Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Paul Auster is a very bad man

I’ve been reading Paul Auster lately and want to tell you about his work. But as I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I very much dislike the typical book review.

I have read The New York Trilogy, Leviathan, Book of Illusions, and am deep into Timbuktu. One of the things I hate most about typical reviews is the plot synopsis. If I were to tell you that Leviathan was about a giant sea creature that emerged from the darkest deep to terrorize New York City and how a wise-cracking police detective and a seemingly frumpy marine biologist came together (in more ways than one) to fight the menace, that kind of retelling would negate any possibility that you would get to experience the unfolding of the story in the way that the author intended. And isn't that what it's all about?

But as much as I dislike the plot synopsis, I think traditional book reviewer’s incessant quest to find the author’s real meaning is even worse. If I were to tell you that Timbuktu was about Paul Auster’s search for true love in an imaginary land surrounded by harsh and forbidding desert that represents the aridity of modern society, not only would I be guilty of committing the same wrong as straightforward plot synopsis, I would also be mistaken in my analysis, for who can accurately see into the conscious and subconscious mind of an artist?. More than just ruining any possibility of my readers experiencing the work as the author intended, I might also bias their reading of the work in a way that is diametrically opposed to the author’s intentions. What if Timbuktu is really about the escape from romantic entanglements and the search for sanctuary in an isolated, pristine environment far from the cloying togetherness of modern society? Or something altogether different?

Another problem with the plot synopsis and the search for the true meaning of the work is that people may not read the book at all because they don’t like stories of that type. If I were to tell you that Book of Illusions is about a magician who hides his inner pain with the aid of magic tricks, you might not read it simply because you don’t like books about magicians or because you don’t like books about people who hide their inner pain. That kind of thing happens all the time and the sad part is that it negates the possibility that a story can transcend its subject. A great storyteller can conceivably make any subject a great story. We miss so much, for example, if we don’t read One Hundred Years of Solitude because we don’t like stories about people in small towns.

And worst of all is when the reviewer focuses on the life of the artist. The artist’s life may be interesting at some point after one has read his or her work, but knowledge and speculation on that subject can only damage the possibility of discovering the work the way in which the author intended. It's best to approach literature humbly, in as close to total ignorance about the work or its author as possible.

Unfortunately, I started letting the challenge of reviewing Auster’s work without actually discussing either it or him get me down. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that his purpose is not to create transcendent joy in the reader. It is, after all, literature and literature normally deals with the full spectrum of human experience. Literature is not about exclusively good things happening to extraordinarily happy people leading happy and fantastic lives and then going to heaven where they live happily ever after. Perhaps it would be nice if humans were wired that way, but we're not. Sometime bad things happen and we are often richer for them, both in life and in literature. And in addition to reading Auster, I also started watching Solaris over and over again, the film by the Russian director Tarkovsky, which is thematically similar to Auster’s work.

I think that my immersion in Auster-land, along with other things going on in my life, put me in something of a funk. In general, I am not the type to whine about these things. Sometimes life gets us down a bit, but who are people such as you or I to complain about our petty existential ills when there is so much real suffering going on in the world? Nevertheless, I complained about my little bout of depression to my cousin who lives in California. He suggested that I get out of my tiny dark New York apartment and get some fresh air and sun. It’s not that I didn’t know that without being told, but sometimes it helps when a caring outsider affirms our inner knowledge. I decided to get some fresh air.

So I put Paul Auster in my backpack, along with the DVD and my laptop, and went out to find a better place to read and watch Solaris. My first idea, naturally, was to go to the park, but although the idea to get some sun sounded good in principle, in practice I sunburn easily and need to stay in the shade. Plus, so much light made watching Solaris difficult. And I found the joggers, dog walkers, and other assorted park goers annoying. I decided to go to Greenwood cemetery instead.

That turned out to be a very good idea. I found a shady spot by a mausoleum on the side of a hill, rested my back against the cool hard stone and continued my reading and Solaris watching. There is very little city noise among those hills and a slight breeze rustles the leaves enough to cover it completely. Every now and then there would be a car, usually Greenwood security, and occasionally someone would walk by on the road below, but for the most part I enjoyed a splendid isolation and began to cheer up.

Nearly a week passed this way and I got a lot of work done. But during idle time I observed my surroundings. I got to know the names on the graves and mausoleums within my line of sight and pondered the folly of these all too human rituals. I came to recognize the guards and could even anticipate their rounds. And I began to notice a few recurring visitors, one man in particular.

Every day, precisely at 11 am, he came into the cemetery, sat down under a Beech tree and stared at a particular marker for about 10 minutes. At first this daily ritual did not intrude on my consciousness, but as the days passed I became curious and eventually went down and looked at the stone after he left. The name was Michael Webster. He was born in Knarlesborough, England in 1803 and died in Brooklyn in 1856. What was so special about this grave? Obviously, it must have been a relative, but why would someone who died in 1856 matter to this man today? Why would he come to the cemetery every day, precisely at 11 am, to stare at this marker?

These questions began to gnaw at me. I don’t know why. I had never done anything like this before, but for whatever reason, I decided to follow him. Every day, after staring at the Webster tomb for 10 minutes, he took the same path deeper into the cemetery, eventually disappearing over a hill. One day, I positioned myself at the top of the hill and observed that he visited another gravesite every day, the site of a woman and child who had died nearly a year ago.

With this information, it was easy enough to solve a big part of the mystery. The woman and child who died the previous year were survived by one husband and father, a guy named Michael Webster. So this guy was Michael Webster, just like the name on the tomb. Every day he comes to the cemetery, visits a grave with his name on it, then mourns the loss of his wife and daughter. It all made perfect sense, except the stone with his name on it, and I should have left it right there, but the mystery remained. I was intrigued by his behavior and decided to follow him further.

After visiting the gravesites, he left the cemetery at the Prospect Park West exit, walked across the expressway, turned left and walked down to 5th Avenue. He walked slowly, looking in shops and reading menus until he got to Union Street where he turned right and walked up to the library. After spending several hours in the library, he continued up Eastern Parkway, cut through the museum parking lot and walked through the Botanic Garden. After that, he crossed Flatbush Avenue, entered Prospect Park, walked around the lake, and exited by Prospect Park Southwest. Finally, he walked over to Church Avenue and entered a walk-up on one of the numbered streets. Every day he made this same trip, usually looking in the same windows and reading the same menus. This went on for nearly a month.

Meanwhile, my wife had left me and the landlord was questioning me about the rent. I had lost a lot of weight and let my hair and beard grow longer so as not to be recognized in my daily surveillance. I was wondering when and where it would all end, and then it did. I was no longer waiting for him in the cemetery, but picking up his trail as soon as he left the apartment in the morning. On that final day, he wheeled out a little red shopping cart filled with books, paper and some sticks of firewood. Instead of going to the cemetery, he went straight to the park. First he meticulously cleaned all the ashes from one of the picnic grills, then started a fire and burned all of the books and papers. He carefully put the newly created ashes in a sack and walked over to the cemetery. He spread most of the ashes in the grass on the graves of his wife and child, then threw a few in the air by the grave of his presumptive ancestor. After that he walked to a car service on McDonald Avenue, got in a car, and disappeared forever. I have searched on the internet for information on his whereabouts with no success. I considered hiring a private detective, but no longer have any assets, so that idea is impracticable.

By this time, a careful reader will probably have figured out that there is one more thing I need to clear up, and then I am through. As I was following Webster home after he had spread the ashes on the graves of his wife and child, he did a quick about face and bumped right into me. “Excuse me,” he said and stared at me with a strange expression. “No problem,” I said, expecting to move on, but he just stood there, looking me in the eye with a malignant grin on his face. “No, really,” he said, “it was clumsy of me, bumping into you like that. Is there something I can do for you? Perhaps some question you would like answered?”

I was taken aback by his insolence and completely at a loss for words. “Have you ever seen Solaris?” I asked. It was the only question that popped into my head.

“Yes, I have seen it,” he said.

“What did you think?”

“I thought it sucked, but I heard the Russian version is much better.”

"yes, infinitely so," I said.

He continued standing there, looking at me. “Anything else?” he asked. “Paul Auster,” I said. “What?” “Have you ever read Paul Auster?”

“Yes,” he said. “As a matter of fact I have.”

“What did you think?”

“Auster is great,” he said. “Anybody who likes great literature should read him. Start with The New York Trilogy.”

So there you have it, straight from the mouth of a crazy man.

But if you ask me, Paul Auster is a very bad man.

My advice: stay far, far away from his books.