Category Archives: Paul Auster

Fathers and Sons

My review of Paul Auster‘s new novel, Sunset Park, is up at the Barnes & Noble Review. I’ve seen a few articles and comments about the book that suggest the novel is a kind of commentary on the foreclosure crisis, which seems sensible enough: The book’s main character, Miles, begins the novel “trashing out” abandoned homes in Florida and later moves into a squat in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Auster’s books have a way of containing multitudes, so it’s a fair way to read the novel. But Auster ultimately doesn’t have as much to say about the housing crisis as he does about the meaning of “home.” As I was reading Sunset Park, I kept thinking that the book didn’t resonate so much with his recent novels like as they do with his autobiographical writing—where, much as in Sunset Park, he’s trying to sort his disconnection from his father, and what it means to be part of a family when that disconnection persists. So:

It’s not unusual for Auster to litter his novels with personal detail, of course. But Sunset Park isn’t another self-referential puzzle: its power derives from how intensely its characters look into themselves and their pasts—worriedly, regretfully—in a manner that evokes the heartfelt, introspective tone of Auster’s memoirs. In Solitude, Hand to Mouth, and The Red Notebook he addressed matters of maturity and family with a directness that rarely emerges in his fiction, where he’s done his moral workouts in the context of steely Pomo eccentricities: the noirish riffing of The New York Trilogy, the dog’s-eye-view of Timbuktu, the absurdist Travels in the Scriptorium, the stories-within-stories of Oracle Night and last year’s Invisible. Sunset Park isn’t “autobiographical” so much as it’s borne of the same confessional spirit Auster has brought to his nonfiction.

Reviews of the novel generally appear mixed—if not downright dismissive in England. But I think Auster has written three of his best novels in the past few years (Man in the Dark, Invisible, and Sunset Park), and the new one reveals a depth of emotion that Auster hasn’t often allowed himself.

Links: The Interrogative Mood

I’m doing some traveling over the next few days, which means my internet access will be a little haphazard through late next week. So, the usual Friday links post arrives a day early….

Jonathan Franzen‘s alma mater digs up his 2005 commencement address, which reminds us why he became a novelist in the first place: “I thought I might want to be an investigative journalist. I volunteered for The Phoenix, and I got assigned to investigate why the College’s housekeepers didn’t belong to a union. To do the story, I had to interview the College’s financial vice president, Ed Cratsley, but one of my defects as a journalist, it turned out, was that I was afraid to do interviews.”

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is ready to open this fall.

Michael R. Federspiel is the author of a new coffee-table book on the Ernest Hemingway‘s childhood and adolescent experiences in Michigan, which inspired The Nick Adams Stories. “In some ways, I think, fame corrupted him,” Federspiel says. “He lost the better person that he might have been in Michigan.”

A few common-sense suggestions about improving the quality of book reviews. (The focus is on reviews in academic journals, but the points apply to general-interest publications too.)

And Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips on the complex role the daily newspaper critic has to play in the midst of ever-shrinking word counts and alleged irrelevance. (via)

How Paul Auster‘s Invisible turned one Auster-hater around. (My own experience was somewhat similar, though Man in the Dark is the book that firmly pushed me into the pro-Auster camp.)

E.L. Doctorow, introducing America: Now and Here, a collaborative project involving visual artists, poets, musicians and playwrights addressing post-9/11 America: “Under these circumstances, our art, literature and music, all of which comes up from the bottom, uncensored, unfiltered, unrequested—the artists of whatever medium always coming out of nowhere—does tell us that something is firm and enduring after all in a country given to free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate.” (Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes a moment to swoon over a passage in Doctorow’s short story “Edgemont Drive.”)

Production of the film version of On the Road is underway—in Montreal.

I loved Matthew Sharpe‘s 2007 satire of New World colonization, Jamestown, so it pains me to say that his new novel, You Were Wrong, is a clunker. But your mileage may vary, and his list of favorite music covers for the Times‘ Paper Cuts blog is a fun read.

Remembering the contretemps over Lolita, published in the United States 54 years ago.

Ted Gioia delivers a thoughtful consideration of Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday.

I’m not sure how I heard about Elif Batuman‘s 2006 n+1 essay “Short Story & Novel: American Writing Today”—it may be that August is silly season, so more articles than usual about the decline of American literature have circulated on Twitter. At any rate, Batuman’s piece is very funny and informed, and some of her complaints about the all-too-carefully-machined stories she finds in fiction anthologies are spot-on. Still, I wonder if part of the Batuman’s frustration with short stories stemmed from the way she consumed them—gobbling down the 2004 and 2005 Best American Short Stories anthologies. It’s an unnatural, homeworky way of processing a lot of different authors in one place, and anthologies have a way of highlighting irritating authors’ commonalities instead of distinctions. (At least, that’s why I pretty much gave up on tackling them after reading the 2007 New Stories From the South anthology.)

Tom Grimes: “The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached.”

Inspirational Verse

In a work of fiction, one assumes there is a conscious mind behind the words on the page. In the presence of happenings in the so-called real world, one assumes nothing. The made-up story consists entirely of meanings, whereas the story of fact is devoid of any significance beyond itself. If a man says to you, “I’m going to Jerusalem,” you think to yourself: how nice, he’s going to Jerusalem. But if a character in a novel were to speak those same words, “I’m going to Jerusalem,” your response is not at all the same. You think, to begin with, of Jerusalem itself: its history, it religious role, its function as a mythical place. You would think of the past, of the present (politics; which is also to think of the recent past), and of the future—as in the phrase: “Next year in Jerusalem.” On top of that you would integrate those thoughts into whatever it is you already know about the character who is going to Jerusalem and use this new synthesis to draw further conclusions, refine perceptions, think more cogently about the book as a whole. And then, once the work is finished, the last page read and the book closed, interpretations begin: psychological, historical, sociological, structural, philological, religious, sexual, philosophical, either singly or in various combinations, depending on your bent. Although it is possible to interpret a real life according to any of these systems (people do, after all, go to priests and psychiatrists; people do sometimes try to understand their lives in terms of historical conditions), it does not have the same effect. Something is missing: the grandeur, the grasp of the general, the illusion of metaphysical truth.

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude

Links: Kiddin’ on the Keys

Jason Hartley reviews page 86 of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad: “Later, Stephanie and Bennie have gin and tonics, while watching fireflies and listening to a pianist playing ‘harmless melodies on a shining upright.’ … I find the word harmless a strange choice; is it a value judgment? Should a pianist play harmful melodies while people have cocktails? Is there even such a thing as a harmful melody?” I’m probably wrong, but I think that in the context of the critical theory Hartley helped invent, Hartley is being Overt; more on this Sunday.

Paul Auster‘s City of Glass is 25.

David Means on how even short-story collections that aren’t linked are still…linked: “As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity.”

A lengthy profile of The Taqwacores author Michael Muhammad Knight in the Abu Dhabi National.

Adam Langer recalls the deep imprint Beverly Cleary‘s books had on him.

Barbara Kingsolver: “My inspiration comes from living in the world and seeing things that aggravate me to the back of my teeth or sing for joy.”

Some pushback on the Gary Shteyngart hype (note the comments as well).

Chicago crime novelist Marcus Sakey on the anxiety-inducing but curiously predicable process of writing a novel.

The Wall Street Journal talks with Rick Moody about Kurt Vonnegut‘s reputation, music, New York, and the “old-fashioned, big long story.”

Vendela Vida on the Believer, which she edits: “I think a lot of the people who like The Believer are people who will always be devoutly attached to the physical object of the magazine.”

I’m still conducting email Q&As with literary websites for the National Book Critics Circle blog: Interviews with Three Percent and Open Letters Monthly are now up. More coming; if you have suggestions for sites to cover, please let me know. (Simple criteria: I’m looking for online publications that are committed in some way to regularly reviewing and covering books, and use multiple contributors to do so.)

Reading About a Writer Like a Writer

In a funny, thoughtful piece for the Smart Set, Nick Mamatas considers his obsession with literary biographies, and how he uses them as a benchmark for his own successes and failures as a writer. “Did Nathanael West only make $780 in royalties?” he writes. “Gee, me too. And if Lovecraft got a penny and a half per word out of Weird Tales, I managed five cents a word from that same magazine only 77 years later.” The piece isn’t just an exercise in self-deprecation, though: He uncovers a handful of common themes among the biographies he’s read, including alcoholism (of course), involvement in the Communist Party, and financial struggle.*

Mamatas is slightly less enchanted with writers’ memoirs, though that’s mainly because he seems to have lousy luck in choosing them: If Gay Talese and Larry McMurtry have trouble staying on point, there are plenty of other writers who are less prone to ramble. In the past few months I’ve enjoyed biographies of Raymond Carver, Evelyn Waugh, Pearl S. Buck, Richard Wright, and Nathanael West and Eileen Kenney (that last one would be Marion Meade‘s Lonelyhearts, which has taken a bit of a beating from critics, somewhat unfairly I think). But I don’t share Mamatas’ obsession with them, partly for the reasons he lays out: Those common themes can be so easily categorized because the books often feel like they’re more about those outside forces than the writer under discussion. Lonelyhearts is about the Great Depression, and how one might live well during it; Carver’s biography is about alcoholism and the vicissitudes of the publishing industry in the 70s and 80s; Buck’s is about Americans’ willful ignorance about China; Waugh’s is about the last gasp of Victorianism among its wealthy, freewheeling, homophobic classes. All worthy subjects, but they often obscure the more essential question of how the writer felt about being a writer.

That’s part of the appeal of David Lipsky‘s transcription of his 1996 road trip with David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: It’s as close as we’ll ever come to a memoir from Wallace. But because he’s so careful about how his words might be manipulated into a glowing or critical profile, he talks himself into a sincerity he might not have come by if he was free to manipulate the words on a computer. As Wallace tells Lipsky, “I got a serious investment in having a certain amount of detachment from this.” He’s stage-managing his persona, but to the end of avoiding hagiography or tragic narrative.

Of course, biographers can quote heavily from writers talking about their own writing. But they can’t capture the author’s feelings of fear, excitement, and desperation in a way that echoes the writer’s own work. Whoever winds up writing Paul Auster‘s biography will quote heavily from his memoir, Hand to Mouth, but nothing will conjure up Auster’s absurd anxiety about selling his first book quite like the book itself. Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking isn’t strictly a memoir of her life as a writer, but it has plenty of moments that show the precision with which she approached it. Going over the first article she wrote after her husband’s death, “I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong…. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?”

The book doesn’t have to be a memoir, strictly speaking, to show something of the author. The charm of Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer has as much to do with her personal remembrances as her close readings of stories and novels. On the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Prose suffered a long wait at a bus station, followed by a tedious bus ride. But then she sank into the copy of Anton Chekhov‘s stories she brought along:

I never had to read more than a page or two before I began to think that maybe things weren’t so bad. The stories were not only profound and beautiful, but also involving, so that I would finish one and find myself, miraculously, a half hour or so closer to home. And yet there was more than the distraction, the time so painlessly and pleasantly spent. A sense of comfort came over me, as if in those thirty minutes I myself had been taken up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own and aslo a world full of promise. It was if I had been permitted to share an intelligence large enough to embrace bus drivers and bus station junkies, a vision so piercing it would have kept seeing those astronauts long after that fiery plume disappeared from the screen.

Passages like that make me think that not only is a biography of Prose unnecessary, but that Prose herself needn’t write a formal memoir. Sometimes the only thing we’re really hunting for when we read about writers is what it’s like to be consumed in the business of reading and writing—the moment when all those allegedly important outside forces are pushed out. Those are the only moments when Prose thinks a writer is interesting, and she can convince you that she’s right.

* Mamatas’ piece also mentions Harry Mark Petrakis, who represents one of the more embarrassing gaps in my reading. Like me, he was raised in the Chicago area and is a Greek-American; moreover, as a kid, my parents’ bookshelves were stuffed with copies of Petrakis’ books. I never cracked the spines of a single one of them. Growing up, you never care about the things your parents care about.

Links: AST Company

Responses to the closing of Kirkus Reviews:

Horn Book editor Roger Sutton on the magazine’s children’s book coverage: “What Kirkus did was to treat books for children and adults the same in the same publication.”

Carolhoda Books editorial director Andrew Karre: “[T]here is no circumstance under which no review would have been preferable” to a negative one.

Washington City Paper‘s Mike Riggs: “[T]he Web is peopled with shit-talkers, and most of them do for free what Kirkus charged money for (bad reviews)…. Kirkus was a check against the site’s near-unregulated comment policy.” I attempted to bestow the acronym AST (“Amazon shit-talker”) in the comment thread to that post, arguing that anonymous reviews on Amazon aren’t cut from the same cloth as Kirkus reviews. (Of course, I have a dog in this hunt, and I’m a former City Paper staffer.) Author Joni Rodgers stepped in to argue that critics who write negative reviews are assholes, I lost it a little, and Rodgers proceeded to modify her argument slightly to say that critics who don’t like a book should just shut up about it. All of which may say something about the value of comment threads. At any rate, Rodgers has expanded on her thinking in a blog post, and though she says nice things about me in it, her arguments about Kirkus and book reviewing are no more fact-based or sensible.

Onward:

For the next five days, you can hear BBC’s radio play of Joshua Ferris‘ novel, And Then We Came to the End.

The London Review of BooksChristopher Tayler, like many critics, figures that Paul Auster hasn’t been the same writer in the past ten years. He has a theory about why.

Technology is destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

In related news, technology is really destroying authors’ willingness and capacity to write big, ambitious novels.

Need more proof? Andre Aciman‘s son is one of the authors of Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.

Heroes of American Literature #19: Lillian Hellman.

Roger Ebert assembles a batch of Charles Bukowski-related videos.

Ray Bradbury‘s best efforts to save a Ventura, California, library failed.

John Updike‘s Rabbit, Run turns 50 next year. The John Updike Society is using the anniversary as an opportunity to launch its first conference next year.

Kurt Vonnegut: “You’ll never make a living at being a writer. Hell you may even die trying. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. You should write for the same reasons you should take dancing lessons. For the same reason you should learn what fork to use at a fancy dinner. For the same reason you need to see the world. It’s about grace.”

Bad Awards

Last week the Literary Review announced its nominees for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which seems to have prompted some ritualistic mea culpas. John Banville, who’s been on the shortlist before, smirkingly suggested he ought never write about sex again; writing in the Telegraph, previous nominee Iain Hollingshead is candid about his own experience being on the list. “Writing about sex is generally more technical, and certainly a lot less fun, than having it,” he writes. “Either you descend into flowery metaphor or you indulge in the ‘naming of parts.'”

But that’s a concern with any kind of writing, no? Writers, especially fiction writers, constantly run the risk of either looking like they’re showing off or making their writing feel dead on the page. I’ve read only two of the books on the shortlist, Philip Roth‘s The Humbling and Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, enjoyed both, and didn’t feel either was a lesser work because of some howlingly bad sex scene. This may mean only that I have a tin ear for that sort of thing, but I’m comfortable figuring that the scenes worked just fine within their contexts. The Humbling is about an aging man in the midst of an unusual sexual reawakening—of course any sex scene is going to convey a feeling of awkwardness.

Among the problems with the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards is its implication that that sex is the worst thing a fiction writer could screw up. The ways a writer can screw up are legion; as I read, I tend to note badly written passages by scribbling the word “ugh.” Below, a few passages that made my heart sink from 2009 books:

Bad Attempt at Monologue Jokes by Late-Night Talk Show Hosts Award:

So science has finally discovered that happiness is mostly inherited. But just remember these are the guys who discovered that sterility may be inherited…. It’s interesting that, for some reason, the happiness genes aren’t particularly widespread. Not as widespread as, say, the obesity gene. Now the obesity gene: talk about wide spread

Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement

Bad Small Talk Award

“You know, ” Isabelle commented by way of introduction, “before you start cooking with me, I should tell you, I am losing my way, these days.”

Erica Bauermeister, The School of Essential Ingredients

Bad Union Caricature Award:

“I can get you all fixed up and install a proper system, but I can’t fix that old gal. I can even give you some heat while I’m doing it. It’ll take a little longer that way but I don’t charge union wages. And I don’t do union work neither—I do the job right.”

“How much?” Mrs. D asked.

“About sixteen grand. that’s for as sweet a boiler you ever seen included, and all the fittings. And all I charge is ten percent over cost for the materials. I don’t have my hand down everyone’s pockets, not like them union bosses with their diamond pinkie rings and their shivery smiles, all teeth.”

Marjorie Kernan, The Ballad of West Tenth Street

Bad Strategy to Build Dramatic Energy by Listing All the Ways One Might Die Award:

Death by drowning, death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by bullet would, death by wooden stake, death by tunnel rat, death by bazooka, death by poison arrow, death by pipe bomb, death by piranha, death by food poisoning, death by Kalashnikov, death by RPG, death by best friend, death by syphilis, death by sorrow, death by hypothermia, death by quicksand, death by tracer, death by thrombosis, death by water torture, death by trip wire, death by pool cure, death by Russian roulette, death by punji trap, death by opiate….

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

Bad Journalist Award:

Sarah looked into his eyes. He was a congressman. He was a source. But not that much of a source anymore. She had already gotten into trouble twice for sleeping with the wrong men. But he felt just right, at least for now.

Leonard Downie Jr., The Rules of the Game

—–

My review of Paul Auster‘s new novel, Invisible, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It starts this way:

Relatively early in Paul Auster’s new novel, one of its narrators says that “any writer who feels he is standing on safe ground is unlikely to produce anything of value.” True enough, Invisible (Henry Holt, $25) is a book whose value is a function of its riskiness.

Auster’s readers will be familiar with some of the chances he takes, like the deliberately confused identities and stories within stories, and here they’re so smoothly deployed they feel more like pulp-fiction reveals than metafictional gimmicks. But Auster’s real daring in Invisible is in his study of morality, which covers a lot of ugly, unsettling territory: murder, psychological abuse, physical exploitation and, not least, incest.