Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The value of absolute clarity

Till recently, few innovative, literary novelists could rival Auster in his gusto for reframing tales of mystery, fantasy, and adventure. Auster repeatedly uses these genres to illuminate, often with great poignancy, life's fundamental relationships: parents and children (especially fathers and sons), married couples, mentors and disciples, artists and their work, even owners and their pets. All these affiliations are generally placed under severe strain—there are secrets between friends, suspected or actual infidelities, eruptions of street violence into ordinary life, distressing revelations. In Moon Palace the likable young hero inadvertently causes the deaths of his grandfather, father, and child. More recently, Auster's books—certainly the last half-dozen—have focused regularly on elderly, debilitated men with literary or intellectual vocations, as though their author were preemptively working through his own later years (Auster is now in his early sixties).

Some of Auster's tics or techniques—the incestuous literary connections, the skewed autobiography, the ambiguous blurring of fact and fiction, the pervasive fatefulness—might sink any ordinary novel from sheer portentousness. And portentousness, as well as sentimentality, has been a criticism regularly leveled at his work. At its best, his tone is unruffled, meditative, intelligent, yet sometimes it does grow gravely august, both orotund and oracular. His characters are all too often the playthings of invisible forces; and the most trivial action—answering a telephone, buying a blue notebook—can bring about the most improbable and dire consequences. What may look like chance is usually kismet, and to Auster New York really is Baghdad on the Hudson, an Arabian Nights world of omens, shifting identities, unexpected windfalls, improbable meetings, wildly good and bad luck, and all those sudden peripeteias that seem more the stuff of melodrama than of modern fiction.

I sometimes think of Paul Auster as the godchild of the legendary New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell: introspective and wistful by nature, both are drawn to society's more charismatic pariahs, bohemians, and misfits, and feel at home in the odd corners of metropolitan life. And both suggest that Americans are as lonely as the men and women glimpsed in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

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