My Son, My Son!

Sunset Park

by Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 309 pp., $25.00
Oates-1-122310.jpg
Dmitri Kasterine
Paul Auster, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1987; photograph by Dmitri Kasterine, a selection of whose portraits of writers and artists is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through April 3, 2011

Of literary genres none has so diversely and so wonderfully flourished in recent decades as the memoir—not the more staid, stately, chronologically determined life-memoir or autobiography but the highly individualized, often short, lyric memoir of crises, of which William Styron’s Darkness Visible (1990), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) are exemplary; and among these none is more beautifully and succinctly composed than Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude (1982), written after the unexpected death of his father in 1981.

Subsequently, over a career that has included fifteen novels, six works of nonfiction, a collection of poetry, screenplays, and edited books, Paul Auster has become known primarily for his highly stylized, quirkily riddlesome postmodernist fiction in which narrators are rarely other than unreliable and the bedrock of plot is continually shifting. The Invention of Solitude, however, is notable for its frank, candid, understated evocation of filial loss followed not by grief—at least, not conventional grief—but by the numbness of an inability to grieve and the stoic determination to know the elusive, unloved father Samuel Auster—the “invisible” man:

Devoid of passion, either for a thing, a person, or an idea, incapable or unwilling to reveal himself under any circumstances, he had managed to keep himself at a distance from life, to avoid immersion in the quick of things. He ate, he went to work, he had friends, he played tennis, and yet for all that he was not there. In the deepest, most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man.

(Yet a photograph of the deceased Samuel Auster suggests an eerie resemblance to Paul Auster.)

The Invention of Solitude is divided into two thematically symmetrical sections—“Portrait of an Invisible Man” and “The Book of Memory”—that suggest a dialectic as well as a dialogue between the two “Paul Austers”: the one who is the son of the “invisible man” Samuel Auster and the other who is the father of a young son of his own, Daniel. In the first section the author contemplates his father’s death and beyond this, like one peering over an abyss, his father’s mysterious and unknowable life: “I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.” Like one of his somber detective heroes-to-come in such novels as The New York Trilogy—Auster’s best-known fiction, which reads as if Samuel Beckett were undertaking to refashion one of the more snarled plots of Raymond Chandler—the bereft son explores the large, rather grand if now derelict English Tudor house in a well-to-do suburb of Newark in which his father lived alone for more than fifteen years after the breakup of the Auster family; outwardly …

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