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Is Paul Auster Overrated?

Statue in a Recoleta park in Buenos Aires, Argentina

No doubt this question is on the forefront of everyone’s mind.  Bravely setting aside the fact that I’ve only read three of his novels, I provide a necessary and timely intervention before the controversy spirals out of control.

According to James Wood of The New Yorker, no question:

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… The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue.

I’ll summarize Auster’s most egregious crimes, according to Wood:

  • Every Paul Auster novel is exactly like every other Paul Auster novel: There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster.”

True.  Wood writes a satirical précis of a fake Paul Auster novel which is hilarious, albeit sort of mean-spirited and petty, and one of the least interesting points he makes.

  • Poorly written: “Although there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, the prose is never one of them.”

Ha.  Wood gets carried away with disgust.  Auster is a capable writer, certainly.  Not merely capable of pacing, as is, well, Dan Brown, but capable of style.

  • Unironic:For all the postmodern maneuvers, Auster is the least ironic of contemporary writers.”

This is where the review becomes interesting, because “unironic” is being used as a criticism, though it isn’t one, per se.  It seems the consequence of Auster’s supposed lack of irony is really that he is unsophisticated.

  • Unsophisticated: “…he does nothing with cliché except use it”; “This is the kind of balsa-wood back story that is knocked into Hollywood plots every day.”

Declaring Auster to be “only ever unwittingly funny,” Wood points to “The Book of Illusions” (2002) (which fortunately I’ve read):

In “The Book of Illusions,” an excruciating example of this unintended comedy occurs when Alma tells David Zimmer that Hector Mann and Frieda had a son, Tad, who died as a small child. “Imagine the effect it had on them,” she says. Zimmer, who lost his two sons, Marco and Todd, in the plane crash that also killed his wife, says, “I know what you’re talking about. No mental gymnastics required to understand the situation. Tad and Todd. It can’t get any closer than that, can it?” The reader has the urge to blow a Flann O’Brien-size raspberry.

But can Auster’s use of clichés be accurately chalked up to a lack of sophistication?

David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (Premier: September 1996):  “…ironic self-consciousness is the one and only universally recognized badge of sophistication.” Auster’s issue, if anything, is that he is so preoccupied by postmodern sophistication that he is ultimately overwhelmed by it.

For example, the Tad/Todd wordplay from “The Book of Illusions” is a necessary maneuver under Auster’s particular umbrella of postmodernism.  Auster cannot employ a mechanism such as injecting a shared life experience of the death of a son to make the narrator relate to another character without calling himself out for it, which he does by exaggerating the coincidence so that even the narrator must consciously note it, “It can’t get any closer than that, can it?”

But why back yourself into such a narrow corner, Paul?

Auster’s novels thus disintegrate into a sort of postmodern trap.  He seems all too cognizant of his role as author and puppet-master, so he laboriously connects every element as though he is preempting being found unintentionally obvious by being forcefully, painfully obvious.  His hyper-awareness of the fallacy of “realist” writing prevents him from successfully crafting it.

Maybe this doesn’t sound so bad as a literary experiment.  But it makes for a hollow reading experience when the writer is too vexed by the possibility that the reader may challenge him to even attempt to challenge the reader.

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