Friday, November 27, 2009

Paul Auster vs. The New Yorker

The New Yorker's book critic James Wood puts forth many opinions of Paul Auster's latest novel "Invisible" and of Auster's work just generally in the magazine's recent November 30, 2009 issue. Most of his opinions are (spoiler alert) something less than what you'd consider high praise. But that's ok. I tend with varying levels of success to adhere to the Kurt Vonnegut school regarding literary criticism -- which is, at least in accordance with his following aphorism: "I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on a full suit of armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

Wood isn't entirely guilty of the same vitriol Vonnegut describes and disliked so. Still, he definitely takes Auster to task. And from what I've gleaned after a brief scan of the glowing Internet-scape, a lot of people have found merit in Wood's arguments. I suppose I'm one of them, although I do remain an unapologetic Auster fan. But concerning what I see as accurate in Wood's criticism of Auster is for example his initial parody and subsequent adumbration of uniquely Austerian tropes and plot devices. He also reasonably argues against Auster's prose, which especially in the examples he cites does appear simpler, Raymond Carver-esque in its austere and realist bend, and more un-ironically cliche-addled than his postmodern colleagues -- Wood says, "Auster, despite all the games, is the least ironic of contemporary writers."

However, while I think Wood does -- all told -- avoid the pitfalls of rage and loathing in his criticism of Auster, he does at times come off like an excoriator, as if his dislike of Auster's writing style, which he sees as littered with "boilerplate" and "cinemaspeak," is tantamount to it being irredeemable and deserving of the headmaster's paddle. For instance when Wood writes categorically that while ". . . there are things to admire in Auster's fiction, prose is never one of them." Wood backs this up with reasonable evidence, but one can't (or at least I can't) really shake the feeling that somewhere in all of it there is an ax being sharpened against the grindstone. Then there are what I would deem occasional potshots Wood sneaks in, for instance comparing Auster's prose to Carver's but adding, "although Carver would have written more interesting prose" or in saying that "[Auster] is only ever unwittingly funny." Speaking of the latter Wood quote, I have to admit Auster is not an author I've read for his humor, and while I don't want to touch on Wood's stating Auster is only ever unwittingly funny, I do appreciate Wood's implied concern that an author worth his or her salt should in some way be able to express a joke, inject humor where appropriate and do so cannily. Wood uses the "hilarious" novel (one I haven't read but now intend to) "The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien as Auster's use of "Hollywood plots" -- and a particular plot point he cites belonging to Auster's character Quinn in "The New York Trilogy's" "City of Glass" -- done both humorously and effectively.

Now obviously if you asked me to prove Wood is libelously false in any / all of his preceding assertions I would say that I can't do that, Dave. As already said he makes strong claims and provides useful, if possibly mischaracterized, evidence -- but he does so within the framework of a subjective set of criteria. I realize I'm moving into hazardous territory in stating that Wood's criticism is subjective and therefore implying its validity is suspect. But that's not really what I'm saying. And although I believe Wood is more excoriating than necessary, I won't fault him for his opinion of Auster's work. What I am saying is that to Wood, Auster is a peddler of banalities and sophistries; overall his work does not amount to much when stacked against the literary achievements of his contemporaries. Point taken and fair enough.

All I can offer as counterpoint, then, is a subjective defense of what I like about Auster, which -- to paraphrase -- Wood at least acknowledges there are things in Auster's work that are worthy of admiration. I recently finished reading Auster's "Man in the Dark" and really enjoyed "The New York Trilogy," the former a good example of Auster's more recent work and the latter is probably his most well-known book, which comprises his three earliest stories. One of the standard Austerian themes that "The New York Trilogy" features in parts is the disassociation and dissolution of male friendships. Of course all relationships in Auster's work are subject to just the same sort of dissolution, but none with the fury or the punctuation that seems to mark the severing of male friendships.

Ironically, these friendship breakups are usually for reasons that have little to do with an actual falling out. Instead, they are better characterized for the distance that already exists, how they've lost touch as part of a greater narrative already taking form. And often as one man disappears the other as if his doppelganger will step into his life and take his place, either literally with the unnamed friend and narrator who supplants Fanshawe as husband and father in "The Locked Room" or more figuratively with Peter Aaron as Benjamin Sachs in "Leviathan" -- after Sachs abandons everything in his life following a terrible, literal fall and his figurative reawakening in the wake of a violent encounter in the woods, or perhaps most nebulous of all is the end of Nashe and Jack Pozzi's friendship in "The Music of Chance," wherein Pozzi with Nashe's assistance escapes the pair's forced imprisonment at the home of two eccentric millionaires, the consequence of losing at a high stakes game of poker. Pozzi leaves but Nashe finds him badly beaten the next morning. Pozzi is rushed to the hospital by the overseers who are charged with ensuring Nashe and Pozzi don't escape, a complicated situation in its own right, and then Nashe is told with out any verifiable proof that Pozzi is well attended to and will survive. The tension that builds because of the dissolution of these relationships reaches a pronounced pitch, leading the narrator in "The Locked Room" on a frenzied search for Fanshawe, which at one point leads him to verbally assault a man in a bar with accusations that he is the lost Fanshawe. Benjamin Sachs is blown to bits by his own bomb, and Peter Aaron is left to answer for him to the police. Pozzi is never heard from again and Nashe, after finally being granted his freedom, drives off into the headlights of an oncoming vehicle with his overseers in the passenger seats, left to suffer whatever fate (or chance) has in store.

As for "Man in the Dark" by itself, I'll concede it impressed me less than all the other novels I list in the last paragraph. But despite its shortcomings, I still found it enjoyable and relevant. It read like a collage of the Bush administration's tenure, a sort of retrospective noting in spartan detail various causes and effects. August Brill, the narrator and for all intents and purposes the story's main character, can't sleep; he has about him the harried quality of a guilty conscience. He invents stories that play out in his head, specifically an alternate universe in which the United States is in a new civil war. He imagines a character who exists between both our universe and the alternate, and is assigned the task of murdering Brill in our world so the war will end, irrespective of the possible consequence that existence might end right along with him. Brill, however, holds all the cards as inventor of the story, and kills the man off before he can cause him any harm. He disinterestedly suggests it's the only way the story could end, but one wonders if the truth was instead that story was becoming all too real for Brill, a man it's suggested by those conspiring to kill him seems to want to die. But at the heart of "Man in the Dark" is family, and once again the dissolution of relationships (familial or other) for all the great litany of reasons: death, divorce, self-loathing, emotional vacancy, etc. I think this leads to some of the most powerful statements, which might be put better with lurid literary flourishes but in Auster's softly stated prose convey something equally powerful, as with how Brill discribes his sister's death, or perhaps more fittingly, demise:

Either her body had given out on her or she had taken pills, and I didn't want to know the answer, for neither one of them would have told the real story. Betty died of a broken heart. Some people laugh when they hear that phrase, but that's because they don't know anything about the world. People die of broken hearts. It happens every day, and it will go on happening to the end of time.
Maybe I'm biased, necessary subjectivity regarding interpretation of art would suggest this is so, but I like what Paul Auster says and thinks in his writings. Maybe he is guilty of all that Wood puts forth, maybe less so than Wood can admit. I don't know. All I know is at least Paul Auster isn't Chuck Palahniuk because that guy sucks.

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