“In the Country of Last Things” (1987)/”Moon Palace” (1989)

3 Oct

After writing a trio of unresolved existential detective fictions, Auster followed up The New York Trilogy with In the Country of Last Things.  At first this seems like a departure from the previous work, as it takes place in a dystopian country and its protagonist is female.  Peel away these surface differences and you find some common ground with his previous work — the elliptical ending, for example, and the passing connection with his previous work.  (The passing appearance of a stranger named Quinn gave me a shiver.)  

Admittedly, I struggled with this book, which is why it took me a long time to write this review.  The first 75 or so pages read slowly — instead of bringing us into the narrative, he slowly and deliberately describes the world in which Anna lives.  Writing from the perspective of the opposite gender can be tricky, and the story works best when it doesn’t deal with Anna’s femininity.  In a few places, her appreciation of being looked at rang false, and a lesbian affair that comes towards the end of the novel seemed like the male idea of what such a fling would be like.  Because of the small size of this novel’s world, Auster’s use of coincidence and surprise works beautifully.  I appreciated the destitute, non-technology-based brave new world that Auster created, which is more true to how one would imagine an apocalypse than most other things I’ve read. 

Just as Country reveals what may have happened to Daniel Quinn, Moon Palace contains a sentence that describes Anna Blume’s origins.  (This makes me wonder if there’s an Austerian equivalent to the Tommy Westphall Universe.)  That said, Moon Palace seems closer to a traditional bildungsroman than most of his previous work.  Marco Stanley Fogg is a young orphan of about Auster’s age who grows up under the watchful eye of his bandleader uncle.  After the death of his last family member, Fogg goes to New York to study writing at Columbia and takes a job as a helpmate and memoirist for an eccentric artist and bon vivant. We eventually learn how Fogg is connected to his boss. 

What I found interesting about this book is how Auster plays with the idea of autobiography.  One of the things we first learn about Fogg is his alma mater, which is the same as Auster’s and which has played a huge role in many of his novels.  Based on this, and based on Fogg’s age and the ascetic life and love of classic literature he espouses, one might see the protagonist as a stand-in for the writer.  Towards the end of the story, we experience Fogg’s perspective through a kind of split screen.  One of the things that happens to him reveals his callow side, but we have also been placed deeply enough within his perspective that we come to understand how he came to be that person. 


I’m hoping to review The Music of Chance in less time than it took me to write these. 


[admin] Buzzkill

14 Aug

It’s been pretty quiet here for a few weeks.  I’ve fallen behind on my reading due to a temp job and a writing seminar, but something else has prevented me from blogging about Auster’s work. 


When I went looking for information about Winter Journal, I learned that Auster had signed the petition showing solidarity with the filmmaker/sex offender Roman Polanski at the time of his extradition to the States.  Further, a commenter at Biblioklept had implied that Auster had gone the extra step of writing an essay in support of Polanski’s right to freedom, though I have been unable to find this on the internet.  (If I am incorrect in my understanding of this comment, please let me know.) 


Those standing in solidarity with Polanski tend to overcomplicate their support.  The man is a great filmmaker, it’s true.  He also drugged and raped a 14-year-old girl, and hasn’t done penance for the crime he committed.  Yes, he’s a great filmmaker; yes, he survived the Holocaust; yes, his wife was brutally murdered.  Plenty of people who have been dealt this kind of hand can go through life without raping a minor. 


At the same time, I know that I tend to overcomplicate my own support of artists who signed the petition.  With many of the filmmakers and actors who are close to my age, I can wave away their support because they may not know the full scope of what Polanski did, or they may make assumptions about the consent she was able to give.  (Up until a few years ago, I’d assumed that his quarry had freely given her consent and that she looked and acted older than her age.  This is incorrect.)  However, I really can’t give Auster the same pass that I’d give Wes Anderson or Natalie Portman.  At the time of Polanski’s extradition, Auster was an adult, and he worked odd jobs in the French film industry and on the switchboard at the New York Times.  There’s no way he couldn’t know about the extent of Polanski’s crime. 


I’d thought for a few months of shuttering this blog and selling back my copies of Auster’s books.  Ultimately, I’ve decided to keep writing it.  My reasons for this are, admittedly, feeble (and I can identify with Alyx Vessey’s continued interest in Tilda Swinton’s career).  Reading Auster’s work helps me to better understand my father.  My dad was a sporadic presence in my life, and we had only started coming to an understanding about one another at the time of his death.  My father’s appreciation of Auster reminds me a lot of his love of Bruce Springsteen…both Auster and Springsteen came from similar backgrounds as my dad, and they were able to get out.  Dad wasn’t, but he had respect for these guys because they got out on their own terms and were able to tell the rest of the world what it was like to be working-class sons of second-generation immigrant families. 


That his work has a redemptive quality also makes it more accessible for me.  Dad liked a lot of self-destructive writers, in part because he had a self-destructive streak and wanted to see it glorified in others’ work.  Reading Bukowski is upsetting because I’m reminded of how my dad reveled in his negative tendencies.  When I read “The Invention of Solitude” or the first half of Timbuktu, I saw in them my dad and I came to understand how he ended up the way he did. 


With that in mind, I have decided to continue reading through Auster’s bibliography.  I have a review pending of The Locked Room, and have started reading In the Country of Lost Things.  This may be hypocritical.  I hope that making this decision for myself doesn’t upset me in the long run. 

Paul Auster, ‘Ghosts’ (1983)

21 Jul

In retrospect, I’m glad I read “Wakefield” before passing my eyes over the pages of Ghosts.  Reading the first few pages of Auster’s novella felt like watching a narrative atom split.  In the first few pages, we learn of a detective, Blue, who must take on a case that involves spying on a mysterious man from an apartment across the way.  We also learn of a man, Gray, who absents himself from his fiancée while suffering from amnesia, and of how his memory continues to fail him.  I could have appreciated this collage of absence and memory without reading “Wakefield”, but knowing Auster’s point of departure has helped me appreciate the opening.

A theme of literary pastiche runs through Ghosts.  Blue, the character with whom we experience the story, reads Walden, and the theme of a solitary, ascetic lifestyle reverberates through the story.  When Blue’s path finally crosses with Black, the man he’s been paid to watch, the pair sit on a curb in Brooklyn and discuss the eventual fate of <a href=http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/deja_vu/2012/06/brain-pickers.php>Walt Whitman’s brain</a>.  Even in parts of the story that don’t directly address other works of literature, my mind went back to the stories that had inspired Auster.  For example, a scene in which Blue runs into his fiancée on the street after he leaves her company recalled Wakefield’s speculation about what would happen if he revealed himself to his wife.

I was also impressed with how Auster creates a very specific place and time in Ghosts.  As opposed to the “any place/any time” (prior to the internet, at least) in City of Glass, Ghosts takes place in New York in 1947.  He describes the streets and apartments and the cultural goings-on of the day in a manner that evokes the city in the post-war era.  While others may find the references to baseball games skimmable, reading about the racial strife in the major leagues or Blue’s identification with Robert Mitchum (for example) helped put me in the right frame of mind for the era.

Like City of Glass, Ghosts has an open ending.  One aspect of the story has been resolved (or at least explained), but Blue’s fate remains unknown.  Unlike City of Glass, this not-knowing has a strangely adventurous quality.  In spite of all the misadventure Blue experiences in the span of 90 pages, you don’t despair for him at the novel’s close.

“Wakefield”, Nathaniel Hawthorne

16 Jul

I’ve been tripping myself up overthinking how to write about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield”.  Auster has cited Hawthorne’s short stories, this one in particular, as an influence on Ghosts, the second book in the New York Trilogy.  Because of how important Hawthorne was to Auster’s development as a writer, I saw it as my responsibility to read his short stories “Wakefield” and “Fanshawe” before I started Ghosts and The Locked Room, respectively.  Unlike “William Wilson”, these Hawthorne stories seem to have a level of renown among scholars that writing even a cursory blog entry seemed like a task of no small intimidation.


“Wakefield” traces the experience of a man who departs his wife’s company for twenty years.  He takes up residence in an apartment within visible distance of his old home, dresses in a ragged disguise, and watches his wife from his bedroom window during the time he has absented himself from her.  He even passes her on the street, and she almost seems to recognize him.  Long after she has assumed he is dead, sold his belongings, and taken up the life of a widow, he returns to his homestead.


This might amount to a huge spoiler, except that Hawthorne reveals all of this in the first paragraph of the story.  In the next 25 pages, he explores the man’s experience apart from his wife, watching her with a sense of longing and taking on disguises to avoid discovery.


Though Hawthorne reveals the story’s full trajectory at its start, the conclusion has a sense of ambiguity, as Wakefield stands on his doorstep awaiting his wife’s reaction when she sees him for the first time in twenty years. Wakefield’s ascetic, solitary existence touches upon a theme running through Auster’s work.  Additionally, one line in the story – “He would look on the affair as no more than an interlude in the main business of his life” – reminded me of Auster’s observation about his father’s married life in “Portrait of an Invisible Man”, that Sam Auster was a lifelong bachelor with an interlude of family life.


I found “Wakefield” for free in the Amazon Kindle store.   It’s also available online in several places, including Project Gutenberg.

‘City of Glass’ (Auster | Karasik | Mazzucchelli | Spiegelman, 1994/2004)

25 Jun

I came to the graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass in the spring of this year.  My capstone class had completed Timbuktu and Mr. Vertigo and I was dying to read more Auster.  However, this interest in his back pages was tempered by the amount of work that lay before me in the weeks before graduation.  One of my professors, knowing my keen interest in Auster’s work, loaned me a slim graphic novel that he assured me was taken faithfully from the first book in the New York Trilogy. 

At this point, I was all honey badger* about the printed matter being discussed in the aforementioned capstone class.  I carried the volume up to the sixth floor of Healey Library, where I sat at a small table overlooking the harbor.  Between gasps of dialogue and character and small, crosshatched frames, I gazed out at the city skyline blanketed under fog.

Reading the City of Glass graphic novel so soon after its prose counterpart, I’m struck by how well David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik captured the spirit of Auster’s work.  While the exclusion of a few paragraphs here and there caused me some pain, the novel exists for me to read them.  Mazzucchelli and Karasik particularly did a great job of making visual the theme of coincidence that runs through the book.  (In particular, pay attention to the girl Quinn meets who’s reading his book…does she makes a second appearance towards the end?)  I also found satisfying the places in which a drawing by Daniel’s son Peter crops up in the frame.  It serves as a visual depiction of the ways in which Peter Quinn and his death haunts his father.

The pages in which the illustrators work through Peter Stillman’s monologue are particularly striking.  The thought bubbles that emerge from (among other sources) cave paintings and inkwells emphasize the primal qualities of Stillman’s story, and make it visually engaging.

In one of his interviews (which escapes me at the moment), Auster spoke of others’ experiences attempting to adapt City of Glass into a film.  While his unorthodox and engaging dismantling of the noir genre would seem to lend itself well to a feature, the story’s stream-of-consciousness structure and interior monologues would make it a challenge to adapt.  Mazzucchelli and Karasik did a great job of bringing the book to another kind of page.  I’d love to see them make this into an animated feature film in the style of Renaissance.

 * = link NSFW, but you knew that.  “Honey badger don’t care.  Honey badger don’t give a shit!”  Also, hi Avak!

“City of Glass”

15 Jun

City of Glass was the first work of fiction Paul Auster had published. At first, the book suggests the structure of a murder mystery or a noir – onetime poet/current pulp novelist Daniel Quinn gets a series of anguished phone calls looking for “Detective Paul Auster, of the Auster Detective Agency” in the middle of the night or at other inconvenient moments. (Like that much-quoted, unpleasant paragraph in which the phone rings while Quinn is on the john, but I digress.) Finally, Quinn takes a cue from Max Work, the protagonist in the detective series he writes (under the Poe-derived pseud “William Wilson”) and meets with the aggrieved party.

Auster grounds Quinn in a heightened sense of solitude. In the first two pages, he reveals that Quinn’s wife and son died at a young age from an unspoken tragedy. After their deaths, he walks away from his original literary vocation, cuts ties to his friends, and turns out a pulpy detective novel every year. This lifestyle seems close to the life Auster may have imagined for himself in the wake of his divorce.

Quinn’s meeting with Peter Stillman and his wife, Virginia, both follows the noir narrative that Auster has established and carries it further afield. Stillman contacts “Auster” (the detective) to seek protection from his abusive father, who is about to be released from a court-ordered mental hospital. Peter Stillman the elder was a biblical scholar whose abusive behavior towards his son rendered him unable to communicate properly. Stillman Jr’s long monologue in his curious internal language takes up several pages and requires multiple readings in order to properly understand it. While the younger Stillman’s narrative complicates the story, “Auster”’s heated exchange with femme fatale Virginia could have been lifted from The Postman Always Rings Twice. (In the graphic novel adaptation, Virginia bears a striking resemblance to classic film siren Myrna Loy.)

One of the things I appreciated about Daniel Quinn, detective, was that his methods of investigating the case reminded me of an undergrad writing a paper. He follows his quarry, Peter Stillman Sr., and he stays in contact with the younger Stillmans, but he also reads through and makes an attempt at understanding the Biblical texts Stillman wrote.

Many readers think the wheels fell off the narrative towards the end. Because the book was initially marketed as detective fiction, I suspect some of its audience expected that the case would be solved in the concluding pages. Instead, we learn second-hand of the Stillmans’ fate from a phone conversation Quinn had with the writer Paul Auster. (Many thesis papers have been written about the destabilized identity prevalent in The New York Trilogy.)

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Auster’s work is the way that he is able to emotionally engage his readers while drawing on postmodern techniques. His use of pastiche, subversion of genre, and play with identity don’t prevent us from engaging with his protagonist. The end of the book was one of the most devastating things I’d read in a long while.

“William Wilson”

8 Jun

In the first chapter of City of Glass, Paul Auster writes about protagonist Daniel Quinn’s double life.  After Quinn’s wife and son meet a tragic end, he starts writing crime fiction under the name William Wilson.  The alliterative appellation, with its bitten-off syllables and rhythmic stresses, seems at first like the kind of name a pulp writer would choose for a nom de crime.  This book is by Paul Auster, though, a writer with more on his mind than mere authenticity.

William Wilson is also the title character in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  The boarding-school story of an inveterate gambler and his slow dissolution is less well-known than Poe’s other stories, but works with themes familiar to the writer, and is worth tracking down.

Poe’s use of the double and doppelganger has had a clear influence on Auster’s work, particularly in City of Glass.  Our protagonist has enrolled in school at the same time as a more popular boy with the same name.  The pair look enough alike that they could be brothers, and in addition to sharing a name, they also share a birthdate.  (For you Poe trainspotters in the audience, the day listed as their natal date is the same as Poe’s himself.)

Throughout his life, the narrator William Wilson is persecuted by his more popular double.  Poe works interestingly with the unreliable narrator trope.  Wilson frequently tells us that he is a great gambler and is able to fleece a nobleman, only to be shown up by his doppelganger, who exposes him as a cheat.  Is the “better” William Wilson a whispering conscience to our narrator’s debauchery?  The ending of the story, a climactic confrontation between the two men, certainly points in that direction.

After reading a fair amount of contemporary literature, I had to recalibrate my brain to fully comprehend the Romantic writing style of Poe’s short story.  On my first reading I found myself skimming through what I initially saw as the overwrought paragraphs to get to the plot.  The verbose approach to the subject matter serves the material well.  Poe is able to create a mood of suspense through the character’s frequent equivocations and his attempts to rationalize his behavior.  The deliberate writing style traces a guilty character’s frame of mind, and rations out the information Poe thinks we need to keep the readers hanging and trying to figure out what happens next.

Auster would not merely lift the character’s much-hated plebian name as Daniel Quinn’s pen name.  The theme of doubles echoes throughout City of Glass, most notably in the presence of “Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency”.  Daniel Quinn’s three personae – his own self, his pen name (and his tough-talking protagonist in William Wilson’s novels), and the role of “Detective Paul Auster” that he assumes – also speaks to the dual William Wilsons.

An annotated e-text of the story is available at Poe Stories.  There’s also a free audio version of the story on YouTube.

Auster’s fellow New Jerseyans, the Smithereens, recorded a song called “William Wilson” that likewise drew inspiration from the Poe story.  The song appears on their 1990 album 11.