Is This Paul Auster?

I consider myself to be a fairly optimistic fellow (which might come as a surprise) but I also tend to enjoy existentialists and various other bleak, mid-century, chain smokers.  But pure existentialists are a little much. I prefer those who have a little more stake in the world around them and in others. Albert Camus is the one from whom I get the most.  Paul Auster for my dad.

I keep small notebooks that are filled with entries, scrawled in pen, that list passages from books that I've read, the authors, the page numbers, and the dates that I read them.  I try to go back every day and read whatever I wrote for the same date the year or two before (I've been doing it since November of 2015). The other day – April 12 – I found a passage that I had read in Paul Auster's The Locked Room:

"If words followed, it was only because I had no choice but to accept them, to take them upon myself and go where they wanted me to go.  But that does not necessarily make the words important. I have been struggling to say goodbye to something for a long time now, and this struggle is all that really matters.  The story is not in the words; it's in the struggle."

The Locked Room is part of a series of extraordinarily bizarre noir-style detective stories that Auster wrote in the mid-1980s called The New York Trilogy.  Each is dark, brooding, and filled with mysterious women and stakeouts and marks and secretive clients, dark nights, dangerous meetings, and tortured protagonists.  But Auster is a brilliant writer and uses the well-established cliches of the noir genre he chooses (mysterious women, etc) to head-fake and surprise. Each story evolves into an uncomfortable exploration of the human psyche and, in a number of ways, a penetrating examination of what it means to create; what it means to build a fictional world or spend one's life observing the lives of others.

In addition to my fascination with gaunt, melancholy writers of introspective fiction, I also love to read what writers write about writing.  There is a plethora of “Why I Write” essays out in the ether that range from corny to absolutely incredible (Good prose is like a windowpane).  Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” is a gorgeous rendering of the journalistic impulse. George Orwell seems incapable of shaking his obsession with examining the language of others.  Paul Auster has a couple essays of that sort as well (he traces his own obsession with writing to the day he was caught at a baseball park with Willie Mays and no pen or paper on which he could sign an autograph).

The more I go back and reread passages the more I think that Paul Auster’s trio of fictional oddities might represent my favorite of this variety of introspection.  No one captures the mechanics of language better than Orwell, and Didion - as she often does - illustrates the neuroses associated with one who notices things. Auster, however, is the one who best captures the effect of observing on the observer.  Didion observes because she is neurotic (Keepers of notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents).

Auster is neurotic because he observes.

Over and over, Auster's protagonists are drawn into imitating or trailing or watching others, tracing their lives, by virtue of some responsibility.  A job, a boredom, the request of a friend. But each time, they find themselves overtaken by a manic sense of responsibility and unquenchable curiosity until the boundaries between themselves and their subjects are erased.

Writing about - or drawing or photographing etc - the world tends to lead to the same confusion.  You write what you know, which can lead to the passive conclusion that you must limit what you describe to things encompassed by your experience.  But it can also lead to an obsessive drive to know every facet of the thing about which you write.

Each of Auster’s characters is swallowed and driven mad by the insignificance of his pursuit, but each observes in isolation.  In the first book of the trilogy, City of Glass, the protagonist becomes unhinged waiting in hiding outside the home of one of his subjects only to realize later that the man he’s trailing has died.  His detective in Ghosts does nothing but sit in a room and grow paranoid in the vacuum as his life falls apart.  His writer in The Locked Room begins to unravel as he realizes that he has stepped into someone else’s life and has allowed it to completely substitute for his own.

Writing about the world often seems like shouting into an empty room with padded walls.  No cavernous echo to shimmer in the air or bounce back even momentarily. Just a rapid decay and silence.  The world outside is vibrant and dynamic; changing always but indifferent to the racket.

But I sometimes wonder if Auster featured prominently the isolation of each of his observers from their world intentionally.  Not one makes an effort to connect his observation to anything larger or to vest his observation with any personal importance.  Each allows his pursuit of answers to corrode his connection to the wider world. Curiosity is perhaps the most important aspect of the endeavor, but curiosity without the context of interest or passion can be hollow.  Curiosity can turn into a sort of competition with the world and that sort of curiosity can devour. I wonder if Auster was attempting to parse that sort of difference.

Reading the books may or may not support it, but when I read out of context the passages that stuck with me enough to write them down, I get the impression that perhaps he was:

"The detective is one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them.  In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable."


"Words are transparent for him, great windows that stand between him and the world, and until now they have never impeded his view, have never even seemed to be there."

Or again:

"I have been struggling to say goodbye to something for a long time now, and this struggle is all that really matters.  The story is not in the words; it's in the struggle."

In an informal interview, Auster describes this particular phrase.  He states that “it is about writing, but at the same time it’s about accommodating the unknown.”  It always lands with me as the words of a writer struggling to balance curiosity with an acknowledgment that, at some point, that curiosity runs into the real world with real consequences.  It becomes a conclusion with social or moral implications or a question that demands an answer, or it holds meaning for a reader, or simply arrives at a place where the writer can pick his head up from the page.  If it doesn’t have that anchor then it just spirals. Sometimes the anchor it requires begs a conclusion to the curiosity and a level of comfort that perhaps the unknown at that point will remain so.

Auster’s protagonists cannot come to any terms with not knowing.  Their obsession with narrow questions and narrow answers and with knowing in an absolute way burns them to the ground.  But Auster also makes a point of chronicling their systematic untethering from the world. I wonder if he sets up the corrosion of their ties to the real world less as an effect of their madness and more as its underlying cause.

Observing and writing and commenting and criticizing cannot exist without the solid things.  When they do, then they devour the observer.  I have been struggling to say goodbye to something for a long time now.  The righteousness of being the first to speak or the loudest; the distinction of being the sharpest critic or the most nuanced; these are subordinate to the world to which they pin their significance.  The story is not in the words.