Paul Auster

Paul Auster was born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey (home also to Philip Roth, who would also, later in his career, write novels full of tangled identities and secret subtexts).

It’s hard to pin down straight biographical facts about Paul Auster, even though Auster writes about himself frequently in his novels and essays. In fact, Paul Auster turns up at least once in most Auster novels, usually popping his head and looking slightly out of place in the middle of his text, like a human being who pops up on the Muppet Show. But even though he writes about himself a lot, he seems to manage to do so in such a way as to obscure more than he reveals.

We can gather a few facts, though, from his various autobiographies and reflective writings:

  • He had a remote and emotionally impenetrable father.
  • He was once married to novelist Lydia Davis (another renowned postmodern author) and they had children together. The marriage apparently ended in such a way as to devastate Auster nearly beyond repair, and to this date many of the main characters in his novels are adult males living in catatonic states after the deaths of their wives and children).
  • He and Davis worked as translators of modern French poetry, and were once so hungry that they baked an onion pie and then tragically overcooked it
  • He used to live near Columbia University, and probably ate at the Chinese Restaurant known as the Moon Palace on 112th Street.
  • He now lives in Brooklyn Heights and is married to Siri Hustvedt (yes, yet another renowned postmodern author).
  • He is a Mets fan.

There are more facts available, but when discussing Auster they all seem to hang meaninglessly in the breeze, because to apprehend Auster’s writing is to come to a point where nothing can be considered true and nothing can be understood.

However, this is not why I like Paul Auster’s writing. I can take metaphysical intertextual stuff or leave it. If you ask me if I want to read a novel that explores notions of identity, I am not exactly going to leap at the chance. The reason I like Auster’s writing is that, somehow, he approaches this postmodern stuff with touches of realism and humanity and street smart humor. Somehow it doesn’t come out all dry and thick. Instead it kind of jumps off the page and grabs you around the neck.

At least that’s how I felt about his best work, the astounding “New York Trilogy”. This consists of three short novels, “City of Glass” (1985), “Ghosts” (1986) and “The Locked Room” (1986). The first book, a pseudo-detective novel, throws us immediately into a scene of horrific remembered child abuse, as a frightened adult male babbles incoherently about the language experiments his cruel father subjected him to when he was a child. We then go looking for the father, find him, and start following him around upper Manhattan. By the end of this swirling, bizarre book, nobody knows what his name is anymore, including the reader.

The next two installments simply provide new layers on the cake: “Ghosts” presents a detective watching a writer through a window (and names all its characters after colors five years before “Reservoir Dogs”!); “The Locked Room” is about a man searching for a lost writer. The overall effect is something like the complete brain-circuit disconnect provided by a great David Lynch movie, minus the soft-core porn, with a few baseball scenes or poker games added.

Auster has written many books, including “Moon Palace” (identity dislocation in an olden-day New York setting, involving a chinese restaurant and a cubist painter), “Leviathan” (identity dislocation with a left-wing/anarchist political theme), “The Music of Chance” (identity dislocation at a poker tournament) and “Timbuktu” (something about a dog). He’s also worked on a couple of well-known indie films, “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face”. The latest novel is called “The Book of Illusion” (identity dislocation in 1930’s Hollywood). I have to admit that at some point I stopped reading new Auster novels. Maybe this is my mistake. But getting your identity dislocated is kind of like getting your shoulder dislocated. It’s interesting the first time, but you don’t necessarily want to do it repeatedly.

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