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.

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