May 24, 2007


Paul Auster, 1986

I have quite enjoyed everything I've read by Paul Auster, which I'm ashamed to say doesn't amount to much. This short (under 100 pages) novel is the middle installment of a set called the New York Trilogy, and probably my favorite of the three.

There's a lot of great stuff going on in this piece, including a beautiful deconstruction of the postwar ennui-filled private eye genre, a love letter to Brooklyn Heights, and a meditation on 19th century American literature. It's put across in a flat, declarative style, not a single quotation mark, with sentences often in the passive voice, full of odd textural details of setting and state of mind. At points, it reads like it should be an allegory or roman a clef, but if it is, it's one that subverts itself at every turn.

Some of my favorite parts use the detective-story framework to contemplate what literature is in the world, the relationship between author and audience, the reflexive nature of narrative, the dual consciousness required in storytelling, and other highfalutin stuff like that. I don't generally have anything against the contemporary popular novel style, wherein any big themes are talked about openly in the prose itself, but it's nice to have something slightly opaque once in a while - good brain exercise, you know.

There's this nice passage, wherein one detective is talking to another about a surveillance job:

Does he know you're watching him or not?

Black turns away, unable to look at Blue anymore, and says with a sudden trembling of voice: Of course he knows. That's the whole point, isn't it? He's got to know, or else nothing makes sense.


Because he needs me, says Black, still looking away. He needs my eyes looking at him. He needs me to prove he's alive.

There's a certain kind of tragic pithiness in that kind of writing which is far from ordinary. It's as if the psychology and emotion are small, plain things to be pushed around and played with like words on a page. There's treachery, double-crossing, and self-doubt through the book, but on a higher level, there's just a sense of futility about even those elements, which evokes the late-40s milieu better than anything else. Thoreau, Hawthorne, and especially (hilariously) Whitman are presented as models for a human optimism and spirit of connectedness that seems almost farcical in the context of the world the characters inhabit.

I don't want to make it sound like a depressing book either. If anything, it's magical in the way it shows a path from being a ghost to being fully human. All crammed into 90-odd pages with time for costume changes, pulp-culture ruminations, and Jackie Robinson. This is one to read over and over.

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