In the Guest Bedroom
Christopher Tayler · I Was a Teenage Auster Fanatic
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.’