I’ll never forget where I was and how I felt when I read the closing pages of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, the first and most crucial part of his New York Trilogy, and a formative book for me as a reader and writer.
City of Glass was a mock mystery novel. It opened with a noir-ish phone call that led a vulnerable narrator into a drama involving cruel language experiments that had been performed on a newborn child by a diffident and crazed professor. The child was now an emotionally disabled adult, permanently traumatized into an infantile state, and the professor was threatening to terrorize his victim again.
As the novel proceeded, the boundaries between the key characters began to bend and morph. Words were the mechanism of torture; the professor was trying to discern what natural or spiritually pure language an infant deprived of human contact would eventually speak. Words were also the breaking point of the novel’s thrilling facade, as the disconnected mind of the professor’s victim began to reveal itself in the narrator’s own increasingly disconnected tale. The moment that most knocked me out in this book, I remember, was at the very end. The narrator has lost track of the desperate man-child he is trying to protect. He sits alone in an empty room, now lost beyond logic and sanity himself, and discovers without surprise that some mysterious person is laying out food for him to eat. This impossible but perfectly placed shift in the story completes the narrator’s trajectory towards his own state of infantile helplessness — a plot twist so unexpected but yet so perfect that I as a reader felt the room spin around me as I read it. I must have muttered incomprehensibly as I burned through these final paragraphs; I may have fallen off the couch where I was splayed out, gripping the book like a bungee cord over the chasm of existence. The infantilization described in the novel’s final pages felt so powerful to me that I felt I had become infantalized myself for an infinitesimal blip of time.
By the time I crawled through the final pages of this poundingly satisfying first novel in a trilogy, I was a Paul Auster fan for life, even though I would discover that the remaining two novels in the New York Trilogy felt like a coda to the first. Ghosts and The Locked Room nicely complemented and completed City of Glass, but they didn’t punch nearly as hard. I continued to eagerly read new Paul Auster novels as he published them — Moon Palace, Leviathan, The Music of Chance — and I liked them all, but gradually began to feel that all the novels after City of Glass were explorations into the beauty of random pointlessness, demonstrations of literary serendipity, easy and pleasant enough to read but lacking in definite reward.
My relationship with Paul Auster eventually became one of love/boredom. Never love/hate — just love/boredom. It shows what a very fine achievement City of Glass was that it could sustain for me a lifetime of mild interest and appreciation even though it seemed the long body of work that followed was an elaborate encore.
Eventually I started to detect a fatal tendency towards cuteness in Paul Auster’s novels, and I completely stopped keeping up with new ones even as his popularity grew. I tried harder with his numerous fragmented autobiographies, which he published throughout his career in short and often conceptualized installments: a biography of his father, a biography of aging. Auster’s pen-pal J. M. Coetzee also wrote an autobiography in fragmented installments, but with more precision and economy; I kept reading Coetzee’s, but eventually stopped reading Auster’s. However, his latest literary memoir Report from the Interior grabbed my attention with its first pages, which thrillingly return to the core experiment that so animated City of Glass: the attempt to understand the mind of a newborn child. Report From The Interior opens with a journey into a lost state of innocent awareness.
In the beginning, everything was alive. The smallest objects were endowed with beating hearts, and even the clouds had names. Scissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers. The face of the clock was a human face, each pea in your bowl had a different personality, and the grille on the front of your parents’ car was a grinning mouth with many teeth. Pens were airships. Coins were flying saucers. THe branches of trees were arms. Stones could think, and God was everywhere.
This is how the memoir begins, and the attempt to deeply imagine and understand the world in the way a newborn child does obviously calls to mind the professor’s experiments in City of Glass. Auster himself is engaging in the sincere scientific inquiry that fired his insane villain’s passions. The final curious mention of God in this passage also recalls The New York Trilogy by connecting the idea of psychological innocence with the idea of spiritual innocence. As I idly perused this opening paragraph in Auster’s new book, I immediately understood that he was finally returning to the core theme of his best book, and I happily decided to give the new book a full read.
Auster persists with the journey into innocent awareness as Report From The Interior proceeds:
The world was of course flat. When someone tried to explain to you that the earth was a sphere, a planet orbiting the sun, with eight other planets in something called a solar system, you couldn’t grasp what the older boy was saying.
But young Paul Auster slowly becomes more worldly, as he must. He watches “Felix the Cat” but then learns what a cartoon is. The sharp tone of the book’s early pages begins to wane, even as the stories remain clever and affecting, and eventually Report From The Interior is just another Paul Auster book.
The use of second person remains constant through the text, and is occasionally disconcerting, as when Paul Auster informs all of us readers that we all grew up in an old white house on Irving Avenue in South Orange, New Jersey (I don’t know about you, but I did no such thing). He later justifies the device by signing the book “Love, Paul” — so that the whole text is a letter from the author to his younger self. Fair enough, and the use of second person doesn’t detract from the book’s pleasures. A meandering impulse to share endless small facts and details eventually does.
‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. India becomes an independent country. Henry Ford dies. Thor Heyerdahl sails on a raft from Peru to Polynesia in 101 days. ‘All My Sons’ by Arthur Miller. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams. The Dead Sea scrolls are discovered. Somewhere over a dirt in the western United States, an American jet breaks the sound barrier.
It’s a deep plunge from the peaked curiosity of the book’s opening pages to this rushed litany, which will remind every single reader in the world of a Billy Joel song. This happens on page 63, and at this point I began to find myself skimming the pages more than I wanted to admit, even as young Auster becomes a teenager and a voracious reader, grapples with Jewish identity and the disappointing reality of American anti-semitism, exchanges letters with his eventual first wife Lydia Davis, observes from a distance the anti-Vietnam War riots in late 1960s-era Columbia University.
I think that Report From The Interior must be one of Paul Auster’s more interesting later books, though I’m not a good judge as I’ve managed to read so few of them. The memoir closes with an unusual touch, a long sequence of amusing, beautiful or memorable images from Paul Auster’s childhood, including cultural heroes, TV photographs, news headlines, commercial images. The blank presentation of this long and continuous visual series suggests that Auster still wants to find new ways to see the world with innocent eyes, and to allow us to do the same. He had it for this book’s first few pages, and the attempt is worthy in itself, always a thrilling exercise, until the glass shatters.