Friday, 19 August 2011

Book review roundup: Paul Auster

I've gone through a minor obsession with Paul Auster's writing over the last month or so, brought on mainly by hearing/reading lots of comparisons between his work and that of his wife, Siri Hustvedt (which, by the way, I understand, but there are discernible differences in style). I haven't been posting individual reviews of these books, so here's a digested roundup.

Oracle Night (2003)

Oracle Night begins with Sidney Orr, a novelist who is recovering from a severe illness, buying a unique Portuguese notebook in a rather odd stationery store. On the recommendation of his friend, also a novelist, Sidney begins to flesh out an idea for a story concerning a man who suffers a near-death experience and impulsively leaves his wife and home, resolving to start his life anew in a different city. The narrative follows both the progression of this tale and its protagonist Nick Bowen, and the 'real' story of Sidney, whose relationship with his wife Grace (the history of which is detailed in a number of footnotes) begins to flounder soon after he acquires the notebook. Meanwhile, Sidney attempts to re-write HG Wells' The Time Machine as a modern film script, turning it into an unconventional romance, and the Nick narrative also has a further strand wherein the character is profoundly affected by the contents of a lost manuscript, the title of which is Oracle Night.

I decided to read Oracle Night partly because it was billed as 'the place to start' for newcomers to Auster's work, and it proved to be a perfect introduction. It's short, but packed with detail and (as the description above probably indicates) multi-layered. There are definitely elements of the weird about this story - the disappearance and relocation of the Paper Palace and its enigmatic proprietor, the 'powers' of the notebook - but it isn't a paranormal or fantasy novel. This really appealed to me - I love the combination of literary prose and hints of the unexplained. I also LOVED the writing. Despite all the intricacies of the plot, it often seems secondary to the way the story is told, the ideas it explores. There are parallels galore and the book often touches on the relationship between fiction and reality and/or language and action. I'd have liked the story to go on for longer - but all in all, it did more than enough to pique my interest.

Rating: 8/10

The New York Trilogy (1987)

The New York Trilogy comprises a trio of interconnected stories: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. Each of them presents a spin on the detective genre. In City of Glass, a writer is mistaken for a private detective and is drawn into the entanglements of a rich, eccentric family. Ghosts, the shortest of the three, sees a detective tasked with observing a man and becoming increasingly paranoid about his target's life, as well as the intentions of his employer. The Locked Room, which has the most traditional format, follows another writer's obsession with his childhood best friend, who has been missing for years but becomes a celebrated author some time after his disappearance.

This one is a really difficult book to review - to the point that I had to delete my first attempt and start again. At first I assumed that, although I knew the stories were interlocked, it would be possible to treat each of them as a standalone novella. However, when I reached the end of The Locked Room, I realised that the connections between the stories are so close and complex that this would be impossible; they only really make sense in the context of one another. Because I didn't fully understand the relationship between reality and fiction in these stories at the begnning, certain things initially left me feeling very frustrated. The key to 'getting' this book, I soon realised, was to recognise that much of it is symbolic, designed to explore themes - identity, perception, the importance of names, the power of stories and imagination - than to describe believable events. There's this constant uneasy feeling that nothing is quite as it seems, but not in a sensational horror-story way, rather just that everything is slightly out of kilter. Particularly memorable was a scene in The Locked Room, involving two characters discussing the enigmatic appeal of Fanshawe, the missing writer. 'The book gets stuck somewhere in the brain, and you can’t get rid of it,' one of them says. 'You can't stop thinking about it.' For me, the same could be said of Paul Auster's prose. While I didn't think this was a truly great book, the style constantly kept me coming back for more and I came away from it feeling thoroughly hooked.

Rating: 8/10

The Book of Illusions (2002)

David Zimmer is a teacher and writer whose wife and two young sons have been killed in an aeroplane crash. At his lowest ebb, suicidal and alcoholic, David sees a silent film on television and laughs for the first time since the tragedy. Thereafter, he develops a fascination with the actor featured in the old movie, Hector Mann - a minor star of silent comedies who vanished in 1929 and was never seen or heard of again. Travelling around the world in order to visit the film archives containing Hector's few movies, David channels his obsession into a book about the actor's work. However, the story really begins some time after this, when David receives a mysterious letter containing some startling news about Hector.

The Book of Illusions displays many characteristics of Auster's typical style, most noticeably the constant presence of symbolism, the perceived significance of art and the line between reality and (as the title suggests) illusion. Here, rather than the emphasis being on language and writing, the focus is on Hector's films and their visual impact, though of course the power of storytelling is still key. When David discovers that Hector made some films that were never seen by anyone else, he questions whether art has any importance if it is not shared with and experienced by an audience. There are other elements of the story that are, essentially, totally implausible. For example, the manner of David and Alma's first meeting is really quite ridiculous, as is the speedy development of their relationship. But I think this is where the genius of Auster's writing really lies, in suspending the reader's disbelief and immersing you so deeply into the story that these strange events seem believable. I can imagine that the book won't work for everyone - some may find the lengthy descriptions of unseen, nonexistent films dull (I really enjoyed them), and there's a curious... quietness about it all - a very subdued feel. This is not a deeply thrilling novel, more of a restrained but haunting little tale.

Rating: 7/10

Travels in the Scriptorium (2006)

Travels in the Scriptorium opens like this: a man, known only as Mr. Blank, is apparently imprisoned within a room. He remembers snippets of his childhood, but nothing of how he came to be in the room, and has little to no recollection of his adult life. During the course of the story, he is visited by a number of people and recognises them only vaguely, if at all. He contemplates escaping from the room, but seems incapable of attempting to discover whether the door is locked from the outside, despite the fact that he is able to move around and the room is small. To pass the time, he begins to read a manuscript on his desk, which turns out to be an account of a man's adventures and imprisonment in 'the Confederation', a vaguely sci-fi fictionalised version of America.

This book is really an extended short story, with a strong surreal flavour. It becomes obvious quite quickly that the character of Mr. Blank is supposed to represent the author - if not Auster himself, then something of the writer's spirit, perhaps the part of him that makes him an author. Blank's visitors frequently refer to themselves as 'operatives' who he has sent on 'missions', often with seriously detrimental effects on their lives. Whether the visitors are benign, or seeking revenge, is unclear, but it does seem to be the case that by the conclusion, they have 'won'. Filled with characters from Auster's other novels, and often relying on heavy use of symbolism and motifs, the story is extremely, and obviously deliberately, self-referential. Perhaps partly because of this, I was a little disappointed in it. The plot was flimsy, and I wasn't sure what the minutiae of Blank's everyday activities were meant to add to it. The story-within-a-story was interesting but didn't end up going anywhere (though, of course, that's kind of the point of it). After how much I've enjoyed the other Auster books, this left me feeling a bit short-changed, and while his talent was still evident in the prose style, it definitely wasn't a favourite.

Rating: 5/10

1 comment:

  1. Great Reviews.. Very Informative and Useful for a reader like me who just started reading books in english..-Alpesh kala