For a long time I was vaguely aware of writer Paul Auster. His name would come up here and there. I’d never read his stuff; nor anything, really, about it. Yet I had a picture in my mind. He was always called a “New York” writer. I saw one of those effete, affluent intellectuals who write precious narratives about people just like themselves, their relationships, neuroses, ennui, and (almost obligatory) horrible parents.
His very name suggested that picture. “Paul” has never seemed like the name of a real person to me but, rather, a fictional character. Fiction does seem disproportionately populated by Pauls. And “Auster” – not a real person’s name either; an austere name. If this was indeed a pseudonym, it was chosen perfectly to evoke exactly the picture that it evoked for me.
Of course, all of this says more about me than about Paul Auster. Anyhow, it made me disinclined to read him. And I probably never would have, if I hadn’t met his ex-wife.
“Met” is perhaps a bit strong. She is a writer too, Lydia Davis, who recently won the Man Booker Prize. Now that is a Very Big Deal. So when she was honored at the Albany library, I went, was able to chat with her briefly, bought a book for her to sign, and asked a question after her talk. Googling her, I noticed that she’d been married to Auster, which served to etch his name a little more vividly into the recesses of my brain. So when I came across a work of his at a used book sale, I figured, for fifty cents, why not.
So I start reading, and he introduces a character who is – guess what – a New York writer – par excellence – thirtyish, living in an apartment, in Manhattan. Based on the literary landscape, you might suppose New York is almost entirely inhabited by people like that.
Scant appetite though I had for an apartment-dwelling Manhattanite writer’s writing about an apartment-dwelling Manhattanite writer, I persevered. The book consists of three novellas. After the first one featuring the writer, the second features a private detective, hired for surveillance of – guess who – a writer (a Brooklyn writer, but for the cognoscenti Brooklyn is the new Manhattan). The third novella features not just a writer (back to Manhattan) – but two of them.
Yet despite this inauspicious syllabus, I was totally sucked in, and riveted by these weird, unsettling tales – not at all what I’d expected. All three seem to concern obsession. Each begins somewhat plausibly, with the protagonist caught up into trying to solve a mystery surrounding some other person. His life is taken over by it, and the developments go to extremes. I was somewhat reminded of Steven Millhauser, who also writes phantasmagorias that ascend to absurdist heights.
In each story, plausibility comes under great strain – the protagonists make choices and decisions which, though in a sense following the remorseless logic of the situations in which they find themselves, seem patently self-destructive, even self-obliterating. It’s as though they have no choice. Maybe this book is an insidious attack on the idea of free will.
In the first story, Auster brings in a character named Paul Auster – who (surprise) also happens to be a New York writer. His wife appears. Now, this was written at the time when Auster (the real one) was married to Lydia Davis. So I thought to myself, this would be a first: encountering a character in fiction whom I’d actually met in real life. However, alas, the wife in the story had a different name, and bore no resemblance to Lydia Davis.