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In the Guest Bedroom

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A good place for getting to grips with Paul Austers appalling vision of urban solitude

Purley Station: a good place for getting to grips with Paul Auster's appalling vision of urban solitude

Reviewers in the UK seem to have quite liked Invisible, Paul Auster‘s latest novel, and I was starting to wonder if it might be worth checking out – I haven’t read a book of his since The Book of Illusions (2002) – when James Wood came along and clobbered it in the New Yorker. I can’t really disagree with most of what Wood says, or with the English-speaking world’s rough consensus on Auster, which is, I suppose, that he’s an entertaining and skilful but not altogether non-bogus writer with a damaging weakness for pre-fabricated language and a 1980s take on Franco-American 1960s cool, appealing and preposterous in more or less equal measure. Even so, I feel a pang whenever I see him given a dressing down, partly because the world doesn’t share my belief that there’s a big difference between his earlier and later books, and partly because I can’t think at all clearly about him on account of having been a teenage Paul Auster fanatic.

My conversion to fandom – which took place in 1991, when I was 15 or 16 – involved a day out in London during the holidays with a girl I went to school with. She went to the pub with me and then revealed that we were expected on a family trip to the musical Buddy, in the course of which she deposited some vodka-scented puke on her shoes. Next came an uncomfortable evening at her house. Her parents, who were strict Catholics and quite posh, gloweringly fed us before packing us off to bed in disgrace. I took refuge in a copy of The New York Trilogy and sat up late in the guest bedroom being amazed by the decoding of the old man’s apparently aimless walks around Manhattan in ‘City of Glass’. Spending the next day alone in London after being driven in silence to Purley station in the morning, I fully appreciated the book’s appalling vision of urban solitude.

I went on to read the rest of Auster’s output, even the gnomic poems he published in the 1970s (‘Roots writhe with the worm – the sift/Of the clock cohabits the sparrow’s heart’ etc), which I duly imitated in my GCSE English coursework. His essays got me reading Hamsun and Beckett; his novels seemed to show that it’s possible to be readable as well as uncompromisingly experimental, not to mention kind of cool.  Auster, as Theo Tait observed in the LRB, ‘dresses in black, smokes small cigars, and writes in a bare white studio under two naked light bulbs’.  This seemed to me a model way to go at things, and it didn’t escape my notice that Auster’s wife was a fox, or that mysterious women were quite likely to have sex with his alienated central figures. His occluded social world was reassuringly compatible with my limited notions of grown-up existence, and I was wowed by what I took to be his cardinal message: that the meaning of life is that there’s no meaning. (I took it as read that a writer’s main job was to figure out the meaning of life.)

When Leviathan came out in 1992, I went to see Auster read at the ICA and asked him a pretentious question at the signing session afterwards. He was very gracious and I still have my signed hardback. Two years later, though, Mr Vertigo seemed extremely bad to me; Auster then fell uncharacteristically silent for five years, only to return with Timbuktu (1999), which I’m pretty sure was objectively duff. I was an all-knowing first-year undergraduate when Mr Vertigo came out, and there was obviously an element of rounding-on-the-previously-worshipped in my response. (More, anyway, than there was of increased readerly acumen: Leviathan, which I still loved at the time, doesn’t stand up particularly well.) I wanted to punish him, in other words, for my embarrassment about hoping to transmute my adolescent self-pity into something resembling his writing’s downbeat mystique.

All the same, I still like to believe that Auster became a different writer in the 1990s, leaving the earlier work unscathed in my memory. A similar rule applies to Morrissey, Prince, The Cure and most of the second season of Twin Peaks, though in Auster’s case I have a half-baked theory to back it up. Auster’s son from his first marriage went badly off the rails at around that time and was given five years, in 1998, for his peripheral role in a famous clubland murder. (Not surprisingly, Auster is tight-lipped about the case, though it’s reimagined in his wife Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved.) It doesn’t seem to me totally implausible that he might have been a bit distracted round then, whatever the state of one reader’s cooling fandom. Where that leaves the 1980s genius I pictured as a teenager, I have no idea, but – as the narrator says of Daniel Quinn at the end of ‘City of Glass’ – ‘wherever he may have disappeared to, I wish him luck.’

Comments on “In the Guest Bedroom”

  1. Phil says:

    Don’t worry, it’s not you. I was stunned by the New York Trilogy, and a few years later thought that The Music of Chance was more or less the greatest novel ever written. (It’s still one of my favourites.)

    What happened next – dear oh dear. After I’d reviewed a really ghastly book on Cuba for New Statesman and Society, the reviews editor kindly gave me the new Paul Auster by way of compensation. Unfortunately the new Paul Auster was Mr Vertigo:

    Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo (Faber, £14.99)

    Printed in New Statesman and Society, 8/4/94

    Since 1986’s The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s style has been unmistakable: erudite, laconic, minutely responsive to changes of light and mood. Auster’s characters are beset by patterns and coincidences, driven by the urge to make sense of it all and become the authors of their own lives. The attempt is foredoomed, because after all nothing means anything; nothing finally matters beyond the bare fact of survival. Auster’s protagonists carry around thousands of dollars, then spend it all, lose it, gamble it away or simply forget about it. It makes no difference. Sleep rough and spend the day watching the clouds, your life will still be as valuable – will still be the same – as it ever was. When the money’s gone Auster’s heroes head off into the blue again, unencumbered, aimless and alone.

    Man (sic) as bare animal, condemned to pattern-making; man in search of significance, in flight from involvement. It’s a distinctive but chilly way to write, something like a cross between Beckett and Hawthorne. Auster’s masterpiece, The Music of Chance, was his last unselfconscious work in this mode. In Leviathan we saw the Auster protagonist, with all his mythic-existential-American baggage, as others see him: self-absorbed, obsessive, unreliable, the adolescent as hero.

    Mr Vertigo is something else again. In 1924, aged nine, Walt Rawley is taken into the charge of the mysterious “Master Yehudi”. A horrific apprenticeship follows, at the end of which Walt can levitate. “The Master” works out a stage act and takes Walt on tour; then, in 1929, comes adolescence and the loss of Walt’s gift. By then the book is almost over. Walt works for the Mob, runs a nightclub (“Mr Vertigo’s”), gets drafted abroad, comes home. A few pages later, it’s 1993. Walt is now seventy-eight and writing his memoirs; and yes, it’s this book.

    Auster has not written a historical novel, any more than Hawthorne did: stock situations are furnished with minimal background detail. Sadly, Mr Vertigo also lacks the strengths of Auster’s previous work. The young Walt’s dialogue is a constant outpouring of bad puns and smart answers: just the kind of linguistic jangle Auster has previously banished from his writing. What’s worse, Walt tells his story straight: there are no sudden epiphanies here, no yearnings after significance. Shorn of the intense self-consciousness of the typical Auster narrator, the book’s symbolism seems laboured and arbitrary. If Walt has the same name as the founder of Virginia, so what? If Walt learns his art in a house shared with a Jew, a black and an Oglala Sioux, so what? If Walt flies through the air… well, so what? Walt’s act is described without any of the numinous quality which Auster has previously brought to the most mundane scenes. He might as well have been a tightrope walker.

    The jacket tells me that this is “a profound meditation on the nature of creativity” and that it’s by the author of The New York Trilogy. One of these claims, unfortunately, is true.

  2. Michael Hughes says:

    Shortly after reading the New York Trilogy, I moved house. As I was having a final check of my emptied bedroom, I decided to move the bed, in case any detritus had strayed under there. And what did I find? Another copy of the New York Trilogy – a different edition, with a different cover – which I had never seen before.

    I was very taken with the book though, and proceeded to glut myself on his back catalogue. Always a mistake, and his standard tricks and tropes soon became wearily familiar. My palate still hasn’t recovered, and I find I am disinclined to attempt his new ones.

    But I’m not convinced by the argument that the standard of his work suffered in the early 90s, as a result of personal tragedy. Surely Mr Tayler’s maturing taste, during those years from age 16 to 20, is a much more likely explanation.

  3. Phil says:

    Curious, in that case, that Mr Edwards’s taste matured in the same way during the years from 29 to 33. Maybe I was just a late developer.

    Christopher, as you finally left Purley do you remember noticing the words “CAPTAIN BEEFHEART” painted on the topmost one of a pile of sleepers by the track? I didn’t do it, I hasten to add, but I always used to watch out for it as the train came into Purley – it was a cheering reminder that there was a world elsewhere, or more precisely that there were other people there who also wished there was a world elsewhere. (I lived in Coulsdon in my teens, which in my case was some time before I encountered Paul Auster.)

  4. simonpawley says:

    Even without having read all of them, it does seem to me a mistake to try – as James Wood does – to give Auster’s books a singular characterization. Wood says that “One reads Auster’s novels very fast, because they are lucidly written,” that they “fairly hum along.” This seems true to me of ‘The Music of Chance’ (which as a story is both very linear and, fundamentally, very straightforward) in a way that is just not true of ‘The New York Trilogy,’ which narratively is much more disruptive, compelling rather more work on the part of the reader. My favourite book of Auster’s is one Wood does not mention – ‘In The Country of Last Things,’ which I think strikes a balance between those two models. This is an example where I don’t think there is any room to say that “The [narrative] disassembly is… grindingly explicit, spelled out in billboard-size type” (Wood again).

    Judging from ‘Travels in the Scriptorium,’ of which I managed only a few pages, some of Auster’s more recent work is marred by a self-referentiality that threatens to slip into self-indulgence. But if one gives serious consideration to the variety that can be seen in his earlier work, I think one has to hold out hope that there is at least potential for him to produce more high-quality writing. I’ll certainly be giving ‘Invisible’ a go.

  5. I don’t remember that (this was my sole visit to Purley station and environs) but I’m glad to learn it was there. Also, just before this post went up, Paul Auster blipped up spookily in the Guardian, where Hadley Freeman characterised him as ‘repetitive and narcissistic, with a particular appeal to self-important male undergraduates’.

  6. Camus123 says:

    I read the Trilogy a few years ago and was partly convinced that here was a very good writer,, moving towards better things when he got his style sorted out. I don’t buy all of his books but I think you have hit it in you piece here. I’m having similar problems with David Wallace, but that’s another story.

  7. Rick M says:

    Invisible is a great book. Read it, and then make your statement. Indeed, there are authors whose books seem always the same. Auster is an example. But take a good look at Roth’s, DeLillo’s, or Bellow’s novels – I have selected those because all of them belong to the very exclusive club of my favourite authors.
    Auster returns to his origins. Please, read other reviews, and ignore Wood’s diatribe – Wood has his own conception of how fiction should work. I have never bounded my opinion to an alleged authority on literary issues. Art is not science; I will never permit that my aesthetic views and preferences be object of any scientific dissection by a presumed empowered scrivener.

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