Who are you?

Theo Tait

  • Oracle Night by Paul Auster
    Faber, 243 pp, £15.99, February 2004, ISBN 0 571 21698 6

For a long time, Paul Auster’s novels were much more popular in France than in America. Perhaps this is because he sounds more convincing in French. ‘Ecrivain de la mégapole, de l’errance et du hasard, Paul Auster est devenu un auteur culte,’ one Parisian blurb-artist writes, catching the appeal in a way that his English-speaking counterparts find difficult. Auster’s fiction mixes metropolitan cool with stylish intellectualism – a combination no less enjoyable for the distinct whiff of bullshit it gives off.

Auster’s lifestyle embodies the ethos of the Left Bank: he dresses in black, smokes small cigars, and writes in a bare white studio under two naked light bulbs. He is also a committed New Yorker, whose love of Brooklyn, baseball, Laurel and Hardy etc is well attested. As a writer Auster has balanced these two traditions, synthesising the bleak, alienated visions of European Modernism with the vernacular energy of American storytelling. A fairly representative sentence, from City of Glass (1985), reads: ‘In his dream, which he later forgot, he found himself alone in a room, firing a pistol into a bare white wall.’ Beckett, Kafka, Hamsun and the French Existentialists are the outstanding European influences, while Hammett, Twain, Melville and Hawthorne are the obvious American models. This eclecticism broadens Auster’s appeal: if the avant-garde gestures bore you, a gunshot will soon ring out, or some unfortunate will have his brains bashed in with a baseball bat. And unlike many postmodernists who enjoy slumming it in the genre-novel basement, Auster knows how to tell a story. Furthermore, in roundabout imitation of his greatest single influence – Thoreau’s Walden – Auster writes crisply and sensuously about self-reliance, austerity and solitude. His novels are, almost without exception, inventive, elegant and deeply entertaining.

Oracle Night follows the paradigm for most of Auster’s fiction, which goes something like this. There is a man. He is alone in a room, or a house, or a car – some solitary and private American space, usually in a city. He is doing something automatic and reflexive – staring at a blank wall, writing compulsively, driving – in the aftermath of an under-discussed catastrophe. Perhaps a lover or close relative has just died; maybe he is recovering from a divorce. Then, quite by chance, something odd happens to him. (The adjectives ‘random’, ‘accidental’, ‘sudden’ and ‘mysterious’ occur a lot in Auster novels, as do the adverbs ‘unexpectedly’ and ‘inexplicably’.) As a result of this chance event, his life changes; perhaps it changes so much that it becomes a new life, a different life. There is also, most likely, a story within the story; and possibly another story within that one. These stories echo each other, throwing an uncertain light on one another, suggesting meanings that are never made explicit. At this point the novel begins to levitate slightly, as the different levels of reality unseat each other. In The Book of Illusions (2002), the reader is briefly offered a vista of philosophical idealism: ‘Life was a fever dream, he discovered, and reality was a groundless world of figments and hallucinations, a place where everything you imagined came true.’ But, as the book nears its conclusion, febrile subjectivity yields to narrative convention. If the hero is unlucky, he dies in some uncompromisingly modernistic style: driving crazily into the oncoming traffic, or locked for ever in an underground room. If he is lucky, he meets a beautiful woman who understands him, and is happy. ‘And then,’ the hero of Moon Palace (1989) says, ‘just as I was about to hit bottom, an extraordinary event took place: I learned that there were people who loved me.’ In the later work, the parcelling out of fate tends to be less neat – but the plots are still structured around these extremes.

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