Maybe Digression’s the Problem

The Rake points to this very long, very detailed Paul Auster analysis that I too will have to read later. I haven’t been much of an Auster fan, for reasons similar to B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto.” But I’m always willing to give any well-regarded author another shot (even if The New York Trilogy left me very annoyed). Will someone explain why Auster’s the shit? Will someone tell me why this Peter Stillman nonsense is so important? (I should also note that I’m crazy about William Gaddis, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace, and Robert Coover. Hell, I’m even partial towards the manic detailer Nicholson Baker. So why not Auster? It’s not pomo per se that’s the problem here.)


  1. I found the NY Trilogy interesting but not outstanding by any means. I haven’t been all that impressed with Auster’s writing lately either, but I did really like a chunk of the middle novels: The Music of Chance, In the Country of Last Things, The Moon Palace, and Leviathan were all very entertaining and well written.

  2. Could it be because while his plots can be interestingly mysterious, even byzantine, and his characters eccentric, his writing can sometimes be, well, somewhat workmanlike? He’s not the prose stylist the other writers you mention are.

    Although I too like the trilogy, as well as Moon Palace.

  3. I thought Hand to Mouth was a terrific memoir of a struggling writer, though some of the 200-page appendix could be considered gratuitous.

  4. Correction–the appendix is 318pp and it’s all shit I could do without. But the 130pp of actual memoir really is quite good.

  5. I love Auster (and I’ve been blogging about him like crazy since I saw him at the Blue Metropolis festival in Montreal a few weeks ago). I can’t quite put my finger on why. I haven’t even read very much of his. (I’ll fess up to my ignorance and tell you I haven’t read any of the other authors you mention in your post. Ack.)

    But… There’s a poignancy in his details. The details don’t really mean anything, don’t add anything to the story, but then Auster’s not about the story. It’s pretty phenomenological.

    There’s a thing in Smoke: every day the guy takes a picture of the street scene in front of his shop, same time every day. In any one instance is contained all the past, with the potential of all possible futures.

    Auster’s not exactly a “thinker,” but he’s not afraid to philosophize explicitly in his books, as opposed to making the dialogue or the scene setting do the work. Simple. Straightforward. (Seemingly.) I like that.

    Then, Auster’s all about coincidence, the effort we make to instill everything with meaning. The need we have to do that to keep sane. Speaks to me. Maybe I’ll have more to say after reading the analysis (and those other authors).

    (I love the trilogy and Oracle Night. Have read little else in between. The lyrics kind of suck.)

  6. I saw Smoke, and left the cinema thinking that if Auster’s books were like the film in any way then I wanted absolutely nothing to do with them, ever. Possibly it’s my loss, but I’m not seeing anything in either of the linked articles to change my mind…

  7. The Trilogy seems to be a polarizing book. I love it, but I’ve met more than a few people who loathe it with a passion.

    Apologies to the above, but I’m going to strongly disagree with the statement that Auster’s “not about the story.” I believe he very much is and that his obssession with “story” drives him to tell stories within stories (and stories within stories within stories, with Oracle Night being just the latest example).

    My mind is such that I want to hear about Bakhtin smoking his book on the bildungsroman during Siege of Leningrad, even if it’s for the 1,000th time, and even if the whole thing’s apocryphal. I can see Auster getting tiresome, however, if yer not so much into arcana, shaggy-dog, and/or narrative cleverness. (Or hearing about Wakefield or Flitcraft, those stories he keeps returning to, for the nth time.)

    His prose also agrees with me, but I’m not sure that I could explain why. As Tom Waits sez: it’s that feeeeeeel.

  8. Never gotten into Auster, which is strange because we share some heroes (Hamsun comes to mind). Occasionally it happens that a writer seems to be asking for more than I’m willing to give him/her — attention, trust, confidence, something. I’d probably love Auster 100 years from now, but I suspect I won’t get to test that particular hypothesis.

  9. Thanks to all for weighing in. My first Auster experiences were the “Smoke”/”Blue in the Face” films, followed by “Hand to Mouth” (all of which I dug). But “The New York Trilogy” felt like a poor man’s Beckett to me.

    I’m curious, Dan, just what it is you find workmanlike about Auster. Is it the sparse quality that hints at implied profundities (what B.R. Myers takes offense to)? As elaborate as the stylists I mentioned are, there’s still a clear meaning at the heart of their work. Strip away the language and the postmodern tricks and you’ll see Gaddis obsessed with counterfeits, Barth pointing at the absurdity of Puritanical values, Barthelme a giddy chornicler of the deranged, exposing 20th century limitations, Wallace exposing the veil of advertising and boiler-plate, and Coover merging libertine “objective” biography with literature.

    But with Auster, I don’t get any deeper journey at all. The fault may, as I suggested, lie on my end. Perhaps the point of The New York Trilogy is for the reader to find his own associations, but I personally feel that this idea is too far removed from the narrative’s purpose. I would argue that it’s more “workmanlike” for an author to allow the reader to find her own perspective-based answers. (Even Pynchon, despite all the confusion, does this.)

    To weigh this in with Isabella’s thoughtful comment, I can buy the coincidence of the Paul Auster character picking up the phone, but it’s simply not enough to have him wonder in a tableau. I’m further bothered by the one-dimensional nature of all of his female characters (there to sleep with all men, it seems). Auster also seems to engage in obvious explanations (film summaries, Don Quixote musings, the like), as if repeating what we already know will provide some unmentioned deeper meaning, but what purpose does this serve when there’s no jumping off point?

    Please tell me, dear Rake (and others), where’s the “narrative cleverness” in stopping short in these areas? If Auster is about the story, then where the hell is it?

  10. I only meant that Auster’s prose is not as distinctive as the others’. You don’t read Auster for the prose. This is why he almost went over to making movies. His interest seems to lie in story or character or something else.

  11. Ed, you say you don’t get any deeper journey, and after much thought I have to agree that there really isn’t much of one. But maybe that’s OK.

    Auster is not a prose stylist in my view. Simple, minimalist even. That holds an appeal. It’s out of the ordinary, for one. Then it’s just the larger question of how it is that some people prefer some books, art, etc, over others — how those preferences come to be. It just happens that he writes in the same rhythm I hear myself think in my head. I suspect the authors you prefer are closest to matching your personal cadence, emphasis, etc, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. (T calls it “that feeeeeeel.”)

    I maintain that Auster’s not about story. He is obsessed with story within story within story, but in the same way an observer watches himself watching himself watch himself exist in the world. Auster’s not a storyteller. The stories at the heart of labyrinths are no more than anecdotes — just an instant that makes you go “hmm, that’s kinda neat.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

    Character? No, not much of that. Just the narrator trying to figure out his place in things, to decide if he’s an observer or active participant. I get the feeling Auster is still trying to find himself (as a person, I mean, not writer).

    Female characters? Ya, that bothers me too.

    “It’s simply not enough to have him wonder in a tableau.” Why not? “Where’s the “narrative cleverness” in stopping short in these areas?” I don’t think it’s cleverness. It’s safe. It leaves that “hmm, neat” moment pure — Auster can’t mess up by taking the story in a wrong direction, and the onus of interpretation IS with the reader. Not necessarily a bad thing.

    Auster IS about coincidence — although, maybe ‘coincidence’ is the wrong word for it. Chance? That thing when you realize “if I hadn’t done that one thing…,’ or ‘why did I stray from my usual path that day and walk on the other side of the street?’ Not very important stuff, but the stuff that makes me go “whoa, life is really weird, really awesome.”

    The other thing Auster is obsessed with: people just picking up and leaving. Flitcraft types. (Sometimes I wish I could do that. I know people who’ve done that.)

    Stillman’s just another not very significant ‘what if…’ We’ve all heard of wacky language acquisition experiments. (I was switching my major to linguistics when I first read the Trilogy — that’s the sort of ‘coincidence’ Auster might mention.) This is Auster’s way of asking/answering: what kind of person would do that? How would that child turn out? What would become of such a parent? Not particularly deep, more of that “hmmm, kind of neat” stuff.

    I wouldn’t call Auster one of our greatest living authors, but he might be one of my favourites.

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