Interrupt all you like. We’re involved in a complicated story here, and not everything is quite what it seems to be.
—Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium
Over the past twenty-five years, Paul Auster has established one of the most distinctive niches in contemporary literature. As a Washington Post critic (me) once wrote:
Ever since City of Glass, the first volume of his New York Trilogy, Auster has perfected a limpid, confessional style, then used it to set disoriented heroes in a seemingly familiar world gradually suffused with mounting uneasiness, vague menace and possible hallucination. His plots—drawing on elements from suspense stories, existential récit and autobiography—keep readers turning the pages, but sometimes end by leaving them uncertain about what they’ve just been through.
In particular, as his many admirers know, his narrative voice is as hypnotic as that of the Ancient Mariner. Start one of his books and by page two you cannot choose but hear. While Paul Auster may not have a glittering eye, he still knows how to keep a reader spellbound.
Auster’s latest novel, Man in the Dark, is his fifteenth—counting Squeeze Play, his baseball mystery written as Paul Benjamin—and the first to appear since Travels in the Scriptorium (2007), which functioned in part as a kind of all-star retrospective. A literal chamber piece, the spare, Beckett-like Travels in the Scriptorium records one day in the life of an old man confined to what might be a cell or a room in a hospice. Suffering from amnesia, Mr. Blank is visited by several of his former “operatives,” who assist him with getting dressed (in all-white clothes), taking his pills, and filling out official papers.
From these strangely impersonal caregivers and advisers, he learns that some of his other one-time operatives have been demanding his death, in fact that he should be drawn and quartered. What has the old man done? And who are all these people? The confused Blank eventually sits down at a desk and studies a stack of photographs that he finds there. One by one, he tries without success to identify the faces of various men and women:
He looks at another ten pictures with the same disappointing results. An old man in a wheelchair, as thin and delicate as a sparrow, wearing the dark glasses of the blind. A grinning woman with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, wearing a 1920s flapper dress and a cloche hat. A frighteningly obese man with an immense hairless head and a cigar jutting from his mouth. Another young woman, this one Chinese, dressed in a dancer’s leotard. A dark-haired man with a waxed mustache, decked out in tails and a top hat. A young man sleeping on the grass in what looks like a public park. An older man, perhaps in his mid fifties, lying on a sofa with his legs propped up on a pile of pillows. A bearded, scraggly-looking homeless person sitting on a sidewalk with his arms around a large mutt. A chubby black man in his sixties holding up a Warsaw telephone book from 1937–38. A slender young man sitting at a table with five cards in his hand and a stack of poker chips in front of him.
All these figures are, as one might guess, major characters from the oeuvre of Paul Auster. The blind invalid, for instance, is Mr. Effing, the enigmatic recluse of Moon Palace; the frighteningly obese young man is his son, the historian Solomon Barber. That homeless person can only be Willy of Timbuktu, a novel told from the viewpoint of Willy’s dog, Mr. Bones. Similarly, all the “operatives” mentioned in Travels in the Scriptorium are Auster creations: the middle-aged nurse who solicitously cares for the old man is Anna Blume, once the young heroine of In the Country of Last Things; there is repeated talk of a manuscript by Fanshawe, who appeared in The Locked Room; and finally Blank is even called upon by Daniel Quinn, his very first “operative,” the writer-detective hero of City of Glass.
Such delight in fictiveness and intertextuality is a prominent aspect of Auster’s writing. Like Chinese boxes, his books always contain stories within stories. The latest novel, Man in the Dark, packs into its 180 pages not only the main narrative but also a major counter-story, the plots of four movies, three long anecdotes about people in extremis, and accounts of several marriages and love affairs. This exuberance extends to Auster’s characters, too, who find that one book isn’t always big enough to hold them. They keep quietly moving about. In Moon Palace, for instance, David Zimmer writes to Anna Blume, who finally sends a letter back to him in her novel In the Country of Last Things. Zimmer then later reappears in The Book of Illusions. In Travels in the Scriptorium we learn that Daniel Quinn’s Aunt Molly marries Walt Rawley, the levitating hero of Mr. Vertigo.
When Balzac allowed his readers to glimpse Eugène de Rastignac—the hero of Le Père Goriot —in various subsequent novels of La Comédie humaine, he wanted to capture the young provincial’s gradual social rise and increasing moral degradation. By contrast, Auster generally seems merely playful in his recyclings. Take his character’s names. A passionate reader in his twenties and thirties, the novelist likes to pay homage to favorite authors and artists. The abovementioned Fanshawe, for instance, is the eponymous hero of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel—and Hawthorne is the American writer with whom Auster most strongly identifies. An ex-policeman in City of Glass is named Michael Saavedra; Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is Auster’s favorite novel. In The Music of Chance the principal characters are the gambler Pozzi and the unfortunate traveler Nashe: the former calls to mind Pozzo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (as well as Ponzi schemes); the latter is surely borrowed from Thomas Nashe, author of The Unfortunate Traveller.
Auster acknowledges his fondness for this sixteenth-century picaresque novel, while Samuel Beckett has long been a recurrent touchstone. For instance, Peter Stillman’s monologue in City of Glass resembles that of Lucky from Waiting for Godot; Auster’s early play Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven is an obvious Beckett pastiche (and its main element—endless wall-building—is reused in The Music of Chance); and the entire scenario and deadpan tone of Travels in the Scriptorium suggest an amalgam of Krapp’s Last Tape and Malone Dies.
While Auster has denied that his novels are autobiographical, he nonetheless gives a nod and a wink to his own personal history in virtually every one of them. Moreover, that history is now well known, since he’s written so much in the way of reminiscence: The Art of Hunger, The Invention of Solitude, Hand to Mouth, The Red Notebook, numerous essays. More often than not, the apparently token effort to disguise a borrowing functions as a pointer to it. In Oracle Night the writer John Trause, in his mid-fifties, suffers from phlebitis. Ditto for Auster, of which the name Trause is an anagram. In Leviathan the hero’s first wife is Delia and his second Iris; Auster’s first wife was named Lydia and his second Siri. When the elderly Mr. Effing, of Moon Palace, decides to give away $20,000 to random strangers in New York City, readers of Hand to Mouth will recall Auster’s memories of how H.H. “Doc” Humes practiced a similar philanthropy (albeit with only $15,000). In Man in the Dark the main character notes that “until I was fifteen, the only thing I cared about was baseball.” As Auster says in his Paris Review interview (and elsewhere): “Until I was about sixteen, baseball was probably the most important thing in my life.” In City of Glass the protagonist Quinn actually visits the “real” Paul Auster and meets the writer’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, and son Daniel.
Why does Auster do these things? In some ways, one might liken his narrative games to Bertholt Brecht’s “alienation effect.” Brecht held that an actor should play his role from a distance, almost tongue-in-cheek, as though commenting on the part rather than losing himself in it. He felt that even the backstage activity should be made obvious to the audience. The point of theater, to Brecht, wasn’t for the spectators to lose themselves in the play, but to consider the issues it raised, reflect on the interactions of the characters, think about different possibilities and outcomes. Auster himself has emphasized that he is fascinated by “certain philosophical questions about the world,” in particular aspects of identity and human psychology. His art, in its serious playfulness, aims to heighten our awareness of life’s overall unreality, to recreate on the page some of its wondrous serendipity and strangeness.
Auster’s passion for artifice, for interlacing pattern and purpose into the apparently random, even carries over to the way his fiction shadowboxes with history and current events. On a simple level, Auster can convincingly insert an imaginary silent film star into the development of early cinema (Hector Mann, of The Book of Illusions). But more often he makes us scratch our heads, wondering how much weight we should give to a passing suggestiveness, to a mere innuendo. In Man in the Dark the narrator marries a young woman named Sonia Weil, who literally talks to God; her “top scientist” father Alexandre Weil escaped the Nazis by landing a job at Princeton. Are we, or are we not, intended to detect here some faint nimbus of the religious philosopher Simone Weil and an allusion to her mathematician brother André Weil, who taught at Princeton? Later in the novel, a character dies in a manner that obviously recalls a notorious contemporary atrocity. Are we to read one death through the lens of the other? Or is Auster just exploiting our memories of news reports and video images?
However one decides these questions, all this textual thickening is justified by Auster’s great and abiding passion for stories. As he writes in his introduction to I Thought My Father Was God and Other True Tales from NPR‘s National Story Project, he has always been drawn to
stories that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives, in our family histories, in our minds and bodies, in our souls.
What he says of his anthology might be said of his own collected work: “I was hoping to put together…a museum of American reality.”
For the most part, Auster’s own exhibits might be ranged in the grand gallery labeled “Mystery”: each of his books offers enigmas, riddles, and problems to be solved. Yet while the clues may be apparent, their meaning can prove elusive. Just before he began his career as a novelist, Auster—then working as a poet and translator—spent a lot of time reading detective stories (and even wrote one, the abovementioned Squeeze Play), learning the virtues of the form and then adopting them to his own more ambitious purposes. As Quinn, the creator of the fictional detective Max Work, says: