Archive | June, 2012

‘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. 

‘The Invention of Solitude’: The Book of Memory

6 Jun

In my private journals, I’ve been asking myself, “Who am I in my Summer of Auster posts?”  I’m reading these posts at too fast a clip to look at them as scholarly responses to Auster’s body of work.  In my attempts to remain an impartial reviewer, I have turned out a few run-of-the-mill book reviews that place Auster’s early work in a biographical context and rattle off plot points.  As I move into ‘The Book of Memory’, the second half of Auster’s early memoir The Invention of Solitude, it’s become harder and harder for me to maintain an objective point of view.

You see, my father died on my twentieth birthday.  Somewhere in my belongings I have a scrap of paper with my father’s thoughts and impressions of one of Auster’s works.  While I would have loved Mr. Vertigo and Timbuktu without knowing this, the fact that my father thought highly of Auster sustained me as I imbibed those texts over a few weeks.

My father was drawn to artists who depicted the pains and pleasures of the working-class experience.  In particular, he had great admiration for those writers and musicians who were able to not only write about the blue collar life, but who were able to get out but to not forget their past.  (Bruce Springsteen, for example.)   In Auster, Dad may have seen a contemporary and a peer.  Both men grew up in the Northeast in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the elder sons of second-generation American parents.  (Auster’s from Vienna, Dad’s from County Cork, Ireland.)  Their fathers were both remote men who had profound misunderstandings of their sons.  They both rejected the religious cultures of their families and steeped themselves in American pastimes like baseball and rock and roll.  They both eked out a meager existence through verbiage, Dad as a sportswriter and Auster as a critic and translator.

Most significantly, both men were parents in the early ‘80s, and both of them divorced their wives when their children were still young.  As I read Auster’s description of the tiny room in which he lived on 6 Varick Street in Chinatown, my mind travels to the seemingly infinite number of junkshop cars in which my dad slept as he waited for the divorce to become final.  I see Dad folded up in the back seat of his car, resting his head on the rear axle on the passenger side and his left foot tapping against the driver’s-side axle.  His right ankle rests on his left knee, and he holds the book open in his lap.

Bill Murray in 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Like this.

While “Portrait of an Invisible Man” looked head-on and without sentimentality at the death of Samuel Auster, “The Book of Memory” takes a much more diffuse approach to the subject of fatherhood.  Auster eschews the immediacy of the first section for a third-person perspective, referring to himself as “A.” The central theme in this section of the book is about the act of fatherhood, rather than what it meant to be a son.  He looks at this subject through his travels to Paris and Amsterdam and through literature, most notably through Carlo Collidi’s fairy tale “Pinocchio” and its Disney adaptation.

What does it mean to be a father?  Auster has no clear, specific answer.  His son, Daniel, was only three at the time he wrote this, and in writing “The Book of Memory” he seems to be figuring out an answer to this question.  The allusions to “Pinocchio” and to Jonah and the Whale give Auster the opportunity to understand his son’s perspective on aging and growth.  The themes of reunion also allow the writer to reflect on his long absences from his son.  Reading about the ways Auster connected with his son through reading and sharing stories had a poignant immediacy.

Admittedly, some of the allusions to literature flew right over my head.  I consider myself well-read, but I’d never even heard of many of the writers and translations that Auster mentioned in this essay.  The fact that many of these books are out of print or otherwise impossible to find made “The Invention of Solitude” an exercise in frustration.  It also had a humbling quality to it, as though Auster was saying, “You with the shiny new English degree!  You think you’re smart?”

What also intrigued me, after reading Squeeze Play within such close proximity to The Invention of Solitude, was how both books covered similar ground.  Looking as Squeeze Play as a work of nonfiction would be a mistake.  That said, both books portray a recent divorce with a young son and an ex-wife with whom they have an ambivalent relationship.  We only see Auster’s first wife in passing, which I assume was a conscious decision.  (This makes the book more personal – focusing on where Auster went wrong – and more diplomatic towards his former spouse.)  As I read a passage in “The Book of Memory” about Auster’s attempts to reconcile with his wife, the chapter in Squeeze Play in which Max blunders into an ill-advised tryst with his own ex-wife kept coming back to me.

My thoughts returned to my father as I completed “The Book of Memory”.  I think my dad admired Auster in part because he got out on his own terms.  My dad wasn’t so lucky.  He worked until the last day of his life at jobs that made Hank Chinaski look like Gordon Gekko.  While he continued writing, his lone novel got rejected by several publishing houses and ended up burning in a garbage bin.  I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do with this blog,  but on some level I see it as a long letter to a father I won’t see again in this lifetime.  Since Dad’s missed out on all of Auster’s novels since Mr. Vertigo, I feel a responsibility to read them for someone who can’t.

4 Jun

Samuel Auster, 1940s. From ‘The Invention of Solitude’.

Paul Auster’s father died suddenly of a heart attack not long after he completed Squeeze Play.  Samuel Auster was a man of many contradictions, and the elder and younger Austers had a fraught relationship rife with misunderstandings and a lack of shared values about art and commerce.  “Portrait of an Invisible Man”, the first half of Auster’s memoir The Invention of Solitude, depicts his frame of mind in the wake of his father’s death, and his attempts to understand and put into perspective his father’s life and death.

After reading “Portrait of an Invisible Man” all the way through twice, I was struck by how perfectly Auster was able to put onto the page the perspective of someone who has just lost a parent.  My initial instinct was to describe the essay as “stream of consciousness”, but that isn’t quite right – while the work as a whole has a structure I would describe as free-flowing, the individual paragraphs and sections of the book cohere in a different way than most novels that fall into the stream-of-consciousness heading.  “Digressive” comes closer to accurately describing the way Auster has assembled the essay.  In long sections that might otherwise be chapters, he looks at different facets of Sam Auster and his relationships with his wife, his children, his siblings, and his tenants.

The image that emerges from this series of observations reveals a series of contradictions within the senior Auster.  “Mr Sam” (as his tenants described him) comes off as a generous landlord and employer, and a loyal friend whose friends would call on him in times of crisis.  “A car stuck somewhere in the middle of the night, and my father would drag himself out of bed and come to the rescue” (55).  At the same time, he held his immediate family – his wife and children – at arm’s length.  As a child, Paul Auster rarely saw his father during the day, and his father’s absence in his life was palpable to the child: “From the very beginning, it seems, I was looking for my father, looking frantically for anyone who resembled him” (17).

Samuel Auster rewarded his son’s longing with a greater sense of distance.  Remembering his father’s remote qualities during his childhood, Paul Auster had hoped to see his father extend a paternal affection towards his infant son, Daniel.  Much to his disappointment, Auster the senior’s interaction with his grandson lasts only a handful of seconds.  The only words the elder says of the new member of his family are “A beautiful baby.  Good luck with it” (15).  Paul Auster makes his disappointment with his father’s inattention palpable first by describing what he had hoped for in his father’s initial meeting with his grandson, and then by depicting the actual interaction in the sparest language.  Reading the straightforward account of Sam Auster’s uneventful meeting with his grandson, we are even more aware of the impact this had on the younger Auster than we would have if he had written it in an emotional, histrionic manner.

After establishing his father’s remote qualities, Auster looks at how a man becomes so absent from the world.  One is not born, but rather becomes, “a block of impenetrable space in the form of a man” (5).  The elder Auster grew up as the youngest son of a family forced into a kind of nomadic existence.  The central parts of “Portrait of an Invisible Man” describe at great length the circumstances under which the Auster family of Kenosha, Wisconsin came to leave their hometown and eventually settle in North Jersey.  This motivating factor – namely, Auster’s grandmother’s murder of her husband – occurs within the narrative as a slow shock.  We are eased in with mangled photographs and with a series of explanations for Harry Auster’s early death, before a coincidence allows Paul Auster to learn the truth of his grandfather’s fate.

Auster trots out a number of newspaper articles that not only describe the murder in the overheated, melodramatic way associated with turn-of-the-century yellow journalism, but also shows the strange fascination that Victorian-era Midwesterners had with the Auster family’s Jewish background.  Speaking as a New Englander who grew up at the tail end of the 20th century, this section of the book held a negative fascination for me.  In my community, Judaism seemed as mundane as Catholicism or Protestantism.  My high school neighbored a synagogue, and the only thing that differentiated the Jewish kids from their gentile counterparts was the two absences at the start of the school year.  These reporters’ observations on the Auster family’s Jewish heritage and their “leering, condescending tone” (32) has a shocking quality at this historical point.

Many critics – myself included, it seems – try and reduce Paul Auster’s memoir of his father to a series of plot points, as one might do with a work of narrative fiction.  The way that Auster depicts his perplexed emotions after his father’s death struck me as especially true to how one thinks when one is in mourning.  I could identify with the ways in which quotidian details about Samuel Auster floated back to his son seemingly at random.  The younger Auster relates to the world through words and narrative, and in his writing he addresses the ways in which even these things can fail him: “When I first started, I thought it would come spontaneously, in a trance-like outpouring.  So great was my need to write that I thought the story would be written by itself.  But the words have come very slowly so far” (26).  Auster’s frequent metacommentary on the progress of his story makes the impact of his death more palpable.  The ways in which his thoughts seem to leave him only to return again hit me where I live.  I recognize Auster’s thought process and his attempts to make sense of his father’s death, and I really wish I didn’t.