James Wood on Paul Auster

Profile in New Yorker magazine

James Wood of the New Yorker casts a wry eye over Paul Auster's writing career, and questions his flirtation with postmodern fiction. Wood's article begins with a parody of the quintessential Auster narrative:
Roger Phaedo had not spoken to anyone for ten years. He confined himself to his Brooklyn apartment, obsessively translating and retranslating the same short passage from Rousseau’s Confessions. A decade earlier, a mobster named Charlie Dark had attacked Phaedo and his wife. Phaedo was beaten to within an inch of his life; Mary was set on fire, and survived just five days in the I.C.U. By day, Phaedo translated; at night, he worked on a novel about Charlie Dark, who was never convicted. Then Phaedo drank himself senseless with Scotch. He drank to drown his sorrows, to dull his senses, to forget himself. The phone rang, but he never answered it. Sometimes, Holly Steiner, an attractive woman across the hall, would silently enter his bedroom, and expertly rouse him from his stupor. At other times, he made use of the services of Aleesha, a local hooker. Aleesha’s eyes were too hard, too cynical, and they bore the look of someone who had already seen too much. Despite that, Aleesha had an uncanny resemblance to Holly, as if she were Holly’s double. And it was Aleesha who brought Roger Phaedo back from the darkness. One afternoon, wandering naked through Phaedo’s apartment, she came upon two enormous manuscripts, neatly stacked. One was the Rousseau translation, each page covered with almost identical words; the other, the novel about Charlie Dark. She started leafing through the novel. “Charlie Dark!” she exclaimed. “I knew Charlie Dark! He was one tough cookie. That bastard was in the Paul Auster gang. I’d love to read this book, baby, but I’m always too lazy to read long books. Why don’t you read it to me?” And that is how the ten-year silence was broken. Phaedo decided to please Aleesha. He sat down, and started reading the opening paragraph of his novel, the novel you have just read.

Yes, that prĂ©cis is a parody of Paul Auster’s fiction, l’eau d’Auster in a sardonic sac. It is unfair, but diligently so, checking off most of his work’s familiar features. A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist. Hey, Roger Phaedo invented Charlie Dark! It was all in his head. [Read More]