Lost in the Interior
Paul Auster presents a portrait of the artist as a tedious undergrad
Published: December 4, 2013
Paul Auster occupies an odd territory on the map of American literature today, a patch of brush bordering the gerontocracy of establishment patriarchs like Philip Roth and John Irving on one side and the self-governing, black flag-flying republics of postmodernism on the other. He’s too formulaic and prone to cliche, according to the critics, for the “postmodern” designation to mean anything, while the European-inflected, sometimes airy style of his prose has always made it sound slightly out of time in this country, whatever the year. It may be for just that reason that Auster does so well overseas; pop into any bookstore in Paris or Prague and you can bet your small-ass cup of coffee on finding an entire shelf of his books just below Sense and Sensibility.
Auster’s new book, Report from the Interior (Henry Holt), is his fourth memoir and second published in as many years. As last year’s Winter Journal used the history of a body to tell the history of its owner, “catalogu[ing] the manifold knocks and pleasures” of felt experience, Report is an attempt to trace the development of childhood thought to the point, or points, when it becomes adult thought—when your crayons have connected enough dots to reveal that the hidden picture is of a tombstone with your name on it. “How did you become a person who could think,” Auster asks, continuing in the second-person narration of Winter Journal, “and if you could think, where did your thoughts take you?” Vague questions like those are suited to the vagueness and ambition of the project itself. With incompleteness as a first principle, his methodology is simply to “[d]ig up the old stories, scratch around for whatever you find, then hold the shards up to the light and have a look at them.”
The condition of childhood is by and large to be an object and not a subject, someone to whom things happen rather than who happens to the world; the way we get from one state to the other is self-consciousness and identity. For young Auster this movement usually takes the form of pure ordeal, as when his earliest recognition of being Jewish is rewarded with serial nightmares spent fleeing from Nazis “bent on shooting you, on tearing off your arms and legs, on burning you at the stake and turning you into a pile of ashes.” There are also the bone-deep disappointments of reality, in all its gray tones, when it fails to match the golden myths of mid-century America: Paul’s father doesn’t have war stories like the other boys’ fathers; seen in the flesh, his baseball hero doesn’t look like the guy on television at all. Thomas Edison, the idol of his New Jersey boyhood, “turned out to have been a rabid, hate-filled anti-Semite” who sacked Auster Sr. from a job at Menlo Park after discovering he had a Hebrew on his hands. Other people, he finds, maintain a permanent filibuster of the vote on who you are. Only a few blinks separate the blissful age when “it seemed perfectly credible that a cow could jump over the moon” and the image of our hero sitting alone in an empty classroom while his peers rehearse Christmas carols, a “self-declared outcast,” and yet nothing more than a Jewboy to the town bullies, with his books and his poetry to protect him.
Early lives of extraordinary deprivation have thrilled readers since Dickens, but the ordinariness of Auster’s suburban youth amplifies the quiet sadnesses and shames that mark even happy childhoods like minor notes from a music box. These are familiar things: the guilt of bed-wetting, fear of God, endless boredom, embarrassment for and not just of one’s parents (“cellmates thrown together by chance and serving out their sentences in grim silence”). Auster’s investigation wants to embrace all, leaving no significant experience—happy or sad—unconsidered for its formative effect. So scrupulous is he that, for 25 pages, he relays the entirety of the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, scene-by-scene, and makes it seem essential.
But by the next scene-by-scene synopsis of a film—this time 40 pages of 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang—what was advertised as a three-hour tour of the interior begins to feel like “Survivor: Paul Auster.” No matter how deeply these two films impressed themselves upon Auster’s mind, and despite how compellingly he has used stories-within-stories before (as in 2002’s The Book of Illusions), these are not his stories. Together they contain a quarter of the book’s words. The reader might call this a breach of contract, if (and this is the true Austerian Kafka-via-Raymond Chandler masterstroke) there had ever been a contract to begin with.
We are introduced to the college-aged Auster through a series of letters written to his then-girlfriend, the writer Lydia Davis, in the height of the ’60s and from places where the ’60s happened, like Paris and Columbia University. Auster’s concerns are more personal than political, though; by now he is an ambitious poet, clinging to a relationship in which “you loved more than you were loved,” a ball of sexual frustration amid balls of crumpled paper. There are glimpses here of a kind of writer’s life—penniless, bohemian, French, and miserable—that some have had and others have wished for, but this section is mostly fit for inclusion in the anthropology of that maligned and pathetic creature, the Male Writer. We hear a few stray echoes from early life (the Nazi dreams persist), but, as at the movies, the voice of Auster the author comes from far away. He has written before about this period in the recommended Hand to Mouth (1996), a portrait of the artist as a young man that is not what we see here (and from too close up): the artist as an insufferable undergrad. After the last letter, we’re certain of little more than that we wouldn’t want to be dating the 21-year-old Paul Auster and that, by this point, the 66-year-old Paul Auster has led us very far into the interior—and left us there, some will feel, in a wilderness of howling tedium. The final part of the book consists of a gallery of stock photographs, likely co-authored with Google, showing things such as tomatoes, Nazis, and stills from I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
The logic of Paul Auster’s approach to self-history—that it’s an amalgamation of stories, texts (the letters), and images—is sound. Much of the most convincing autobiographical writing shares with this book a willingness to experiment with form. What’s crucial is the author’s guidance, though, which is the difference between a curated gallery of shards and a black garbage bag of shards handed to reader with the instruction to dig in. (And there may be a place for that; we just don’t want to forget to care.) There are some glittering pieces here, but the problem is the same one Auster confesses to in his failure to keep a journal, that “you didn’t know what person you were supposed to be addressing, whether you were talking to yourself or to someone else[.]” We might wonder the same thing at the end of this book, with Auster seeming to have strolled out of his own memoir somewhere in the middle. Let us not lose all sight of Paul Auster out there, as he wanders off among the tumbleweeds and prairie dogs of his lonely country.
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