Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

My Literary Hero

Paul Auster

I finished reading his latest book Invisible a week or so ago. It is a great novel and displays many of his favourite tricks and his characteristic verve in the writing. I also re-read his first novel The New York Trilogy – a linked set of metafiction detective novellas, which I found as dazzling now as when I first read it about twenty years ago. I’ve been musing about what to say about these books for a while, but I am finding it very difficult indeed to describe their brilliance adequately and to give synopses without spoilers, so I am going to be deliberately vague about plot and concentrate on other aspects.

Invisible is one of his multi-layered better novels – I loved it. The key character is a young man, Adam, who has a defining moment in his life as a student which has huge consequences, and he looks back on what happened that spring in his memoirs. Written in four parts, we start off in the first person with Adam himself telling his story, then move onto a more impersonal second person narrative. The story is then taken over in the third person by a friend from Adam’s student days, and in the final part Adam is not physically present, but the consequences of what happened back then still resonate.

One of Auster’s favourite devices is to embed a book within a book and to use an author as a central character as he does here. There is always a strong psychological element to his books and in this novel, truth and memory are intertwined in the memoir together with some shocking events and tender moments – but which are real and which imagined? (Book supplied courtesy of Faber, 9/10).

Now to The New York Trilogy. Originally published separately in the mid-1980s, the three novellas that make up Auster’s first fiction: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, take the traditional gumshoe detective from the golden age of noir and make that rôle into something new. New York itself also has a starring part – all Edward Hopper-ish, dark shadows yet with bright lights, a place full of strangers and lonely people.

In the first installment, a detective writer gets a phone call asking for a detective – in the spur of the moment, he decides to take the job, and all too soon becomes obsessed by it.

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not…

In Ghosts, a detective is hired to carry out surveillance on another man, and all the characters are named after colours (did Tarantino get the idea for Resevoir Dogs from this I wonder?). In the third, a writer disappears, and his wife contacts one of his friends who always wanted to be a writer but ended up a critic, and asks him to help publish her husband’s works.

There are many similarities across the three novellas. Questions of identity, the writer’s life – writer’s block and overcoming it and getting published, the dangers of obsession, are all given a psychological twist so that you can never work out quite where it’s going – there’s a strong element of ‘who watches the watchers’, and Auster even puts himself into the first novella. I had the added bonus of having treated myself to the new Folio Society edition with wonderfully evocative illustrations by Tom Burns which enhanced my re-read immensely (10/10).

I read a collection of Auster’s ‘true stories’ published in The Red Notebook alongside the NYT in which a red notebook is a recurring motif. These little essays are a mixture of stories about writing and Auster himself, and also things that have happened to his friends. In particular they are full of mostly happy coincidences and lucky events – coincidence is another of Auster’s fascinations – although those coincidences in his books are often twisted by the choice of path taken and its consequences. However, getting to the point, one of the tales told how Auster got a phonecall at home from someone asking for a detective – he says he wondered what would have happened should he have said yes – and bingo – there was the inspiration for City of Light.

I have enjoyed everything of Auster’s that I’ve read so far – I still have a few to go, but Invisible or The New York Trilogy would be great places to start. I also found that upon re-reading the NYT I got whole new levels of understanding and enjoyment out of it, and it is one of my desert island books (see the tab above).

9 Comments

  1. I think Auster is one of those authors you either love or hate. I read my first book by him earlier this year (The NY Trilogy, you can read my thoughts here) and was completely blown away and really loved it. Given that you felt similarly, I'm eager and anxious to read more by him, as part of me worried that maybe his other books wouldn't meet that same level of crazy awesomeness. I currently have copies of Timbuktu and The Book of Illusions that I will probably get to before anything else, but I will be giving Invisible high priority as well!P.S. Your copy of The NYT is truly gorgeous!

  2. I think Auster is one of those authors you either love or hate. I read my first book by him earlier this year (The NY Trilogy, you can read my thoughts here) and was completely blown away and really loved it. Given that you felt similarly, I'm eager and anxious to read more by him, as part of me worried that maybe his other books wouldn't meet that same level of crazy awesomeness. I currently have copies of Timbuktu and The Book of Illusions that I will probably get to before anything else, but I will be giving Invisible high priority as well!P.S. Your copy of The NYT is truly gorgeous!

  3. Thanks Steph. I don't think there's an Auster book I haven't enjoyed, but some are definitely better than others. I loved 'In the country of last things' and 'The Music of Chance' and 'Leviathan'. 'Man in the dark' was nearly as good, Timbuktu was middling for Auster, but for me his middling is better than many others' best. Fantastic review by the way – it is so difficult to describe his books, you just have to talk about the writing and mind-games instead of plot and character!

  4. Thanks Steph. I don't think there's an Auster book I haven't enjoyed, but some are definitely better than others. I loved 'In the country of last things' and 'The Music of Chance' and 'Leviathan'. 'Man in the dark' was nearly as good, Timbuktu was middling for Auster, but for me his middling is better than many others' best. Fantastic review by the way – it is so difficult to describe his books, you just have to talk about the writing and mind-games instead of plot and character!

  5. I agree that Auster seems to divide readers. Some people seem to find him annoying, but I've always found a mysterious driving force that seems to impel his narratives along even when he's describing mundane events, so that I'm hooked by them even if things are never resolved at the end. (Hiruki Murukami (sorry sp!?) reminds me of him too.) I must reread The New York Trilogy, like you. Hope I still like it!

  6. The Literary Stew

    November 30, 2009 at 4:13 am

    I'm so jealous you've already read Invisible. I'm so looking forward to it. It sounds like Auster is back in form. I love his earlier books but haven't read his last 2 or 3 but this new one does sound promising!

  7. The Literary Stew

    November 30, 2009 at 4:13 am

    I'm so jealous you've already read Invisible. I'm so looking forward to it. It sounds like Auster is back in form. I love his earlier books but haven't read his last 2 or 3 but this new one does sound promising!

  8. I still have Brooklyn follies, Travels in the Scriptorium and Book of Illusions to read, then I'll have read all of his novels, plus a good chunk of his other work. I admit that not everyone likes him, but I adore books that play with your mind and that question reality. Maybe I should re-read the Magus by John Fowles – another one I read about twenty years ago …

  9. Hello, Annabel. I’ve tracked you here after lazily surfing about on LibraryThing (user name: Dylanwolf) and coming across one of your comments. An impressive blog! Congratulations; I look forward to dipping into it.

    I love Auster’s writing too; very cool, detached, sharp and unbalancing – you think you are reading about one thing and then suddenly the focus is on something else. Auster’s characters are inevitably finding out more about themselves than interacting with each other and what they find is always surprising.

    Book of Illusions, which I see is one of the few you have yet to read, is my favorite Auster novel. I think you are in for a real treat when it bobbles to the top of your, no doubt, almost infinite “to read” pile.

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