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.

This is the basic pattern, but it allows for definite differences in tone. At one end of the spectrum are the early novellas that make up The New York Trilogy, which are fairly dry and abstract. City of Glass, for instance, concerns Quinn, a reclusive author of detective novels. He answers the phone in the middle of the night. The man on the other end has mistaken him for a private eye called Paul Auster. Quinn decides to impersonate Auster, and to take on the case. He is hired to protect a man who for most of his childhood was kept in a darkened room by his father – a theologian driven insane by his dream of re-creating an unfallen Edenic language, one of absolute correspondence between word and thing. Quinn must tail the father, recently released from prison, as he wanders round New York. Plotting the old man’s routes on a map, Quinn decodes a message written on the city: ‘THE TOWER OF BABEL’. Whereupon he promptly loses his man, and then, in quick succession, his money, his flat and his identity. He becomes a Beckett-style bum, living in a dustbin, staring at the sky, scribbling gnomic nothings in his red notebook, unable to recognise his own image in the mirror. Like the other two stories in The New York Trilogy, City of Glass is not so much a whodunnit as a ‘who are you?’ (or a ‘who am I?’, which turns out to be the same thing). It’s a classic mid-1980s period piece, carrying the imprint both of Borges’s puzzle-like detective stories, and of post-structuralist linguistics, bearing witness to a time when the floating signifier seemed to portend great shifts in identity and reality. In the way that, say, Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ is a model of Beat thinking, City of Glass is satisfyingly representative of its intellectual origins: literary skill and intoxicating insight are bound up with modish nonsense.

At the other end of the spectrum are expansive, freewheeling picaresque novels such as Moon Palace (1989) or The Book of Illusions, which project the opaque symbolism of the earlier works – the solitary men in empty rooms, the coincidences, the tales within tales – onto a much broader canvas. The Book of Illusions, for instance, is a tale of immigrant self-determination given the Auster treatment. Hector Mann, a Jewish Argentinian, is prompted by a sudden chance event to give up his career as a silent movie comedian in 1920s Hollywood. He changes his name and, after a period of solitary wandering, another sudden chance event means that he again reinvents himself, or perhaps de-reinvents himself. He ends up in the deserts of New Mexico making movie masterpieces that the world will never see. We learn about Mann through a framing narrative, featuring, inevitably, a writer who has withdrawn from the world, following the death of his wife and children. The Book of Illusions clearly verges on self-parody: the power of such sentences as ‘in the tiny gap between those two moments, my life had become a different life,’ or ‘a moment later the story of that night turned into a different story, the night became a different night,’ or ‘the universe had changed for him in a single instant,’ is in inverse proportion to the number of times they are used per novel. Symbolism and artifice frequently overwhelm the story. Yet the evocation of the lost world of Hector’s silent movies, and the sheer pleasure of the unspooling plot, make the novel memorable.

Far less impressive is Leviathan (1992), a political novel armed with an epigraph from Emerson – ‘Every actual state is corrupt’ – and inspired by a thought from Don DeLillo’s Mao II: ‘Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken over that territory.’ A writer, Ben Sachs, gives up words for action, and travels the US blowing up scale models of the Statue of Liberty (according to the novel, there are approximately 130 of them in America). Once again, the book is intricately designed and tastefully written. But the comparison with DeLillo reveals Auster’s complete lack of interesting social or cultural insight. DeLillo’s novels rewrite the way people think about the public world. They are packed with brilliant conceits that illuminate everything from supermarkets to the Cold War: consider the line from Underworld suggesting that the collapse of the Soviet Union made the world ‘safe for war’. By contrast, this is Auster on the Reagan era:

The world had changed around [Sachs], and in the present climate of selfishness and intolerance, of moronic, chest-pounding Americanism, his opinions sounded curiously harsh and moralistic. It was bad enough that the right was everywhere in the ascendant, but even more disturbing was the lack of any effective opposition to it. The Democratic Party had caved in; the left had all but disappeared; the press was mute.

Any old hack could have written this.

Auster has always seen himself as an Existentialist. In his memoir Hand to Mouth (1997), he cast himself as an outsider; his early failures as a writer are represented, tellingly, as his ‘struggle to be a man’. Literary Existentialism – specifically Camus’s spare, detached style, which has had such an influence on Auster – was concerned with freedom, authenticity and responsibility. L’Etranger represented a violent individual challenge to the basic values of society. But while the Unabomber and right-wing militias stalked the American reality, Auster wrote Leviathan: a deeply unchallenging story about a New York bohemian who wanders around exploding small statues. Auster can manage only a tin-pot conceptualist version of civil disobedience – chucking platitudinous gestures in the direction of bland political formulae. Sachs is careful not to hurt anyone, and leaves messages such as ‘Democracy is not given. It must be fought for every day, or else we run the risk of losing it.’ The narrator summarises his bland message: ‘He simply wanted America to look after itself and mend its ways.’ Leviathan reveals a problem that does not weaken Auster’s more solipsistic novels: like too many of his contemporaries, he has no political or historical sense. Leviathan dramatises only the difficulty of getting a purchase on present-day political reality.

This is Paul Auster’s double-bind: his more opaque and formalistic pieces risk being too self-enclosed and precious; but the less enigmatic he is, the more inane he becomes. This is true also at the level of style. His cool, barebones prose reads as if it has been translated from French. From Ghosts (1986), for example, the second novella in The New York Trilogy, comes this classic statement of Existentialist facticity, the blank givenness of things: ‘He has moved rapidly along the surface of things for as long as he can remember, fixing attention on these surfaces only in order to perceive them, sizing up one and then passing on to the next, and he has always taken pleasure in the world as such, asking no more of things than that they be there.’ At the other extreme, there is the overloaded robotic art-speak used in the more expansive novels: ‘Victor’s nominalism,’ we are confidently informed by the hero of Moon Palace, ‘helped me survive the difficult first few weeks in my new school.’ Or this strange statement from The Book of Illusions, when the hero’s new lady-friend begins to stroke her breasts, and to trail her fingertips along the inside of her thighs: ‘Hector was not immune to these classic provocations.’

Auster is at his best when he balances the enigmatic and the concrete, as in The Music of Chance (1990), which is both a cracking suspense yarn and an intriguing experimental novel. A recently divorced fireman and a ratty card-sharp lose a high-stakes card game to Flower and Stone – an accountant and an optometrist made disturbingly rich by a lottery win. To pay off their debt, they end up building a pointless wall in the middle of a massive estate in Pennsylvania, watched by the millionaires’ sinister henchmen. This is an absurdist parable fleshed out by a pulp-fiction genius. It’s full of resonant images, and larded with American grotesques and tense poker games that Chandler would have been proud of.

Oracle Night, too, finds Auster near the top of his game. ‘I had been sick for a long time’ – so begins the story of Sidney Orr, a writer who buys an oddly attractive Portuguese notebook from a Chinese stationer in New York. Much of the novel takes place inside this notebook, which may make it rather too enclosed and precious for some tastes. Yet it is, authentically, about the writer’s fear of claustrophobia, of getting trapped inside the fictional magic lantern show. And Auster’s ability as an illusionist makes the story always interesting. In the notebook, Orr starts to write a story based on an episode from The Maltese Falcon. In Hammett’s novel, a happy, successful man suddenly disappears from his own life. It emerges later that he came within inches of being killed by a falling girder, and that his response to this manifestation of ‘blind chance’ was to bolt, and to start another life elsewhere. In Orr’s version, a New York publisher is nearly brained by a falling gargoyle. Feeling, like Hammett’s character, as if ‘somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works’, he leaves immediately for Kansas City, where he takes a job in a strange underground museum. He carries with him a long-lost novel called Oracle Night, about a British soldier blinded in the Great War who gains the gift of prophecy. Each of the metafictions inside the Chinese box of Oracle Night briefly convinces; even Orr’s hack rewriting of The Time Machine for a Hollywood producer is compelling.

In the end, Oracle Night turns out to be an emotional detective story. Back in the ‘real’ world, Orr thinks his wife may have played him false. Like the prophet in the lost novel, he worries that his imagining her infidelity may somehow will it into existence. ‘Maybe that’s what writing is,’ a friend suggests. ‘Not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.’ At this point, with the many stories – and the relationship between the real and the imagined – hanging ambiguously in the air, Auster breaks for cover, busting out of the metafictional funhouse to a fairly conventional melodramatic conclusion. The finale is not entirely satisfactory. It lacks what Orr calls ‘narrative ballast’: detail and incident to make the plot believable. Auster, it seems, doesn’t really know whether he’s a huckster or a priest; and the emotional sincerity of the conclusion sits a little uneasily with the trickery of what went before.

According to Sartre’s classic definition of Existentialism, existence precedes essence, by which ‘we mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.’ In Auster’s less heroic version, man first of all exists, then mysterious stuff happens to him by chance. If he’s lucky, he meets a lovely woman and is happy; if he’s not, he dies suddenly, or winds up as a tramp. Life is sometimes like a story; or perhaps the line between stories and life is difficult to draw. This is all true, but not very profound: shit happens. Auster has constructed various beguiling ways of presenting this message, from its most compressed and straightforward expression in the non-fictional The Red Notebook (1992) to the diffuse and highfalutin New York Trilogy. He could be accused of telling people what they already know while preserving the illusion of novelty and profundity. In this sense, he is the perfect writer for the blank-eyed ponces of the metropolitan West, randomly cannibalising the great avant-garde styles of the 20th century to create an inert and facile fiction of chance. But legions of contemporary writers have tried to hack out a middle ground between the genre novel and the formidable classics of Modernism, and few have been more successful than Auster.