The Solitude of Invention

Paul Auster, one of America’s most enigmatic literary figures, has opened up about his life in a new memoir. Now he opens his front door.

by Stacey Kors Published Fall 2012
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“So many of these people have a point of view, a position, and are trying to articulate this position by using me as an example. But I myself, living within myself, never try to put labels on what I do. I just follow my nose.

“I’m a man of contradictions, you know; I can’t say any one thing about myself. Yes,” he says with a laugh, “I’m the hunger artist who likes to eat.”

“I was absolutely burned out from the experience. I haven’t been able to write any fiction since.”

Like every writer, Auster has his detractors; his, however, are unusually vicious. In 2009, with the publication of his novel Invisible, Auster received two particularly blistering, high-profile condemnations. In the New Yorker, James Wood began his lengthy critique with a parody of Auster’s writing that gave it as much stylistic credit as a dime-store thriller, and a bad one. Wood then mercilessly dissected what he viewed as Auster’s jumble of repetitive themes, implausible coincidences, hackneyed phrases, and lack of irony. The result, concluded Wood, is often “the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism.” In the New Statesman, critic Leo Robson bemoaned Auster’s predictability, going so far as to create a checklist of Austerian tropes: “Dead child? Check. A book-within-a-book? Check. Dying or widowed narrator? Double-check.”

In general, Auster doesn’t bother responding to his critics. “I know there are people who hate what I do and people who love what I do,” he says. But he wants readers to understand that his work is more straightforward than often perceived.

“I’m not trying to manipulate anything,” he says. “I’m just trying to represent the world as I’ve experienced it. That’s what my books are: a representation of what I feel about the world and how I’ve observed the mechanics of reality, which are very befuddling. The unforeseen is crashing in on us all the time. One minute you’re walking along the street, and the next minute a car hits you. I mean, my daughter, Sophie, was hit by a car a couple of months ago. She’s fine, but she could have just as easily been killed. These things happen every day in real life. So why shouldn’t novels have them?

“I think what critics forget is that I started as a poet,” he says, “and I still feel that I’m a poet. I don’t feel that I’m writing novels in the way other people are writing novels. I think of myself more as a poet-storyteller than a novelist.”

While not a justification for the shortcomings in his novels that have been pointed out by critics — no matter how unusual his approach, the end result remains a novel — it does help to explain the wildly divergent opinions about his fiction, the curious inconsistency of his language, and why millions of readers the world over have such a powerful, almost visceral, response to his work.

Through the years, the majority of complaints about Auster’s books have concerned the basic building blocks of a novel’s structure, such as plot and character development, and clichéd language, especially in dialogue. (Would a Swiss history professor, however sinister, ever say, “Your ass will be so cooked, you won’t be able to sit down again for the rest of your life”?) His protagonists rarely come with much backstory, their scant biographies largely lifted from Auster’s own life: they study at Columbia, travel to Paris, write poetry or fiction, obsess over baseball, and bear scars from dysfunctional families. He rarely offers more than a sketch of their physical appearance. And yet, we know their inner lives so well: their thoughts, their desires, their struggles, their solitude and suffering. We may not know where they came from, but we want to know where they’re headed.

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