now, Sunset Park doesn’t go under completely. Like the dullest of vampires, it feeds on the cardboard carcasses of Auster’s past fame, as Auster himself does.

For all that he borrows from his own work, however, this time he didn’t bother to come up with the clever structures that have almost become a trademark of his writing. Brazenly, he copied only what was easy enough to copy. Apart from the intertextual links and mirrors, the book is remarkably straightforward, yet if we’ve learned anything from Auster’s past work, it’s that he’s strongest whenever structure and tricks play a large role. The more he relies on sentimental, emotive, realistic narrative, the more his lack of fundamental novelistic skills shows. And as the book’s plot unfolds, so does our disappointment with Auster’s structural restraint. In more than one way, the book feels like a first draft, some aspects fully worked out, some things half-baked, not even tentative or sketched, but executed in a bored, uninterested way. Most of these unfinished, tedious sections are about Miles’ friends, specifically about Bing Nathan and his housemates. Miles, as we soon learn, fled New York in the aftermath of fratricide, moving to various cities all over the US, settling finally in Miami, keeping it all secret from his parents. Bing Nathan (yes, another Nathan) is the only person with whom he kept in touch, relying on him for news of his family. Bing, we eventually learn, has been a double agent, supplying Miles’ parents with information just as he kept Miles in the loop. Given Sunset Park‘s preoccupation with various kinds of intertextuality, Bing’s double role as informant can certainly be read poetologically as a way to describe how texts feed into other texts, or as a model for the interaction of readers and writers, etc., ad nauseam. But such a reading would lend complexity to a simple set-up and an even more simple, perfunctorily executed, character. To return to the story: Bing has moved into an abandoned building in Sunset Park, wherein he squats with two other housemates. Among them, a woman writing a dissertation on the aforementioned Wyler movie (which apparently every single character in the book knows and loves) and a female painter, who spends a great deal of time sketching her fellow housemates, especially Bing Nathan. Neither woman is more than a rough sketch, an assortment of well-known clichés, used to make a specific point in Auster’s narrative of personal growth and each woman adds a mirror to Auster’s blunt funhouse of 1980s cleverness.

The main character remains Miles Heller, and he’s the only character who has any kind of depth. Or rather, him and his father, Morris Heller. Miles’ father mostly serves as point of reference for the author. His voice is identical to Miles’, but in him, there’s nothing incongruous about his age and his points of view. And while we sense an authorial wistfulness and sentimentality in Auster’s Miles/Fogg/Tom characters, Morris is clearly a grown-up duplicate, who represents the author within the novel’s framework. Quite apart from his role as the complementary listener/source in Bing Nathan’s duplicitous career as Miles’ and Morris’ informant, Morris is also depicted as an investigator of sorts. With Bing Nathan’s information in tow, Morris clandestinely follows his son around. More than once we are reminded of Auster’s New York Trilogy, as we become privy to Morris’ odd tactics that involve inventing undercover personas. The threefold way that Morris controls the flow of information (informing Bing, listening to Bing, and finally investigating on his own), his usurpation of Auster’s familiar tropes of detection, all this is evidence of a kind of authorial representation. But it’s not just Miles’ father. It seems the closer we move in on Miles, the more influence characters have on structure and writing of the book (without becoming less of a cliché). Miles’ mother Mary-Lee is almost as significant as his father, although she’s accorded less time onstage. Miles’ parents are divorced and as Miles returns to New York, so does his mother, preparing to appear in a production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Beckett’s text is scattered all over Auster’s in several ways, one of which is an obvious parallel between Winnie and Mary-Lee, as far as certain aspects of characterization are concerned; as the book draws to a close, her influence becomes even more marked, as the text, as text, directly mimics Happy Days by including descriptions of Mary-Lee’s actions in parentheses, written to resemble Beckett’s fastidious stage directions. This is, of necessity a brief sketch of a plenitude of intertextual tools Auster makes use of, and I haven’t even explained any of the ways that The Best Years Of Our Lives is worked into the text.

All these are the games of a tired old man, coasting on past successes, making use of the same characters and the same tools for the millionth time, with radically diminishing returns. His writing remains as unremarkable as ever, and his characters as flat as ever. As always, the book might make a very nice movie, but fails utterly as a literary work of art. Auster demonstrates again, as if we needed to be reminded, that, despite his travails, elbow-grease and obvious cleverness, he’s just not accomplished, smart, talented or committed a novelist as he would need to be to pull off his ambitious writing. Although, actually, Sunset Park isn’t even ambitious, it’s as if he’s given up on himself, given up on creating work that is at least up to his own standards. And this he shares with his hapless protagonist. While many Auster novels end on a note of hope, suggesting a fresh start, new beginnings, the sun sets in Sunset Park without leaving a glimmer of days and suns to come. The final chapter, while brimming with sentimentality, is rather impressive, and the ending is comparably strong, and if Auster was a better writer, the end could have a tragic, powerful impact. As it stands, we have nothing, not even routine Auster. This is sub-Auster. Here’s this: if you believe The Brooklyn Follies to be a good book, chances are you will enjoy Sunset Park, as well. If you are a fan of Auster’s better work, you might still enjoy Sunset Park. Anyone less than a fan should stay away from this book. Don’t buy it, don’t read it, don’t make a gift of it. If fewer people read Auster’s books, he might write less. It’s a win-win scenario all round.

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Wrong about Auster (bookbabblet)

While Donny was tardy in putting up new episodes, he took the time to record a 10-Minute mini-episode with bearish Björn to briefly discuss Auster. Needless to say they are wrong about Auster. How wrong? Click here for the 10-Minute snippet, and here is Donny’s summary:

This is a snippet of Bjorn and Donny’s short conversation after the recording of Episode 61. Lamenting yet another postponement to our planned Paul Auster Smackdown show, Bjorn shares his thoughts on Auster’s work. Sort of like a prelude to the smackdown, if you will.

For someone who is right about Auster, go here for a review of Invisible, here for a review of Brooklyn Follies and, finally, here for a review of In The Country of Last Things

Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things

Auster, Paul (1987), In the Country of Last Things, Faber & Faber
ISBN 0-57-122730-9

Post-apocalyptic novels have know quite a success this past decade. Most recently, there was Theroux’ so-so Far North, Cormac McCarthy’s ok The Road and Maggie Gee’s brilliant The Flood, as well as Margaret Atwood’s efforts Oryx & Crake and this year’s The Year of the Flood. Although Paul Auster’s fourth (or second, depending on whether you count the New York Trilogy as one or three novels) novel In The Country of Last Things, was published in 1987, I could not help but to contextualize it with its more recent brethren and draw a comparison with these books, an undertaking that isn’t likely to produce a result that shines a favorable light on Auster’s book. In 1987, with some of his most famous books still to come, like Moon Palace or The Music of Chance, he’d already published the one book (or books) that will secure him a place in the American canon, The New York Trilogy. It consists of three short pieces, variations on a variety of themes, an unease with reality, with names, naming, being, identity. Although I’m not sure it’s a success, it’s definitely a powerful artistic statement, this is a man stepping out into the world and stating his intentions as a writer, it’s the one text in Paul Auster’s work that works like a key to his whole oeuvre. It may not be fully artistically accomplished but we as readers are left with Auster’s shadow in the door, his wild gaze. Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders. You may not like the book, but it’s also the one point in Paul Auster’s whole work where you can feel a kind of authenticity, a hunger, a need and a talent to write. It’s all there and we as readers can’t but admire the result. But sadly, Auster didn’t stop after finishing the trilogy.

In the Country of Last Things is, in many ways, a huge step forward, or away, from the writing that created the New York Trilogy. It is a bleak, post-apocalyptic novel about a woman called Anna Blume, who is in search of her brother William. In order to find him, she enters a dilapidated city where hunger and horror reign. Quickly she learns that finding her brother in the mess of that city would be difficult at best. The city, cut off from the rest of the country by a barrier that Anna soon learns is meant to keep people in, not to keep people out, is a total waste land. As in all the rest of his work, Auster is profoundly uninterested in depicting the place in a full-bodied way, but he does something interesting, he defines it through the actions that you have to undertake in order to stay alive there and through the book’s central metaphor: hunger. Mainly, there are two important ways to earn your keep in this merciless country, both involve scavenging. You can either hunt for anything, these are the so-called “Garbage collectors”, who purchase a license in order to roam a certain area on the lookout for anything resembling garbage that can be sold off; and there are also the ”object hunters”, who are specifically out to hunt rare, more valuable objects. These two occupations demand different kinds of skills, but the basic way you go about them, with a cart that you keep leashed to your waist, stays the same. In a way it’s impressive how nakedly and quickly Auster mounts his construct here.

The genre he sets this book in can be considered Science Fiction, an attribution that has been often contested, most recently in the spats between Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood about the question whether it is viable or even useful to call some of Atwood’s work SF. But Auster’s book, in contrast to most of the recent post-apocalyptic explorations I mentioned earlier, shares some interesting properties with the SF genre that go beyond questions of technology and believability: Auster writes badly. This is not to say that SF is badly written in general, but even among the classics of SF you would be hard-pressed to find finely crafted prose or exquisitely drawn characters. This is offset, in SF, by the enormous amount of ideas that crowd even mediocre works of the genre. For various reasons, writing SF enables writers to present a plethora of daring and interesting ideas that your common, booker-shortlisted book would take hundreds of pages to develop and then present in a careful, often veiled fashion. SF often don’t bother with all the hoopla that’s expected of the mild-mannered contemporary novel. Writers such as Tobias S. Buckell, Nebula Award Finalist in 2007, in novels like Ragamuffin, can produce solidly written yarns that crawl with concerns from freedom to identity and perception. Idea-driven literature like satire quite often forswear complex characters and careful writing in order to deliver a punch. Tova Reich’s cartoonishly garish (but amazingly brilliant & bitter) My Holocaust is perhaps the best recent example of this genre, but Maggie Gee’s aforementioned The Flood is also a very fine specimen. Examples of this writing can be found all through literary history. One of the most fascinating examples of this is perhaps John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a novelization of the progress of the spirit, which is less concerned with providing a gripping and credible story than with putting its everyman hero in a series of situation that are significant in terms of the spiritual lessons Bunyan wants to impart on his readers.

It is interesting, in this context, that In the Country of Last Things has an epitaph from Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad”, a modernized take on Bunyan’s tale. It is this tradition that Auster writes in, and his cold oeuvre can be read as an effort to be both a schoolmaster as well as a storyteller, but he often ends up just being a drag (incidentally, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s novel of poetics and poets, The Anthologist, seems eerily like Paul Auster). There are many similarities and dissimilarities to Bunyan’s line in In the Country of Last Things; of the latter, I think that Auster’s reversion of Bunyan’s thrust figures most strongly. Whereas Bunyan’s Christian leaves the “famous City of Destruction” (to quote the epitaph) to get to the Celestial City, Auster’s Anna Blume travels to a city of destruction. While Bunyan finds a series of images for a spiritual journey that everyone could be argued to be on, Auster found images for the violence, the hunger that is part of our everyday lives. Auster inserts those cleverly into situations that sound and look as if they had been transported straight from our time to that dire place, which makes for an uncanny effect. Auster’s embracing of the Bunyan line allows him to make his case and present his ideas simply and directly. There isn’t a shortage of ideas in In the Country of Last Things: in the book we have, for example, a discussion pitting ‘need’ against ‘consumerism’. If I may take up the concept of garbage collectors and object hunters I mentioned earlier: as people start to rethink what to throw away (which in turn hurts the garbage collectors), we see how use, or the lack of it, can change something into garbage. Dead people’s clothes, for example, quickly, unclaimed, unworn, become garbage.

The object collectors seem to be based on a school of thought which is clearly meant to echo (and does), classic works of sociology such as Jean Baudrillard’s highly readable Le Système des objets. How we read objects, how we construct and make use of our interiors, of the objects that make up our lives, how we experience the quotidian, this is a recurring theme in Paul Auster’s novel and he uses the brash surface of the city to shine a light on that which we recognize to be ours, to belong to our world, not just objects, but also behaviors, structures, people. The whole book is made up of small pieces, of these kinds of, well, narrative objects which can pop up sudden in the book, but for the reader, each of them is like a small, dense island of reference. Just as Bunyan, Auster ushers his heroine from one densely symbolical situation to the next, each imparting one important point that contributes towards Auster’s larger image of how close that city of literal destruction is to our metaphoric, Bunyanian City of Destruction. For example, there is a small apartment where two people live, leading a dysfunctional marriage. Auster goes out of his way to make this, although an exaggeration, a thoroughly clichéd depiction of a typical bourgeois marital household. The violence that imbues it is chilling, especially if we connect it to the general violence in the town and recognize one as being related to the other. The chill is generated through the recognition that the household could have been part of the reader’s own world, it seems transplanted to the criminal city in order to highlight connections. The details that power this recognition are all there, from the objects, to the behavior (hobbies, for example), it’s enough to build and keep a strong connection to the reader’s present.

These connections make us realize how close we may be to what happened in Auster’s unnamed country, or how we may move in that direction, but only at a first glance. In fact, reading, appreciating and understanding the first of many of these set pieces, will, for most readers, be the point where they’ll realize for the first time in the book with striking and absolute clarity, that Auster is profoundly non-committal. Hunger, a violent social force in the book, makes people less political, In the Country of Last Things claims and the whole conception of the book tries to support the point. Less political? The book could be read as an attempt to highlight the pervasiveness of politics, the fact that anything we do is politically fraught and subject to violence and fear. But Auster balks from that kind of conclusion and by cutting off the city from the main country, Auster has also bracketed off politics, or so he tries to convince his readers in the book. The intent is clear, this is about individual lives only, but in doing this, he has done his constructions, his ideas a disservice, as he’s done his source texts like the one by Baudrillard, which are highly, highly political. It’s disturbing to see him bottle all this violence and redirect the flow into less significant channels. Auster has, in his books, brought up hunger a few times, most famously probably in the book of his that I enjoyed the most, Hand to Mouth, a gloriously self-aggrandizing memoir of his early years. Hand to Mouth is swimming in righteousness and self-pity, but hunger as a need to write and the actual hunger that resulted from his lack of success, this was a combination that made for a good read. In In the Country of Last Things, his point is actually a similar one, equating actual hunger, and an actual search with an intellectual hunger and a quest for meaning in a desolated city.

Instead of reading the hurt and the need as something that exists between human beings, he chooses a radically individualist, solipsist, almost, path. In this he is both similar and radically dissimilar to Bunyan. Words, Auster tells us early on, can sustain us, if we give ourselves over to them with a strong enough belief, a deep enough dedication. Failure may lurk, and all communities that surface in the book are doomed to perish, and most, indeed, do, but one person and her writing can save herself and, in the writing, maybe, everybody else with her. A writer’s progress, we might quip. This is how the book is set up, with regard to narrator and structure. The book seems to be a letter from Anna Blume to her brother, but it isn’t completely given over to the epistolary genre. Like the Brooklyn Follies, but more explicitly, In the Country of Last Things is framed by an unnamed narrator, who narrates the writing of the letter. The book, in a way, contains the letter and thus, to a degree, also its ideas. This makes for a lot of distance, and presents yet another instance of Auster disavowing his own characters, but it also serves as a cradle of sorts for Anna Blume’s letter, which doesn’t fall into a black hole of unknowing. Who will read the letter? Will anyone? These questions are not foregrounded, although the last chapters of the book act out that kind of gesture. The narrative bracket, or cradle, cushions this, however, making the gesture visible, as a gesture, and not allowing it to affect the careful reader. This is a book written in the 1980s, in a century where we have seen many letters and diaries written into the void of the Shoah, the Gulag and similar catastrophes, with no hope or thought of future readers. Millions and millions of people had been murdered by totalitarian regimes and sent to their deaths by democracies not without trying to write down what they felt needed to be said. There was a sudden, unusual rupture between the writing and the reading (part of this, I think is what Shoshana Felman nicely described as “the crisis of witnessing” in her marvelous book Testimony) But in the 1980s we already knew these texts, we’ve read them, footnoted and edited them, we contextualized the gap that opened up at their end.

Of all the destructive events that caused these ruptures, the Shoah is probably central. And in all the disrupted narratives connected to the Shoah, Anna’s namesake, Anne Frank, surely figures among the most well know writers. The book itself suggests this connection, by including yet another piece, another object, this time about a Jewish community in a large library. Many people live in this library, which is an interesting microcosm, and yet another location created in the spirit of Bunyan. As we meet them, Jews are only tolerated there, and later in the book, we’ll see them deported, thrown out into the cold and bitter city. Anna Blume is herself a Jew and carries in her name both literary echoes (her name is pronounced ‘Bloom’, like Leonard) and dire forebodings (“gloom, tomb”, the narrator jests). Their expulsion, her identity and the general context of the book are thickly interlaced. The event of the city’s destruction, it’s ongoing process of coming even more undone, Auster connects it to the hate of Jews that is recurrent in Western civilization. His Jews are caricatures but it isn’t Theroux’ brand of racism (see my review of his book here), it’s still the satiric, Science-fictional impulse to quickly, succinctly present ideas and themes. All through the book, Auster is remarkably constant in this, but it’s always clear that he sees himself more in the line of Bunyan and Hawthorne than in SF’s tradition.

In Auster’s case, the sad fact is that his abilities cannot keep up with his ambitions. A writer like Buckell or PK Dick may not be a great stylist, not a superior crafter of prose, but these writers often work with their limitations, writing a simple, very readable style that often eschews literary flourishes for sappier phrases that, however, do deliver. Buckell may not have a wonderful sound, but he doesn’t sound awkward either. If there is one word that perfectly describes Auster’s prose, however, it’s ‘awkward’. Auster, who astonishingly started out as a poet, labors to create literary prose but his tin ear and willingness to accept cliché turns of phrase make for pages that drag on and on. He shines, now and then, but every dog has its day and I guess Auster deserves it for trying so hard. Also, much more damningly, his espousing of Bunyan/Hawthorne exposes his weak thinking and his prejudice. Ideas, in SF have become gestures, almost, and to question identity has become de rigeur, which makes SF much more predictable, but at the same time elevates even weak thinkers to a decent level if they keep to genre conventions. The SF subtext is so strong that even writers or thinkers with questionable convictions can compose books and texts that are much saner, much more in line with thoughtful and laudable concepts. Since Auster’ll have none of this, he bares himself in a way that can be worrisome.

Of the prejudices mentioned, I’ll pick just one (I mentioned others in my review of Invisible, here) which surfaces in his choice of protagonist. Now, a strong woman is a wonderful heroine in any novel, but Auster’s focus on ideas instead of characters highlights the fact that he chose Anna Blume because she is a woman, because of the weaknesses and fads, because of things like that which he could hang on her. In a really astonishingly reactionary way, he underlines difference, as the most central fact about her. The above-mentioned connections to the everyday run on a rail that is composed of a very strict sense of gender roles. He never questions it, in fact, he needs and exploits the difference between the roles and undercuts every single instance that could be read as emancipatory. Anna writes a book but it is TO her brother and contained IN a narrative that seems to be ‘the author’s’ (at least we have no better indication). A strong woman who leads a charitable home needs to be saved by men and Anna Blume just stands by and watches events unfold. Feminity is almost a defect, it’s a weakness that exposes her to male violence (but she isn’t helpless). The survivalist tone of the city highlights Auster’s misconceptions about so-called basic differences between genders. Auster uses Anna Blume as a woman, but at no point does he actually display any concern for her situation as a woman, in her culture and in this new non-culture. Almost maliciously, the book mentions at one point that a depletion of razor stocks meant that Anna and her lover needed to decide whether his beard or her legs would get shaved, and quips humorously “the legs won, hands down.” This low, old-boy’s club kind of humor is all over the book, unchecked, unreflected, strong.

Earlier, I talked about hunger as being one of the most important, even the central trope of the book. I realize I haven’t cited much evidence for this, but I’d like to briefly return to it. See, with Auster there is real hunger and intellectual hunger and while his disdain for the former smacks of a strange kind of normative thinking, the two sides of the idea of hunger have been presented before and Auster does do his own presenting cogently and engagingly, even in this book. But mentioning Hawthorne and Bunyan calls attention to a third kind of hunger, one which stays with you all through the book: spiritual hunger. I find Auster’s lack of commitments, of investment in some of the ideas he throws around exhausting, because there is nothing, ultimately, that will sustain the reader, not even Auster’s belief in words manifests itself in gorgeous prose. No, for me, it’s too draining to read writers like Auster, who ask much of their readers, but give little back. Their texts are laced with the gestures of literariness, but are executed with a willful disdain for the medium they write in or its possibilities. They write from a well established vantage point, and use materials and provisions of others without, I think, paying back in commitment and strength. Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications. It is, I think, thus that they can be best enjoyed, as a vaguely competent romp. A friend of mine scoffed at my reading of the Brooklyn Follies, claiming it to be a warm, funny novel, her reading clearly a cursory one, and thus, fitting for a reading of an Auster book, Auster being similarly cursory with his own readings and engagements. As that book, In the Country of Last Things will make a great movie, I think, if the images can be made to carry some of the weight, and transform the literary pretensions into genuine storytelling. It’s good to see Auster doing more movies this past decade. Auster is a screenwriter manqué, and I would have much rather seen the movie than read the book.

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Diff’rent Strokes

As soon as you finish Paul Auster’s “Invisible” you want to read it again. (…) You want to reread “Invisible” because it moves quickly, easily, somehow sinuously, and you worry that there were good parts that you read right past, insights that you missed. The prose is contemporary American writing at its best: crisp, elegant, brisk. It has the illusion of effortlessness that comes only with fierce discipline. As often happens when you are in the hands of a master, you read the next sentence almost before you are finished with the previous one. The novel could be read shallowly, because it is such a pleasure to read. (…) So if, like me, part of why you read is the great pleasure of falling in love with a novel, then read “Invisible.” It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written.

(from Clancy Martin’s review of Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible in the NYTimes)

Paul Auster: Invisible

Auster, Paul (2009), Invisible, Henry Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-9080-2

It’s not as awful as I thought it would be. Paul Auster’s most recent novel, Invisible, frequently billed as a return to form, is, indeed, much better than what I read of his recent fare, especially when compared to his dismal Brooklyn Follies. This is not a good book but, in many places, it turns out, it’s a readable one, and while Auster is up to his usual tricks, at least they are well-rehearsed ones. Invisible teems with postmodern feints, with metafictional jabs and intertextual hooks, but like every single book of his I’ve so far read, it delivers a very weak punch. This is baffling in a book that not only takes up or references important issues like racism, but, on a very direct narrative level, throws a story at the reader that contains murder, great quantities of sex, incest and even, possibly, one (or two) secret agents. And there isn’t much else to distract the reader. Invisible displays an obsession with these themes, and it utilizes quite a few of the tricks of the trade to create enough suspense for the reader to read on and on, no matter how much other aspects of the book may annoy him. There are sudden surprises, a revelatory ending and each of the book’s sections ends on a cliffhanger. There is a definite connection of Invisible to many other specimen of the thriller genre. Sadly, this is true for Auster’s writing as well.

Stylistically, a good deal of Invisible is just a little better than reviled genre writers like Dan Brown. This is not to deny the fact that there are many many aspects that set Auster apart from the likes of Dan Brown (who, incidentally, is much better than the smug cliché would have you believe), but the staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction. There’s also a certain skill involved in even the most terrible prose sections, due to the fact that Auster’s prose isn’t uniformly bad. In my review of The Brooklyn Follies I argued that some of the awfulness of his style was part of an unfavorable characterization of the protagonist, narrator and ‘writer’ of the book. Auster does something very similar here. Again, in the character of Adam Walker, there’s an unlikeable protagonist, again, he writes part of the book, again, these sections are remarkably badly written. As the protagonist gradually loses control of his writing, he slips first into a less introspective and then into a syntactically far more reduced style. With each change and reduction, the quality of the writing improves dramatically (though not to a good level). Jim, a famous novelist, who acts as the editor of Walker’s writing, is also using a language that is a cut above Adam’s. Thus, it’s hard to make blanket statements about the book’s writing, although no amount of goodwill will make Invisible a well-written book.

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I will inject a warning now. The rest of the review may contain SPOILERS. I will not disclose the final revelation, but since I will definitely comment upon the book’s structure, this may spoil the ‘surprise’ of the reader as certain aspects about the narrative are, suddenly, revealed. I don’t think it’s much of a problem but I just want to be careful here. If you are bent upon reading this book, despite everything I said so far, stop reading this review now, and read the book first. If not, continue, but don’t complain afterwards.

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Invisible is consits of four sections. The first is the only one with only a single narrator, un nommé Adam Walker. He tells us a story about meeting a slightly warped Frenchman called Rudolf Born, who draws Walker into a maelstrom of sex and violence. Born, we learn, is highly seductive. Intent upon not missing a single cliché, Auster/Walker constructs that seductiveness as being composed of fear, desire and greed, as Born baits young Walker, an unsuccessful poet/student, with his attractive companion, his funds and an undefinable kind of implicit violence. As the story progresses, he offers Walker a piece of each of the three. He offers him to sleep with Margot, his beautiful girlfriend, he offers him money to set up a literary journal and he embroils him in violence by trying to make him complicit in a murder. These, of course, are all established tropes, usually used to signify ‘decadence’ (throughout the book, there’s also more than just a whiff of Dostoyevskyan disapproval directed at Born). Walker’s stumbling prose, these well-worn ideas and images, together with Auster’s continuous barrage of intertextual references, never lets the reader read this story as believable, but always oddly, coldly constructed, despite the insistently confessional tone that the narrative develops. This is confirmed as the second section starts, where we find that the narrator has changed, and the first section has turned from a narrative that sounds confessional to a ‘confessional story’.

Now, the story is narrated by Jim, who is a famous novelist (I will not start to discuss autobiographical feints in Auster’s prose. It’s a well-explored topic in Auster criticism, and I am, to be honest, not well-read enough in Auster’s work to make a meaningful comparison here. Auster’s, however, clearly toying with these kinds of facts in this story, part of the overall ‘clever’ peregrinations through the modernist and postmodernist toolbox) and who, one fine day (Spring 2007) is sent a manuscript through UPS. The accompanying letter tells him that the manuscript was written by a former acquaintance of his, a fellow student at the time, called Adam Walker, who, as he contemplates his past life on his death bed, has decided to write a story about a particularly fateful year. The story, like Auster’s novel, is supposed to be in four parts, one for each season of the year, and in each of Invisible’s four sections we encounter the corresponding part of Walker’s manuscript (although the last section, in a neat twist, exchanges Walker’s unwritten close of his book with a text by a different character, marking the manuscript’s presence through the absence of actual words by Walker). This change of narrator is one of the surprises I mentioned. All of a sudden, Auster’s camera pans out, seizing the previous chapter’s narrative as an object, ejecting the reader from it and making him evaluate it from the outside.

The second section also contains the next part of Walker’s story, sent to Jim at his own request. We learn that Walker had had a brief sexual episode with his sister, when he was still young and that, that fateful summer, this episode was picked up again, as he and his sister Gwyn launched into an impassioned but secret incestuous affair. This is the major point of the second section. Walker’s writing here is different. On Jim’s advice, he drops the first person narrator and uses, interestingly, a second person narrator – an immediate improvement, since it helps curb Walker’s obsession with poorly phrased introspection. Walker’s story itself is, or could be, hot and sizzling; there’s a certain powerful energy here, but the writing inhibits us from being caught up too deep in it. Sometimes, it reads like the paraphrase of a different, genuinely hot and erotic story. This absence is, in a way, symbolic for a different absence, Walker’s: as we learn in the third section, Walker has died shortly after sending the pages that comprise the second part of his manuscript to Jim, so while Jim is reading the story not as a literary artifact but as the confession of a friend, as part of a specific kind of communication between two living people, he is actually mistaken about the nature, not necessarily of the text, but of his reading, which he only finds out after having drafted and composed (but not sent) a response to what he assumes is Walker’s part of the exchange.

In fact, Walker’s death ossifies the story into, well, literature and as the book progresses, it becomes subject to the tools that we use on literary (whether fictional or nonfictional) texts but not normally on letters or everyday talk. From this, we launch into the third section of Walker’s story, which contains the last extant part of walker’s manuscript, handed over to Jim by Walker’s grieving sister. In this part, we accompany Walker on a trip to Paris, where he will meet Born again, Margot and Born’s new fiancé (and her daughter). He will leave Paris in disgrace which is where the manuscript breaks off. This part of the manuscript is written in the third person, and the more it progresses, the more reduced Walker’s style becomes. Soon it’s almost exclusively paratactic, later, Walker elides even the names and uses one letter only to designate the persons. Walker’s life is running out, he’s in a hurry to get the story out, not stopping for sentimentality or even introspection. As his manuscript nears its end, more and more of Walker’s authorial persona is wrung from the book, and suddenly Walker’s story becomes highly readable. For all the sorrow, fear and intrigue that Walker has, heretofore, tried to inject into depictions of Rudolph Born, it is only in these last pages, wrested from his death-bed, that Born actually does become intriguing.

To Invisible‘s detriment, as Walker’s persona retreats, cedes ground to the story, Auster’s persona becomes more prominent. It is impossible not to see Auster’s overeager hand at work in the book up to this point. It’s all so obviously constructed as a discourse on themes like memory, reality and narrative. Unlike genuinely clever but subtle writers like Brian Evenson, Auster always loved to flaunt his cleverness, express it in the most obvious and plain way possible, and so it is here as well. There is Rudolph Born, who the narrator said reminded him of Bertran de Born, a Provençal poet, immortalized by Dante in the Inferno

Now you can see atrocious punishment,
you who, still breathing, go to view the dead:
see if there’s any pain as great as this.

And so that you may carry news of me,
know that I am Bertran de Born, the one
who gave bad counsel to the fledgling king.

[…] Because I severed those so joined, I carry–
alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
which is within my trunk. […] (Inferno, Canto XXVIII ll 130-141, here in the Mandelbaum translation).

Born is a complicated reference. A writer as well read as Auster will have read him first in Ezra Pound’s translation, and will have found a very violent, grandiloquent poet singing songs in praise of war. Auster retranslated a well known poem of his (which Pound also translated!) and diverges from Pounds rendering of the text: Auster’s translation is more cautious, less euphorically bellicose, and with the specific context that violence had in Pound’s work (and let’s not forget Marinetti and other futurists), Auster’s translation is in itself a commentary on what Rudolf Born represents. In a related way, Born and Margot’s relationship can be read as a clever reversal of the marriage of le bon roi Henri and Marguerite de Valois. Or take Adam Walker, whose story reminded me both of Henry Roth’s story as depicted in Mercy of a Rude Stream (with another clever reversal) and that of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, as depicted in Exit Ghost. Both of those suites of books and their main characters, additionally, engage ideas of biography and autobiography, both, Henry Roth’s more closely than Philip Roth’s, are autobiographical in inspiration and gesture. If we accept the Roth/Zuckerman reference, is the diary (the form, not content of it) at the end a reference to Amy Bellette and Roth’s Ghost Writer, and Zuckerman’s fantasy in that book connected to the dubious epistemology status of parts of Walker’s narrative? There are hundreds of college term papers buried in this book, which reads as if Auster decided to take a basket of ideas and throw them at a wall to see which will stick.

But, at the end, with Walker fading, Auster’s ego (or Jim’s) rises once more and he/Jim decide to make everything just a bit more obvious. I’m as much of a fan of Lacan’s work as the next man, but Auster’s plain use of Lacan’s three orders in constructing the various levels of reality in the book (the book’s narrative always clearly, boringly, as narrative, declining reliability and directness) is not interesting, partly, certainly, because Auster clothes this in his ham-fisted language that has a hard time being subtle anyway. After 200+ pages of indirection, of playing hide and seek with biographies, truth and memory, Jim tells us that he changed every name upon publishing Walker’s story. But not just that, he mentions to us every name he changed. We’re talking about almost a page of names he changed, and it’s not just plain exchanges of names, these are transpositions. There are connections between the names, these relations he professes to have kept in place, thus acknowledging the immense amount of interpretation that has gone into his editing of the book. This is very obvious, very plain, and very, very dull. Auster saps every bit of creative thinking on the part of the reader from the book by forcing these passages on him. Again, feel free to imagine the tens of term papers to be spun from this premise alone. All this is potentially interesting, as is his comparison of sex and violence, as tropes of human interaction, gendered & all; it’s not even just Auster’s writing that ruins it all for me. See, if we’re honest, there are plenty of bad stylists who write breathtaking books as far as ideas are concerned, but Auster isn’t one of them.

Mostly, because Auster’s main problem is elsewhere. Bertran de Born may be a meaningful reference in more ways than the one I outlined. Dante has him describe himself as having a”brain dissevered from its source”. This describes Auster’s situation stunningly well. Auster, in this book and others (though not in all) is a profoundly noncommittal writer. While his book, through the, uh, deconstruction of autobiography and complex use of incest, sex and violence, criticises legitimizing discourses and pointing out the construct behind what is perceived as reality, Auster’s book also expresses a yearning for the réel, and he constructs his own book actually with just these same assumptions that he, on a formal level, criticizes. His strength was never one of commitment or convictions. His characters are frequently felons, liars or deviant in other ways but in Auster’s books these issues are formalized, turned into literary issues.

There is, I grant you this, a certain appeal in that, but Auster distances himself obsessively from the sources, from actual issues, his work transforms issues that matter into clever things. This is exhausting sometimes and, frankly, annoying at others. There is one example near the end where two observations of black workers frame a pivotal event. In a different writer’s hand, these observations would have shed light on the power structure that underlied that event, and Auster has presented everything necessary for it, but all of this, in the end, dissipates into a rhythm, a sound, abstract music. The more one invests in Auster the more frustrated and tired one becomes. The formulaic and distanced style of the first section should be a warning to skim this book, glance at it. It is, in a very superficial and quick reading, that the book yields most. It’s like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.

Here is my review of In the Country of Last Things and here of Brooklyn Follies.

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Nope. Not even funny. Paul Auster’s “The Brooklyn Follies”

Auster, Paul (2006), The Brooklyn Follies, Faber and Faber
ISBN 0-571-22499-7

Since this review is going to end with a strong recommendation to never touch the book, do not get this advice wrong. Preferably, do not read the book. If you have to, here’s what you do: after finishing it, pick up immediately any other Auster book on your shelf. Since The Brooklyn Follies is quite an atypical book to start your Auster reading I’m guessing you have one. So, pick one of them, preferably a current one, Oracle Night, Timbuktu, Book of Illusions, any of these. Read a page or two, somewhere from the middle. If you’re perceptive, you’ll notice a funny thing. The whole of the Brooklyn Follies is based upon a single conceit. This is a book purportedly written by Nathan, who is clearly supposed to be an idiot. It hinges upon the idea of a good writer using the voice of a bad writer. It is full of Nathan’s grandiose phrases, his self delusions, his sense of ‘humor’. As a writer, Auster is not prone to subtleties. He might as well have highlighted the important phrases with magic marker. And yet the book is terribly written from the first line to the last, which is where my advice comes in. Well, we’ll return to this in a few moments. Let’s first look at the book from a different angle.

Nathan, an oafish retired insurance salesman, is writing a book recording his life’s follies. He moves to Brooklyn, expecting to die in the near future. He has recently fought cancer, successfully, in all likelihood. He has been born and raised in Brooklyn, so, in anticipation of his physical demise, that’s where he returns. In Brooklyn he meets his cousin Tom, whose promising career has ended up behind the greasy wheel of a New York cab. We, the deplorable readers, are apprised of his downfall from wunderkind to cabbie in a chapter called “Purgatorio”, which on the one hand continues the sad tradition of using Dante’s wonderful poem for hundreds of bad or worse similes (most recently encountered in the blurbs of my German edition of Wassili Grossman, but I digress). This is of course Nathan the self important oaf speaking, but this sort of thing isn’t exactly rare and after a few dozen of these, it begins to grate. But I digress again. On the other hand, the chapter, like most chapters in the book, is stocked with descriptions like these: “It wasn’t that he had ever wanted a great deal from life, but the little he had wanted turned out to have been beyond his grasp”. My little pet philosopher here stole a few peeks now and then and retreated groaning after a few seconds.

Back to plot. Both these men come with baggage. Nathan has a daughter from a marriage that ended when the wife presumably had to listen to him once too often. He had a falling-out with that daughter and his worries about righting his relationship with her at what he (still) thinks is his life’s sundown provide a constant talking point throughout the book. Eventually he buys her an expensive necklace and writes an abject letter of apology since, you know, there’s nothing better to charm a woman than generous and groveling men. And wouldn’t you know, it works, the daughter returns to his fold crying, asking (at his knee, one presumes) for his wise words. Speaking of wisdom, the book contains a few excellent descriptions of itself. The best comes early, just exchange “she” for “he”:

It’s a rare day when she speaks in anything but platitudes – all those exhausted phrases and hand-me-down ideas that cramp the dump sites of contemporary wisdom

I digress. Back to the two unhappy campers. Well, Nathan, as mentioned, starts recording his life’s idiocies in what he labels the “Book of Follies” (at a particularly inane moment, a discussion between him and Tom, who majored in literature, is recorded, where Nathan complains of digressing so much and Tom tells him (do I hear swelling strings?) that he’s now becoming a real writer. Bah). Into that book also go whatever idiocies he commits in the course of the events of The Brooklyn Follies (yes yes I know). That’s that.

Now Tom. The mere fact that Tom is unmarried is apparently no reason for the author (which? Yes, I’ll come to that) not to issue him with a woman to care for. In Tom’s case, it’s his wayward sister, who cavorts from bed to bed and man to man and gets into trouble at every corner. Funny thing. The only promiscuous person in the book is a woman, she gets punished for it (by life) by ending up in the most evilly pure environment Auster (Nathan?) could think of, a Christian fundamentalist sect. In the end, having returned to the fold, she is chaste and happy. These are, spoilers, I guess I should have issued a warning, but really, it will not actually spoil the book for you, because there are many other plot lines in the course of the book. And here we encounter the one strength of Auster and this book in particular: he creates great characters. Not in a realist novel kind of way but in a Tim Burton movie kind of way. I may be influenced by watching the first season finale of Pushing daisies in the background right now, but plots and characters would have made, at the hands of the right director, a wonderful movie. There are so many scenes I could point to. It would be a warm movie, uplifting, something to watch again and again, in full, warm colors. A really, really great movie. Conceivably. The trouble with writing is, well, writing.

Thus, instead of reveling in the plot and characters, we get stuck with dour old Nathan and his dour, mostly younger friends. The whole point of the book is humor. His spiel with Nathan’s voice, Nathan’s preposterous grandiosity and his constant jocular joking is supposed to be funny. And funny books are sometimes not overwhelmingly well written, so there’s a loophole, right? Nope. This book is not even funny. I suppose it could be another one of the book’s follies that the narrator manages to fumble every single joke. Even if he starts off well, he does not know where to stop and follows every phrase or sentence with humorous potential with a dull paragraph of dour earnestness. As I say, I have an idea why his wife wanted to leave him. And then there is Tom, who enables Nathan to include pages and pages of dull and idiotic patter about literature. It’s not that he’s factually wrong most of the time, because he isn’t. The tone is that of an overeager underachiever with a book by the typewriterslashcomputer, typing up the details on Kafka nice and tidy. He makes a few tiny mistakes but the bulk of it is correct, factually. The whole of this is often used for a kind of adult, pseudo-academic humor. And, dull as this is as statements on literature, this, too, is not even funny. There is a doubly intended funniness here, one by Nathan and the other by Auster and none of the two works.

This two-faced dullness is what I will discuss now that this review is coming to a close. Clearly, Auster is trying to use Nathan’s qualities as a hack for humorous purposes. There is a complicated system of reference connecting The Brooklyn Follies to the “Book of Follies”, since the author never steps out from behind his curtain. From first to last sentence it’s Nathan’s book. So what do we do with the clearly marked badness? Who do we send the check for bungled storytelling to? Who do we sue for wasting our time? Is Nathan playing with his readers, a bad writer trying to seem a worse writer, by the ham-fisted way of doing it exposing himself as the former? Is the whole story a machination of Nathan? I have hinted at this before. Is Nathan a sad old man trying to concoct a life more interesting than the one he actually leads? Well, as they say, we only have the book, and it says nought. There are no hints that I found that would point in such a direction. So why do I call Auster a bad writer? Is there evidence in the book that it is not all Nathan’s voice? No. But here we return to the beginning of this piece. Take any of his recent books and you will find a huge amount of the same sentences, the same *coughs* humor, the same sameness. It’s Auster’s voice all right, with very cheap bits of “Nathan” tacked on a few times. This novel is a huge failure. As a movie it would have succeeded, and as a novel written by a different writer, it would also have succeeded. Auster has his strengths, and I still remember the novel’s characters vividly, if somewhat uneasy at the heavy stench of sexism (Nathan’s?) pervading the book, writing prose just is not one of them.

So, I’d like to say I tried Auster’s method and created the voice of a believably self-important hack, but if you look at my other writing here, that’s just me. Same with Auster.