let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: the book of illusions (paul auster)

one would think i'd be more familiar with paul auster, given the hours i've logged in jane austen's corner of the fiction section (i think i might even have poked around for her in a dutch shop when i took myself to amsterdam in college) and that auster and i could be extremely distant relations (i can be terribly competitive with similarly-named people: one must rule). i was more or less unbiased, though, when his book of illusions wandered across the giveaway shelf at my office. auster's bio page made him sound fairly eminent, the new york times seemed to like him, and no one explicitly told me to set the book on fire when i mentioned it last week - so what the hell, right?

i've gotten into the habit of dog-earing the lower corners of THUNDERTOME books' pages. in auster's case, i dog-eared every page that made me embarrassed for him, and i stopped after the first dozen. according to james wood, who notes in his notorious takedown in the new yorker that book of illusions is probably auster's best,
Among modern and postmodern writers, Beckett, Nabokov, Richard Yates, Thomas Bernhard, Muriel Spark, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, and David Foster Wallace have all employed and impaled cliché in their work. Paul Auster is probably America’s best-known postmodern novelist; his “New York Trilogy” must have been read by thousands who do not usually read avant-garde fiction. Auster clearly shares this engagement with mediation and borrowedness—hence, his cinematic plots and rather bogus dialogue—and yet he does nothing with cliché except use it.
i made a point of avoiding wood until i'd finished book of illusions myself, as i wanted to give auster a fair shake - but he's absolutely right. in this fairly representative passage, for instance, professor david zimmer is narrating the morning after sleeping with a strange birthmarked woman who shows up on his stoop, pulls a gun on him and tries to force him to go to new mexico (insert new mexico joke here), then makes sweet, sweet love to him after he disarms her and nearly blows his own brains out by accident:
Neither one of us said anything about what had happened in my bedroom the night before. It sat in the car with us like a secret, like something that belonged to the domain of small rooms and nocturnal thoughts and must not be exposed to the light of day. To name it would have been to risk destroying it, and therefore we didn't go much beyond an occasional sidelong glance, a fleeting smile, a hand placed cautiously on the other's knee. How could I presume to know what Alma was thinking? I was glad that she crawled into my bed, and I was glad that we had spent those hours together in the darkness. But that was only one night, and I had no idea what what going to happen to us next.
auster makes it abundantly clear that realism isn't his bag: zimmer notes on page five that "we all want to believe in impossible things," and we're reminded constantly that he and his fellow characters are types. "although there are things to admire in auster's fiction," wood notes, "the prose is never one of them" - but auster's stock phrases are a postmodern thing as well, see, and knocking them would be unsporting.

or is it? on the CHARACTERS!-rather-than-characters front, i'm reminded of murakami, whose novels often feature an underemployed, footloose writer with a fondness for whiskey and jazz, a cat named after a fish, and a beautiful disappearing woman. i've come to love the way they feel like variations on a theme; much is forgiven, perhaps, because he's charming and foreign. he's also really good at quietly making things strange, and domesticated characters and situations have a way of going feral when your attention's elsewhere. auster's are in no danger of that: professor zimmer is the very character you think he is, he behaves exactly as you think he will, and you know just what's behind every door he opens - and where's the fun in that? auster's po-mo thing worked exactly once for me, when zimmer is flying back to the east coast and reading from a six-hundred-page wildflower compendium (weeds of the west) to distract himself from his airplane issues and the strange woman he's left behind. reader, i submit that the unadorned recitation of forty-odd scientific names ("the words had a chewy saxon thickness to them" - hey, a quasi-original descriptor!) is more emotionally significant than the aforementioned woman's twenty-page suicide fax(!) a few chapters later. a writer like updike gets my goat because he swaddles devastating prose with soft-core porn. paul auster...writes like he's mocking paul auster.

VICTOR: let the great world spin. the book of illusions is bad like a cobra.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 how d'you think the dutch feel about jane austen?

02 does etymological proximity breed contempt for you?

03 do you dog-ear your books?

04 what's the worst thing you've read this year?

*previous battle here.


Amanda said...

03 Dog-ear, write in, and throw against the wall.
04 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. F*ck you, Dave Eggers.

Katherine Cortes said...

Ha! I don't remember hating Book of Illusions, which I also got off a give-away shelf, but I do remember that this so-creepy-I-had-to-date-him-due-to-morbid-fascination guy I knew in Boston worshipped Auster, and was bent on getting me to drink that Kool-aid.

kidchamp said...

hee, amanda: a heartbreaking work was the only eggers i could stand. you liked away we go, i think, didn't you? (i have not seen it, but i suspect i'd dislike it.)

katherine, i don't quite hate it - like wood, i actually thought the part where auster made up and summarized hector mann's silent films was kind of enjoyable - but its existence puzzles me. because the cliches have no foils, the book's net vibe is aggressive ambivalence - like, i am mildly interested in conveying something if i can do it from this chair!

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: Stoked.
02: It’s the blurbs that chap me.
03: Only marginalia in light pencil.
04: The New York Trilogy. Maybe Permanent Midnight a while back.
0?: Sorry The Fates woefully foisted Auster on you; or perhaps The Furies, hastened by my votive offerings, brought about the advent of your coveted coup de grace.

enjelani said...

02 reality TV sure has made tabloid headlines fun for me lately...
03 more of a spine-cracker.
04 seem to have dodged bad reading material thus far. maybe the Supreme Court's majority position on corporate personhood? (not that i've read the primary source.)

to throw a THUNDERTOME contestant out there: just finished reading Little Bee, and wonder how it'd fare in the ring. based on This Side of Brightness (omgsobeautiful), McCann can probably dance circles around Cleave, but the scrappy Brit would put up a good fight before it was over.

kidchamp said...

why is it that that dutch are stoked about almost everything, mdf - and c'mon, a soupçon of that huge vehement condemnation? i was all intrigued.

E, i'm guessing i can scare up a copy of little bee; i'll report back when i've succeeded in summoning one from the office and/or the NYPL.

in other news, after seeing a few photos, i've decided auster is a bond villain. i shall call him dr. meh.

east side bride said...

I do not dog-ear. Sacrilege.