Category Archives: Paul Auster

Sticking the Landing

Last week I was a guest on The Diane Rehm Show, where I took part in a panel on Paul Auster’s 2009 novel, Invisible. Audio and a transcript of the full hour are available online, but the very brief version is that while all of us—Rehm, George Washington University creative writing teacher Lisa Page, the Washington Post‘s Neely Tucker, and myself—are all admirers of the book, we split on our feelings about its closing pages. They found it frustrating, if not comically bad; one caller got in a funny line that Auster has a way of writing the best three-fourths of a novel you’ll ever read before he disappoints you.

But I like the ending; I did when I first read the book as I was reviewing it, and I do now, having read it a second time. To summarize what’s led up to this contentious chapter (spoilers from here on out): Invisible is mostly set in 1967 and concerns Rudolf Born, a shady and increasingly malicious man with a history of intelligence work who’s unsettled the life of Adam Walker, a Columbia University undergrad. Born has dangled a few mundane temptations involving sex and money Adam’s way, but Adam grows increasingly suspicious about his benefactor. Born’s dangerousness is confirmed when he kills an assailant on the street and (Adam believes) needlessly stabs him a dozen more times. To exact a kind of revenge, Adam attempts to derail Born’s plans to marry a woman in France. The marriage doesn’t happen, but not especially thanks to Adam’s efforts; wise to Adam’s scheming, Born pulls a few strings and has the young meddler sent back to the States.

The troublesome final pages of the book are made up of a series of diary entries by Cecile, Born’s almost-daughter-in-law, as she visits Born in his haunt on Quillia, a mythical Caribbean island. “Haunt” seems to be the appropriate word here—Born, 35 years after his run-ins with Adam, is a broken man, Kurtz-like in his isolation, living in a stone house on top of a mount. It takes an hour to reach the place on foot; as if to stress its otherworldliness, the place is called Moon Hill. Born has lost none of his imperiousness, but Cecile tells us he’s turned ugly: He has:

a great medicine ball of a stomach now, a with most of the hair gone from his head, his skull reminded me of a volleyball. A ridiculous image, I know, but the mind is always churning forth its quirky nonsense, and that was what I saw when he stood up and approached me: a man composed of two spheres, a medicine ball and a volleyball. He is much bigger, then, but not whalelike, not blubbery or drooping with flab—just large.

Ridiculous indeed: Born claims to be “in perfect health,” proposes marriage to Cecile (whom he hasn’t contacted in more than 30 years), suggests she help write a fictionalized version of his memoirs, all but says he had her father killed, and sings the praises of the Cold War. Repulsed, Cecile gets out quick; annoyed, a few readers wondered why this story couldn’t resolve less absurdly. But I don’t think Auster’s goal was ever to bring Born’s evil to some sort of clean resolution—he just wants to stress its persistence, and make Born an allegory for modern-day imperialism and war-mongering without being too noisy about it. “War is the purest, most vivid expression of the human soul,” Born says very early in the novel, and Invisible is a surreal, noirish vision of what happens to a person who truly believes such a thing.

So the stranger the better, but the strangeness of Invisible‘s closing pages are in keeping with the increasing grotesqueness of Born’s character. By the end, he’s gleeful at the prospect of mass death:

Drowned cities, obliterated continents, the end of everything. You’ll still be alive, Cecile. You’ll get to see it happen, and then you’ll drown. You’ll drown with all the others, all the billions of others, and that will be the end. How I envy you, Cecile. You’ll be there to see the end of everything.

How much more contemptuous can somebody get than to cheer on the end of the world? Had Born made such proclamations in the early pages of the novel, Invisible would be an immediate turnoff; who wants to read a novel about somebody so sociopathic? But Auster gets to that point carefully. To say that war is the purest expression of the human soul isn’t particularly appealing either, but it’s an intriguing worldview—one that pulls us in as much as it does Adam. When we first meet Born, we’re stand-ins for Adam, sucked in and eager to know more. By the end we’re stand-ins for Cecile, wise to Born’s warped vision, and eager to escape it. That’s a clean ending, for Auster or anybody else.

Links: Unstructured Play

Robert Coover: “A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”

Visiting the Orlando house where Jack Kerouac drafted The Dharma Bums.

Is blogging dying? (via) When people say this it’s a safe bet that what’s really being said is, “Blogging is dead as a way to make money.”

A reference librarian at Gallaudet University, a premier school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., on the deaf protagonist of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness—or at least muteness—appears to be a device that allows him to work as a “blank slate” on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses—or lack thereof—to their needs.”

Tales from Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn lair.

Rachel Syme asks what would constitute a revival of 90s books. You could make a small shelf of what you might call alt-rock lit, including Pagan Kennedy‘s The Exes; Bruce ThomasThe Big Wheel, a roman a clef about his bandmate Elvis Costello; and, of course, Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity, increasingly an artifact from the time when record stores were cultural hubs.

Nelson Algren to a student: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.” Related: Chicago magazine’s Whet Moser unearths a 1988 feature on Algren chronicling his last days in Sag Harbor, where he lived—not particularly happily—in the orbit of Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Friedan.

[Paul] Auster has even published six of his novels in Danish before they appeared in his native English.”

Victoria Best writes on how Willa Cather‘s books were co-opted by critics for their own purposes, and adds some excellent additional thoughts on the role of the critic in general.

Mark McGurl versus Elif Batuman on MFA programs, with additional thoughts from D.G. Myers and Seth Abramson. Questions of historical accuracy and needless snark aside, I’m struck by this bit from McGurl: “[P]art of my motive for adopting this position [that postwar fiction is the richest and most multifaceted body of fiction available], at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn’t hate us? What’s up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.” McGurl later expresses actual respect and admiration for the stuff, but to say you like something because it is “rhetorically strategic” to, even in part, seems disingenuous. (I haven’t read The Program Era, so I don’t know if that attitude works its way into the pages of the book itself.)

Richard Ford: “Michigan is the place we think of when we think about work in America. It’s where people stick a thermometer when they want to take the temperature of the economy and understand how people are getting along.” Recommendations of great Michigan fiction welcome. (via)

David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech inspired many of the graduates who were there. It may have done a little something for Mel Gibson too.

Links: So Much for That

Wendy Lesser: “[T]he literary critics I really care about are mostly dead.”

In response to my post last week about The Late American Novel, Frank Wilson questions my supposition that readers look to novels for validation of their feelings. “I certainly don’t read them to validate my feelings about anything, if only because I feel no need to validate my feelings. I read them to be transported to an interesting place where interesting things are taking place.”* Fair point, but, still, what makes those novels interesting? About ten years ago I heard Robert Christgau say something on a panel that I’ve always kept in the back in my head: “A great song can’t tell you something you don’t already know.” (That’s a paraphrase; I doubt he’d use a double negative, even casually on a panel.) The surfaces of a song, novel, movie, poem, whatever, always have the capacity to surprise us—it’s why we never tire of new ones. But ultimately each of those songs, novels, movies, poems, whatevers, are hitting something that feels familiar.

Jennifer Egan‘s next project is “a novel about the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.”

Lionel Shriver‘s next book is The New Republic, a novel about terrorism inspired by the time she spent living in Northern Ireland. She wrote the book in 1998 but couldn’t attract a publisher then: “[A]t that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript—none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11. Plus they didn’t give two hoots about Northern Ireland—I’d start talking about Northern Ireland and they’d fall asleep. Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.”

Dale Peck: “[I]t’s my sense that there are talented writers out there who are more concerned with reputation and how that translates into sales than they are concerned with what they are actually putting on the page.”

Hilton Als delivers a thoughtful consideration of James M. Cain‘s work, though the best line in it actually comes from Luc Sante, who called The Postman Always Rings Twice “a prose poem hallucinated from a potboiler.”

Please don’t assume that Suri Hustvedt‘s new novel, about a woman abandoned by her husband, has anything to do with her real-life husband, Paul Auster.

Longtime music critic Tom Moon exposes his own work to criticism, and finds the current reviewing landscape wanting. Many of his concerns are applicable to book reviewing, for instance: “Do I often lean too much on the supplied materials, on the ‘story’ as it is offered up by a publicist? To a degree, that’s inevitable, especially with a high-profile artist. I think, though, that it’s important to strive for some original insight to balance that out. This doesn’t have to be a superlong essay, just a passage or two that anticipates the reader’s question about what happens inside the work—how it sounds, the emotional landscape it strives for, etc. It can be enormously challenging to write those kinds of descriptions, but often it’s that kind of writing that sparks curiosity in readers.”

Newsweek considers novelists who keep at it well after they’re capable of producing good work. Most of the examples cited are thriller authors, who are more often obligated to turn out new works on a regular basis; plenty of exceptions abound, of course.

Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1984 novel, Slow Fade, will be reissued this year in book form and as an audiobook read by Will Oldham. (via)

Does the New York Times paywall mean we’ll get an Amazon Book Review? That sound you hear is me shaking a Magic 8-Ball where all the answers are “Doubtful.”

* My heart lifted a bit to learn that Wilson’s link is appended with the four-word parenthetical, “(Hat tip, Dave Lull).” I know Lull only as an intrepid and knowledgeable gatherer of relevant book-related links, though (to the best of my knowledge) he doesn’t blog himself. To be included among his gleanings is high praise indeed.

Links: Last Words

You likely don’t need to hear one more commentary about the Huckleberry Finn foofaraw, but consider reading Jon Clinch‘s, as somebody who spent a lot of time attempting to inhabit Twain’s world in his 2007 novel, Finn.

What happened to the literary prodigy Barbara Follett? (via)

Granta‘s 1983 “Dirty Realism” issue, which featured stories by Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Angela Carter, and many more, is claimed as the best single issue of a literary magazine ever. (via)

Two editors discuss their discovery of three previously undocumented Zora Neale Hurston stories.

Toward a complete guide to Dashiell Hammett‘s Baltimore haunts.

On the growth of David Foster Wallace studies.

Richard Ford on his home state, where he’s returning to teach: “I think the state, in the hands and eyes of its writers, has a lot that needs to be explained. Writers are imaginative explainers. There’s a lot of received wisdom, history, a lot of drama in the fabric that is Mississippi that could be seen not to make a whole lot of sense.”

Why Paul Theroux will not be writing an autobiography.

The National Book Critics Circle gathers up some recommendations for books that should be back in print; I put in for Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a novel I wrote about here last spring.

“[T]he relation of literary production to social inequality has changed, and it is that relation, or was that relation, and that relation only, that constituted African American Literature.”

Paul Auster is a potato, not a tropical flower. Allow him to explain:

Links: Closing the Books

A list of my ten favorite books of 2010 is up at Washington City Paper, along with some prefatory notes about my frustration with many of the year’s “big” novels. You should do one of the nation’s finest alternative weeklies the kindness of your clicking on the link, but if you’re eager to cut to the chase, here’s the list:

1. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
2. James Hynes, Next
3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
4. Ander Monson, Vanishing Point
5. Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
6. Paul Auster, Sunset Park
7. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
8. Stephen O’Connor, Here Comes Another Lesson
9. Mark Slouka, Essays From the Nick of Time
10. John D’Agata, About a Mountain

I filed the piece in early December, and since then I’ve come across a few titles that would make me consider retooling the list. Two deserve special attention. Stanford literary scholar Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings is an uproarious collection of personal essays that generally deal with such unliterary topics as shelter mags and Art Pepper, but mostly with a focus on the author herself (particularly in the extended title essay), and she never loses her intellectual rigor even at her most willfully unserious and self-deprecating. And Paul Murray‘s novel about life at an Irish private school, Skippy Dies, artfully merged the rich humor that emerges only when 14-year-olds are sniping at each other with the kind of pathos that emerges only when 14-year-olds are being themselves—which is to say, seeing a transformative moment in nearly every interaction. The very bulk of Skippy Dies somewhat wrecks my thesis about being frustrated with big books. But my main complaint about the year’s doorstoppers is that they were built on a punishing number of archetypes; a few of those creep into Skippy Dies too, but the boys and girls it chronicles are generally unburdened of such baggage.

A few more notes and links before we close out the year:

The Chicago Sun-Times gathered up a host of suggestions for its year-end books feature, in which I also recommended Li.

Not on my list: David ShieldsReality Hunger, but for Jim Hanas it raised two very good questions: “1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?” (via)

Luc Sante on reviewing Shields: “When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book.”

Another book I’ve read over the holiday break is Robert Alter‘s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which investigates commonalities of style between the King James Bible and the works of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter’s discussion of the King James Bible’s influence on the latter three authors isn’t as convincing as I’d like, and as David E. Anderson writes, “his basic case, that the King James Bible determined ‘the foundational language and symbolic imagery’ of the wider American culture, has not been made.” But he registers a spirited defense of reading an author through his or her style instead of through theory.

Speaking of Bellow, Andrew O’Hagan writes of his Letters: “they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I recommend Charles Baxter‘s forthcoming omnibus collection of short stories, Gryphon, which comes out next month. He answers a few questions at Fictionaut. (via) And at Lapham’s Quarterly, he considers P.T. Barnum‘s autobiography, a “rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods.”

Ruth Franklin has a few thoughtful reading resolutions for 2011.

A brief history of the novel-long sentence.

Cynthia Haven laments the absence of Menlo Park’s Kepler’s on a recent list of the country’s best U.S. bookstores. I’ve never been, but I can second her recommendation of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about the death of the independent bookstore in which Kepler’s is prominently featured.

A host of writers are organizing a benefit on February 6 to help the family of Beautiful Children author Charles Bock, whose wife, Diana Colbert, is hospitalized with leukemia. Various big-name authors will put their services up for auction; Gary Shteyngart, for instance, will “buy you a hot dog and flatter the pants off you.” You needn’t be in New York (or wish to have a famous author buy you a hot dog) to make a donation. (via)

“Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it’s no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go,” a publishing consultant tells the Los Angeles Times in a story about how publishers’ gatekeeping status is eroding—though the examples the story cites are all authors who did well enough thanks to those gatekeepers that they can afford to reject that model and shift to one more to their liking. Unknown authors can do it too, yes, but it’s a lot of work, and tends to lead back to those “gatekeepers” (which, again, is not a four-letter word). More from Mike Cane.

On the key distinction between American fiction set in the east and the west.

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cane author Jean Toomer was a black man passing as white, “running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited.”

Michael Chabon talks with the Atlantic about his Fountain City excerpt in McSweeney’s.

If you’re here intentionally, you likely already have heard that Arts & Letters Daily creator Denis Dutton has died. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has a succinct appreciation that gets at why the site mattered.

A win-win situation: The Washington Post reports on a new collaboration between libraries and publishers in which libraries get advance copies of young-adult books and readers deliver feedback on them to the publishers. According to the Post story, the young readers enjoy the thrill of getting hold of books before they go on sale, and what’s more it cultivates an enthusiasm for critical thinking and reviewing. Wait, scratch that: “[T]he dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book’s cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher’s Web site.”

And that’ll do it for me for 2010. Thank you for reading, commenting, and generally helping me be a better reader in the past year. See you in 2011.

Links: Running Numbers

Aimee Bender: “I think a lot of writers do think mathematically, actually, because fiction, a made-up world, requires a lot of working through of logic. So it’s a kind of math, on the page, using words. A word problem, of sorts.”

The legal squabbling over Katherine Anne Porter‘s estate drags on.

Olga Grushin on The Line: This is not just any community; it’s a community that forms in the face of repression. On some basic level, this story, of hoping, of waiting, could have been set anywhere—say, waiting in line to audition for “The American Idol”—but the Soviet setting allowed me to explore additional aspects of oppression, danger and trust, and how the darkest times can bring out the worst and the best in ordinary people.

What is Southern lit? I don’t know. You get knocked down. Black holes burnt into a map. There is moss and gonorrhea. You scramble back up but don’t know your mind. What you were was it worth reaching fer? You can’t tell your Bad Faith actions from your authentic mind. It’s all a low fog, over soybean fields and the jawbone of a deer.” (This riff reminded me of George Singleton‘s comic short story “Which Rocks We Choose” [PDF excerpt], which sends up some of Southern culture’s best-loved cliches.)

In a Daily Rumpus email, Stephen Elliott talks about Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes with Tobias Wolff: “‘It was a writer’s book,’ Tobias said. We decided that it was better than a book that makes a big splash. Better to write a book that people are still reading 40 years later. He said Exley’s other books weren’t quite as good. Some of them were very good, but not quite to the level of A Fan’s Notes. It’s a hard well to return to. How does one write another book like that?”

Jonathan Franzen on putting current events in Freedom: “I had to cut the noise down by 99 percent, and just let that one percent trickle in.” A necessary literary strategy if you’re writing for posterity, or just evasive?

Yesterday I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program to discuss the National Book Awards and the upset win of Jaimy Gordon‘s racetrack novel, Lord of Misrule. (More on that book soon.) Asked to suggest a couple of books the NBA judges might have considered short-listing, I put in for Yiyun Li‘s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and James HynesNext. National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum gently noted that Li wouldn’t have qualified because she’s an American resident but not a citizen. He also noted that the foundation is giving some thought to breaking up the awards’ nonfiction category into smaller ones such as memoir, history, etc. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens, though I can’t imagine they’ll go as hog-wild with multiple categories as they did in the early 80s.

Adam Langer: “You could probably view the history of invention in storytelling as having begun all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Eve said ‘Apple? What do you mean, apple? I didn’t eat any apple.’ But, in that case, if Eve was the first fake memoirist, then it might be useful to point out that the first literary critic was a snake.”

“The majority of [Mary] Gaitskill’s lecture focused on something that creative writing courses tend to shy away from, considering that it cannot really be taught: the question of unseeable content, the form under the plot, ‘the deeper quality, the unconscious soul,’ the ‘inner weaving of a story that you can’t read—you have to feel,’ as Gaitskill put it.”

Stephen O’Connor on how he came to write the brilliant, peculiar story “Ziggurat.”

On David Foster Wallace‘s ill-fated attempt to balance a serious pursuit of philosophy and writing The Broom of the System.

Curtis Sittenfeld: “I think in general, novels by men tend to be taken more seriously than novels by women. But I also think that novels being taken seriously is kind of a nebulous concept. I mean, what does that mean? Getting multiple reviews in the New York Times? Personally, I have never wished I were a male novelist.”

Gish Jen:

Paul Auster: “All my stories are about America, they’re impregnated with American history, American literature. But… people care little about books, there’s no book culture here.”

Ed Park reviews the Chicago Manual of Style as if it were a postmodern novel.

Guess that settles it: “It is questionable whether Franny and Zooey is even a classic at all considering Wikipedia does not list it as a notable Salinger work.”

Links: Dead Tongues

Marilynne Robinson: “If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you.”

Pushcart Prize founder Bill Henderson remains optimistic about small presses and literary magazine.

Paul Auster: “I believe that the whole idea of the consumer society is tottering. We’ve kept ourselves going by producing more and more goods, most of which people don’t need. I’m anti-consumerism; I own four pairs of black Levis and that’s it.”

However outdated its notions about psychotherapy might be, Millen Brand‘s 1937 novel, The Outward Room, is worth revisiting.

“I don’t think [Jonathan Franzen] was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans’ own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

This nonsense about how “[dead writer] would never use Twitter and Facebook” needs to stop.

Rick Moody on parenthood and home.

“Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment…”

In praise of Leonard Michaels‘ Nachman stories.

An excellent interview with Boston Globe literary critic Katherine A. Powers (J.F. Powers‘ daughter), covering Charles Portis, rereading, short stories, fiction in translation, and her admirably simple metric for a book’s success: “When I think of the novels I really like, I can think of only one thing that unites them: their authors proved trustworthy, that is, my suspension of disbelief was not betrayed.”

“The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.”

Lastly, it’s off this blog’s chosen beat, but I had run catching up with Salman Rushdie‘s work while working on my review of his new children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life, for the New York Times Book Review. Being a new father may have more kindly attuned me to it, but I suspect I’d recommend it regardless.