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The Europeans, especially the French, get Paul Auster in a way that Americans don’t, judging by his much stronger following across the Atlantic. Jack Lang, France's former minister of culture, proclaimed Auster the only "great young writer" in America back in 1996.
Auster spent some of his formative writing years living a La Boheme lifestyle in France and has translated, among other French poets and writers, Andre du Bouchet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Stéphane Mallarmé. Much of his own writing follows the French literary tradition of the recit—a studiedly short narrative style in which seemingly simple reminiscences lead up to a sense of tension that reveals no end of ambiguities. Andre Gide and Albert Camus are forerunners of the style.
Yet Auster’s novels capture a uniquely American sense of existential absurdity. His characters tend to start out with delusions that they can succeed in a world that’s rigged against them, then fade into the New York skyline without truly disappearing, failure being its own path to wisdom and the blissful void that is nirvana.
In his autobiographical writings he parts the curtains an inch at a time and offers glimpses of how he arrived at his views of man as a creature not quite of the material world. He has already written five books of autobiographical impressions—The Invention of Solitude, The Art of Hunger, The Red Notebook, Hand to Mouth and Winter Journal—so another such book is bound to cover some familiar ground.
On the surface, after all, Auster hasn’t led a life of high drama. He grew up in a nuclear family, neither rich nor poor, in post-World War II New Jersey; it isn’t as if he dodged enemy soldiers or drug-crazed celebrity parents. As a thoughtful baby boomer growing up in suburbia, however, he found no end of internal traumas and questions to ponder, and it is these unanswerable perplexing questions that are the overarching theme of his new book, appropriately titled Report from the Interior.
This is a companion volume to Winter's Journal, released last year, which was a collection of notes on Auster’s physical feelings as he grew into adulthood, then middle age. Taken together the two are practically a genre unto themselves: the loosely structured second-person reminiscence, Paul Auster saying “...exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood will no doubt be a more difficult task than writing about your physical self” to Paul Auster. Some reviewers have interpreted the books as love letters to himself. It is undoubtedly a narcissistic approach, but oddly fitting for the place where he grew up. Life did seem to be about “you” if you were a child in post-War suburbia—and I mean that in the worst of ways.
Auster was born in 1947, a time when America was giddy with victory, quickly growing complacent in its prosperity, briskly bulldozing forests and farms to build symmetrical rows of residential streets designed for raising children. The human bean, as Auster heard the term for his first five or six years. The horror of post-War suburbia, of course, is well mined terrain: the rot behind the pristine façade, the oppression behind the rally cries about how lucky we all were to be living in the free world, and of course the knowledge that it could all end tomorrow if the Soviets decided to drop an A-bomb over one of our cities.
Even in the middle of the playground, a thoughtful child like Auster could exist in a perpetual state of ennui, but the upside was that he would have no pressures to distract him from his search for ideas. You could carry this narrow universe with you for the rest or your life, or you could contemplate what exists beyond the concepts we express through language and how one small disaster might change everything--themes that appear over and over in Auster’s fiction.
He has already, in The Invention of Solitude, told stories of his non-communicative father and how he might have become that way. For one thing, Sam Auster, at the age of eight, saw his own mother shoot and kill his father. "One could not believe there was such a man - who lacked feeling, who wanted so little of others,” Auster wrote of his father in the earlier book. “And if there was not such a man, that means there was another man, a man hidden inside the man who was not there, and the trick of it, then, is to find him. . . . To recognize, right from the start, that the essence of this project is failure."
That sentiment fueled City of Glass, the first of the metaphysical mystery novels in his New York Trilogy, in which ultimately the mystery lies in the illusion of what’s real. City of Glass features a cruel father with at least one Doppelgänger. The main character, Quinn, a writer who has been mistaken for a detective named Paul Auster and played along, sets out to tail the father only to see two identical copies of him get off a train—or perhaps the man is a shadow of Quinn himself.
Of course Auster’s father had other stories, some that he never revealed –Auster and his cousins found out about their grandfather’s murder only through a chance encounter with a stranger on a plane—and some that he told his son only after a myth had taken a life of its own. In Report from the Interior , Auster writes about some of his heroes.
An easily accessible hero for boy in New Jersey was Thomas Edison. As a child Auster visited the Edison house, which had been turned in to a museum, and the tarpaper shack known as the Black Maria, where Edison had set up the first film studio in the world.
“You felt a special connection to Edison, a singular intensity of admiration,” he writes.
Then one day his father quietly informed the young Auster that he, Sam Auster, had worked in Edison’s lab after graduating from high school. It wasn’t until Auster was fourteen that his father told him the second half of the story; the job with Edison had lasted only a few days. Edison found out that Sam Auster was Jewish, and since Jews weren’t allowed in the area, had fired him on the spot. “Your idol turned out to have been a rabid, hate-filled anti-Semite, a well-known fact that had not been included in any of the books you read about him.”
Hard to know if the bursting of the Edison bubble had some bearing on Auster’s lack of interest in the most revolutionary innovation of his own time; he is known for eschewing computers, instead writing his first drafts in longhand and second drafts on a manual typewriter. He most certainly didn’t turn against movies, however, in spite of Edison’s role in inventing them. Auster attributes a number of his lessons in reality to the very purveyors of all that’s make-believe. Indeed, in many ways it was movies that brought the world to the children of post-War suburbia.
An entire chapter of Report from the Interior is devoted to an eye-popping plot summary of the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, a film that had no major stars but holds up as a slice of Zeitgeist and what could have happened under a nuclear cloud. As Auster tells the story, it opens with ominous music, then a reassuring voiceover from the hero, Robert Scott Carey, so that you know he’s still alive.
Then a flashback to Carey on a boat in the Pacific with his wife, Louise. His wife goes below deck to fetch beer when a dense mist envelops the boat. Six months go by, and at home in America, Carey begins to lose weight and grow shorter. There is a remedy that ultimately doesn’t work. Auster recalls the horror as Carey shrinks to the size of an ant, and the concluding monologue, when he has become so small that no one can see him.
For Auster the movie was a glimpse into what was out there beyond the visible. “You try to absorb what is happening,” Auster writes. “He will continue to become smaller and smaller, shrinking down to the size of a subatomic particle, devolving into a monad of pure consciousness, and yet the implication is that he will never entirely disappear, that as long as he is still alive, he cannot be reduced to nothing....you feel that the world had changed its shape within you, that world you live in now is no longer the same world that existed two hours ago, that it will not and cannot ever be the same again.”
In Auster’s fiction, men—it’s always men—can vaporize into the neighborhoods of New York voluntarily, invisible to those who know them best. It happens in The Locked Room, the third novel in the New York Trilogy, for example. A young writer named Fanshawe—borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by the same name—disappears but leaves behind unpublished manuscripts and a beautiful wife, then watches, unseen, as the world discovers his writing and his best childhood friend marries his wife.
The actual evidence of Auster’s own life up to the age of 18 has, in fact, evaporated, except for his memory, which is as unreliable as anyone’s. "Every time you remember an event, you’re remembering the last time you remembered it. And so you can’t ever really go back to the origin," Auster said recently in an interview with New York 1 TV.
All of his childhood artifacts are gone—the photographs, souvenirs, report cards, home movies and letters. When American suburbia took off after the war it had no history, and who was to say it wouldn’t be ephemeral? Nuclear families turned out to have more fission than fusion; certainly that was the case in the Auster home. His parents fought for years, often over conflicting views of money—a painful situation he chronicles in Hand to Mouth, his memoir of his own grinding poverty as a young writer. They made a clean break from each other when he was seventeen. After that, he writes “there were no more fixed addresses.” His mother remarried and moved often, taking nothing from his childhood along.
Auster himself went off to Columbia University, which he chose because it was in New York, “the center of the world for you back then, still the center of the world for you.” A place where a suburban kid can disappear in a good way, discovering that even if he happens to become famous and loom large, the world is infinite. It turns out, rather ironically, that Auster does have evidence of his life from this period.
Out of the blue, while he was working on Notes from the Interior, he received a call from his first wife, the writer and translator Lydia Davis. She was making plans to donate her papers to a research library and she wanted him to see all of the letters he wrote to her in their youth, wanting to know if he found anything in them too private or embarrassing for public scrutiny. For Auster it was an opportunity to run excerpts. They are rambling letters, not always testimony to his character, capturing the lonely narcissism of a young man who is uncomfortable at parties as well as the student uprisings at Columbia in the 1960s and the disgruntlement and restlessness of his generation. He ends with a particularly rambling letter, a letter that is, indeed, an embarrassment to him now for his use of such terms as “fairy” and “queer” as well as the tales of what he calls “low-life adventure” that include sleeping with another girl.
The letter comes off, though, as a rollicking precursor to his narrative style. He tells his future wife about hanging out with a friend in New York, a friend “determined not to be destroyed by New York”, meeting two girls, bouncing from a Chinese restaurant to Brooklyn Heights to Coney Island to Ratner’s Deli, which he describes as a “subterranean attitude... beyond worry, beyond exhilaration, beyond boredom,” to a burlesque show, to an apartment where two girls bake a cake and three drug dealers beat up a visitor then flee. It is a youthful quest, as quixotic as it gets even though his actual purpose was to look for an apartment in the city. It ends as many youthful journeys must, with a bus ride back to his mother’s house in New Jersey, reading Henry Miller’s “Letter to All Surrealists Everywhere.” The letter was, I think, the best part of the book, a young man beginning to discover that he can disappear into his stories.