The Dollar Tree

Tobias Jones

  • Hand To Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure by Paul Auster
    Faber, 436 pp, £15.99, November 1997, ISBN 0 571 17149 4

Paul Auster is so implicated in his own fictions that it is often hard to tell whether his covert appearances there represent a Modernist textual teasing or a baser vanity; whether his walk-on parts are self-mocking or aggrandising. In City of Glass, the first volume in the New York Trilogy, the writer’s identity is always a plaything: Quinn, the writer, uses the pseudonym William Wilson, who himself writes about the improbably named Max Work, and is mistaken for Paul Auster, ‘of the Auster Detective Agency’. (The ‘Auster’ character always gets the smartest lines in the story, being allowed, for example, to expand on his pet theories about Don Quixote and the difficulties, significantly enough, of representation. ‘Remember: throughout the book Don Quixote is preoccupied by the question of posterity. Again and again he wonders how accurately his chronicler will record his adventures.’) The writer stumbles across characters reading his books, only to be told: ‘It’s no big deal. It’s just a book.’ Then in Leviathan, published some years later, Auster uses the same initials for the narrator, Peter Aaron; and anagrammatic sleight of hand (Delia/Lydia, Iris/Siri: Auster’s real-life loves past and present) further blurs the boundaries between his facts and his fictions.

So one approaches his openly autobiographical Hand to Mouth with trepidation, prepared for the skewed introspection that is typical of both the genre and the man. From the subtext of the subtitle, with its suggestion that ‘early failure’ was the precursor to magnificent success (and to be fair, Auster hovers mid-table in the Premier League of English-language literary novelists), to the moody author photos front and back; from the memoir’s surprising lack of guile and stylisation (he is self-referential only in the most obvious sense) to the self-paid compliments and flattery, it is clear that his subject is most certainly himself. Having met so many of his alter egos in the past, we now know that alterity got short shrift.

His other theme is money, and his trouble finding enough of it and enough time to become a writer. Growing up (‘being trapped’) in a small suburban town in the Fifties, Auster grew up as if in ‘a gigantic television commercial, an incessant harangue to buy, make more, spend more, to dance around the dollar-tree’. His parents remembered the Depression, and reacted very differently: his abstemious father would take him to the discount store, while his mother ‘cultivated shopping as a means of self-expression’. (They eventually divorced: ‘money was the fault-line.’) Auster listens to the dollars and dimes, and the lexicon they represent: money ‘always has the last word’; ‘money talked, and to the degree that you listened to it and followed its arguments, you would learn to speak the language of life.’ The clichés might have been cunningly included to point up the vacuity of consumerism; but later in the book, when Auster turns his back on that culture, he keeps the clichés.

After his last year in high school, he does a Grand Tour (Paris, Spain, Italy, Dublin) working on a manuscript that has since been lost. He starts at Columbia, combining undergraduate study with a scries of jobs. Preferring blue to white-collar work, he always seems to come across as the gleeful, clever-clever college kid, mugging up on the life of the little people for his intended magnum opus: he works for an educational publishing company (and is sacked for pedantry); in a hotel in the Catskills (‘those little excursions into the backwaters and shit holes of the world never failed to further my education in ways I hadn’t expected’); toils on a tanker (‘I managed to crowd an astonishing number of impressions and memories into a relatively small sliver of my life’).

Auster continues to absorb experience and ideas at college, where he ‘drank’ books ‘in staggering numbers, consumed entire continents of books, could never even begin to get enough of them’. He attends various sit-ins and demonstrations, as some on the campus blow themselves ‘to smithereens’ (of course) when building bombs, and others go into hiding. In 1969, he boasts that he knows seven of the ten names on an FBI most-wanted list. (It’s hard not to envy a man who is such a smooth combo of East Coast and Rive Gauche, who spends so much of the Summer of Love and after in New York and Paris, sits by lean Genet’s side on the podium translating his words as he speaks, rubs shoulders with Jerzy Kosinski, John Lennon and Arthur Cohen.)

The cast of other characters is often barely credible, a hint perhaps that there is invention and embellishment in the seeming straight-talk: Casey and Teddy, ‘a couple of clowns from the days of vaudeville and silent films’, the schizophrenic girl who thinks Auster’s a Hindu god, the man who threatens to kill him, the crazed H.L. Humes (‘Doc’) who gives away 50 dollar notes to collapse the economy. In Paris, Mexico and Manhattan there’s the same atmosphere of noir melodrama, the same sense of hard-boiled, pulp paragraphs orbiting around him:

he wasted no time in getting to the point. Are you Paul Auster? he asked. When I told him I was, he informed me that Monsieur X wanted to see me. When? I asked. Right now, he said. There’s a taxi waiting downstairs.

  It was a little like being arrested by the secret police. I suppose I could have refused the invitation, but the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere made me curious, and I decided to see what was up. In the cab, I asked my chaperone why I had been summoned like this, but the old man shrugged. Monsieur X had told him to bring me to the house, and that was what he was doing. His job was to follow orders, not ask questions.

He travels, translates, writes, marries, writes less, has a son, writes even less, divorces and depresses.

Much more interesting, after this strange 130-page memoir, are the three Appendices. The first consists of three one-act plays, laced with Beckettian absurdities and non sequiturs. The first was performed, disastrously, in 1977 (‘I saw my little play die in front of a hundred and fifty people’); its two characters, brickies called Laurel and Hardy, borrow their double-act from a duo met in the Catskills, in whom ‘the spirit of Laurel and Hardy had survived.’ There’s much silence and endless inconsequentiality:

Hardy: Stan
(Silence)
Laurel: (At last) Yes?
Hardy: It doesn’t matter

The plays are too derivative, but recognisably Auster. In the second play, the characters, called Green, Black and Blue, pre-empt the Blue, Black, Brown and White of his Ghosts, the second volume of the NY Trilogy, itself far in advance of the sinister rainbow alliance in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. In the third play, the Auster motif recurs: the complaint that ‘people aren’t interested in stories anymore.’

The plays seem to be the starting point for his deliberately cheesy thrillers that are also somehow metaphysical, rather as if NYPD Blue had been reworked by the early Pinter. Take Ghosts: the private eye watches a man, thinking ‘he was going to get a story, or at least have something like a story, but this is no more than blather, an endless harangue about nothing at all.’ With his cerebral, sassy urbanity, Auster refashions the writer as detective, following up leads to nowhere in pursuit of the mystery of his own narrative. In these plays he is just beginning to write the prospectus for the ‘somewhere a dog barked’ school of eerie, urban fiction.

The second Appendix struck a personal chord with me. All it does is describe the rules and display the coloured playing cards for ‘Action Baseball’, a game Auster devised during his scamming and scheming period to hustle some extra cash. I’ve spent much of the post-Landslide season trying with my brother to devise a new board game: a caring, sharing, Christian-Socialist alternative to Monopoly. Its working name is Full Marx, and along the board’s London streets one bargains for votes rather than rent, builds hospitals instead of hotels: ‘if you pass Go, collect a constituency’ etc. Having never understood baseball proper, I’m fazed by Auster’s game, which looks phenomenally complicated: ‘three-and-two pitch with two outs and runner on first, runners on first and second, or bases loaded ...’ but it does explain the two hundred-odd pages of the third Appendix, ‘Squeeze Play’.

Auster’s first attempt at a novel, and another bid to keep financially afloat, ‘Squeeze Play’ revolves around the death of former baseball star, George Chapman. Written by ‘Paul Benjamin’, and narrated in the first person by Max Klein, a private dick, it’s much the best bit of Hand to Mouth. The snappy dialogue and quick-fire clichés sit much more happily in this decent New York yarn than in the memoir itself. Our hero Klein is tired of hunting down daughters of wealthy families who, having become Combat Zone Hookers, aren’t particularly keen to be found: ‘Fuck off, fuzz. I don’t got no mommy and daddy, you dig? I got born last week when you screwed some dog up the ass.’ When Chapman dies, Klein struggles through New York to solve the crime. It’s wonderfully two-and-a-half dimensional, its coffee-slurping cops, dragging on cigarettes, snow-jobs, thugs and lummy love-interest making it the simplest of reads, complicated only by references to Donne and, for Auster’s obligatory splash of colour, to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

Auster is only one of many to place baseball at the centre of a novel, wielding the bat as a metaphor for all things Yankee. A dedicatee of Auster’s Leviathan, Don DeLillo opens his new novel Underworld with a legendary 1951 baseball game in New York offering all the exuberance and innocence of prelapsarian America, before news gets round that the Soviet Union has just tested an atomic bomb. The game is almost a State-of-the-Union introduction to the Edenic age when Bobby Thomson could hit the winning home run and bring the American people together: ‘All over the city people are coming out of their houses. This is the nature of Thomson’s homer. It makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what has happened, those few who haven’t heard – comparing faces and states of mind.’ In John living’s Owen Meaney, one mythic hit (‘so unusually sharp and loud’) led to death and Christian conversion. To the British, baseball seems to be simply a spruced up version of rounders. To American writers it is like village cricket: a touchstone of a nation’s soul and psyche.

A few weeks ago, in an earnest pre-Booker debate about the status of modern fiction, Gore Vidal tried to break up the Martin-Melvyn axis of self-importance by bringing up the subject of Auster – ‘a youngish writer’ – as an example of writing talent that is selling out to celluloid. Film, Vidal said, is where it’s at for most of America’s audience, and – after Smoke and Blue in the Face – it is apparently where Auster (in his 50th year) intends to stay. It seems a strange choice for a man who has always dealt in the Chinese boxes of writing about writing; who insinuates himself as author into the action, or lack of it, to achieve that going-nowhere, hall-of-mirrors effect.

But then Auster could never make a case for himself as a stylist, and it may be that film, after poetry, criticism, non-fiction and novels, is his ideal home. His business, after all, has always been more the reinvention of form than the resuscitation of language. ‘Squeeze Play’, for example, inverts the standard whodunnit, being a murder-mystery that lacks an actual murder, but the rest is all papier-mâché (‘the tears he wept were bitter, but they were necessary. They lay between him and his manhood’). His films are more concerned with the business of storytelling dun his essayistic fiction, and less transfixed by the problem of the author. The tale, told in Smoke, about Sir Walter Raleigh trying to measure the weight of the clouds of smoke produced by burning tobacco (he weighs the smoking apparatus before and after) combines all the classic Auster elements: the excitement of distilled history, the transatlantic cultural exchange, the man’s world of leathered lungs, the awareness of the telling: a place where even the most weighty stories seem to go up in narrative smoke.