Reviews — From the February 2017 issue

Life Choices

Paul Auster’s multitudes

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4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster. Henry Holt. 880 pages. $32.50.

Is there a more equivocal legacy for an American artist than being loved by the French? As reputations go, there’s something suspect about it. Maybe it means that such artists operate at a level of sophistication that eludes the booboisie. Or maybe it’s just that they represent some gimcrack Gallic notion of American authenticity. Edgar Allan Poe, Josephine Baker, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Jim Harrison. It’s a peculiar subset, encompassing the sublime and the ridiculous, often both in the same figure.

Paul Auster is a case in point. On the basis of the postmodern mysteries that make up The New York Trilogy, published in 1985 and 1986, Auster joined a short list of living writers whose place in the contemporary canon (and on the university syllabus) seems secure. The man himself is almost iconographic of serious literature — the black clothing, the sunken eyes and penetrating gaze, the smoker’s growl, the ready quotations from Beckett and Blanchot. (One of Auster’s college classmates recalled that he “would wander around in his long overcoat clutching French poems and translations of Tristan Tzara.” Auster was Auster before it was cool.) But what to make of him, really? Is he a major writer or does he just dress the part? Has his secret merely been to import the gimmicks and poses of the French avant-garde to the streets of New York, or has he absorbed and transformed those influences in such a way as to become a true American original? There’s something tauntingly indeterminate about Auster’s books. Cover one eye and what had seemed innovative suddenly looks like imitation, and vice versa.

Paul Auster © Horst Friedrichs/Writer Pictures

Paul Auster © Horst Friedrichs/Writer Pictures

Auster began his writing career as a poet, but the place to start if you want to try to figure out where you stand with him is The Invention of Solitude (1982), his first published work of prose. The book’s two parts reflect the double nature of Auster’s writing. The first assembles his memories of his estranged father, a real-estate speculator who had recently died of heart failure. The portrait of this miserly, emotionally stunted man forms an American tragedy in miniature, a succinct, devastating outline of repressed trauma and the soul-emptying wages of capitalism.

The second part is more conceptual. Auster confines himself to his tenth-story studio in downtown Manhattan to compose a series of third-person meditations on solitude — solitude as it relates to his upbringing, to his role as a new father, and to his vocation as a writer. Meshing stray recollections with excerpts from touchstone authors, the essay moves irresistibly toward the conclusion that it is impossible to fully understand a person’s life — and therefore impossible to write about it in any traditional way. “At his bravest moments,” Auster writes of the Auster who is writing, “he embraces meaninglessness as the first principle.”

The Invention of Solitude announces all the themes that have preoccupied Auster throughout his career: his issues with his father, his Jewish-American origins and suburban childhood, his deep-seated feelings of alienation and his compensatory enthusiasm for baseball and books, and his fascination with uncanny coincidences. But most important, it introduces the image of the solitary writer inside a locked room, ransacking his mind and his favorite texts to simulate the kind of plenitude he might evoke if he were out describing the world. In a locked room, the only observable action is the writer sitting at a desk, and in this stripping away of the elements that typically furnish a scene, the distance between thinking and composing contracts.

The result is the first instance of the archetypal Auster sentence, the sentence that watches itself being created: “He lays out a piece of blank paper on the table before him and writes these words with his pen. It was. It will never be again.” Later, in Travels in the Scriptorium (2007), we find: “Without another thought he picks up the pen with his right hand and opens the pad to the first page with his left.” Or again, from Man in the Dark (2008): “The night is still young, and as I lie here in bed looking up into the darkness, a darkness so black that the ceiling is invisible, I begin to remember the story I started last night.”

This claustrophobic self-awareness receives its purest expression in The New York Trilogy. The books belong to the lineage of metaphysical detective stories by nouveau roman authors such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor, who subverted the genre by devising unsolvable crimes, and by Patrick Modiano, who used it to investigate historical amnesia. But Auster’s open-ended detective tales are really extended metaphors about the agonies of writing. His gumshoes doggedly follow their marks, waiting for them to reveal their importance to the drama. (It never happens.) They stumble upon arcane patterns and allusive clues that they try to force into larger meanings. (That never happens, either.) Inevitably, they wind up alone in a room with a journal full of notes that add up to nothing — except, that is, the circular story you’ve just read.

Auster is sometimes celebrated as a chronicler of New York, but in the trilogy the city is flattened to the two dimensions of paper. Even the system of gridded streets is likened to the quadrille-ruled notebooks favored by Auster and his fictional stand-ins. Indeed, one of the most obnoxious things about Auster’s locked-room fables is that they fetishize writing paraphernalia, as though the art of writing were identical to the physical act of doing it (or pretending to do it). In book after book, stationery is endowed with ludicrous talismanic properties. The hero of Oracle Night (2003) effuses:

The Portuguese notebooks were especially attractive to me, and with their hard covers, quadrille lines, and stitched-in signatures of sturdy, unblottable paper, I knew I was going to buy one the moment I picked it up and held it in my hands.

The summa of this posturing may be The Story of My Typewriter (2002), a series of paintings of Auster’s Olympia portable typewriter (by Sam Messer) alongside a chin-stroking homage to the device.

It’s stuff like this — bullshit, in a word — that casts so much suspicion on Auster and his work. The self-mythologizing, portentous symbolism, and murmured cod philosophy conjure an ageless overcoat-wearing undergrad, a Peter Pan of pretentiousness. Yet Auster’s zealous productivity challenges this impression: for decades, he really has gone into small rooms and come out with intellectually searching manuscripts. He possesses an apparently inexhaustible need to immerse himself in the material of his youth. Much like Modiano, Auster is essentially writing the same book again and again, and these endless variations lend his writing its haunted intensity. The ghosts of earlier books are always knocking around inside the walls of the new ones, and the more he writes, the louder their banging becomes. The power of his best work is largely due to repetition and accumulation — to his faithful pursuit of the mission proposed in The Invention of Solitude, to explore the “infinite possibilities of a limited space.”

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is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “First-Person Shooters,” appeared in the August 2015 issue.

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