On Mr. Vertigo
It’s September 25, and on the wall beside me, the calendar is still flipped open to August. I got it with my New Yorker subscription and it has a cartoon on the top half of each page. August’s is a sketch of a woman and a hip-looking young man with tight jeans, quirky shoes, glasses, a mustache, and his hair tied in a top-knot. They’re in a museum staring at a piece of abstract art, the man with his hands on his hips and the woman rolling her eyes, mouth open, speaking. The caption reads: “I said, ‘I wonder what it means,’ not ‘Tell me what it means.’”
I try not to read the blurbs on the backs of books, but sometimes it happens. They’re short, splashy, and printed in big letters right there for the world to see. The San Francisco Chronicle called Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies “probably the first authentic attempt to deal with the post-September 11 world.” The main reason I avoid reading blurbs or hot reviews of books is because they make statements like that one. Once I read it, there’s no avoiding it. Sweeping declarations about the meaning of a book color the way I read it and there’s no going back. I was lucky enough not to see that one until I closed the back cover on the last page. I don’t get it.
With Auster, however, there emerges a second (probably equally important) reason that I avoid reading reviews and blurbs until after the book is finished. He didn’t intend any of that bullshit.
Auster rarely gives written interviews, but agreed to speak about each of his novels, one at a time, with his friend I. B. Siegumfeldt, who compiled the conversations into a book. I read the interviews out of chronological order, corresponding to the order in which I read the books themselves. I finish Music of Chance and read the corresponding chapter; I finish In the Country of Last Things and read the corresponding chapter. Siegumfeldt repeatedly asks Auster about symbolism or about deeper meanings and themes in his work. Auster is infuriatingly ambiguous.
Siegumfeldt: Nature, or the natural world, plays into the names you’ve chosen for the characters in The Brooklyn Follies: Wood, Flora, Aurora, Bright, Dunkel, Glass, Marina.
Auster: Brightman-Dunkel is obvious. A reinvented self. An ex-jailbird’s stab at a new life.
Siegumfeldt: Flora, Marina?
Auster: I don’t know. It was probably something in the air – or in the drinking water.
Siegumfeldt: So no reason?
Auster: Probably not.
The Boston Globe called Auster’s Mr. Vertigo a “parable about the the condition of the national consciousness at century’s end. Unfortunately, I read that one when I was only a few chapters through the book. Mr. Vertigo certainly has some elements to which a reader might attribute deeper meaning. Entrepreneurship, chicanery, poverty, crime, vertiginous rises and precipitous falls, reversals of fortune, fantasy, impossibility, faith. But Auster won’t divulge any particular intention.
Siegumfeldt: It’s not that you have to make a sacrifice in order to be able to do these extraordinary things?
Auster: Maybe you do, but then again, maybe you don’t.
Siegumfeldt: No symbolism intended? No message about the state of America?
Auster: If you want the message to be there, it’s there. But what you see is not necessarily what someone else will see.
Siegumfeldt: And what do you see?
Auster: I can’t say.
Siegumfeldt: Can’t or won’t?
Auster’s opacity is maddening, but he preserves the book for his reader, and there’s a great deal to preserve. It’s a bizarre story, written often in reverse. The first line: “I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water.” The story of twelve-year-old Walt The Wonder Boy starts in odd circumstances and proceeds to pure fantasy before beginning a long descent into complete normalcy. What should be the climax happens early and the story meanders over numerous lesser peaks on its way to a soft landing. Like a leaf plucked from a branch in a gust of wind, it flips and bounces to new heights before losing the flow of air and see-sawing to the ground, a pendulum that swings while the whole clock falls to the floor.
Auster’s impenetrable indifference is frustrating when I’m ready to have the code cracked for me. To hear that there is no code, that he can’t remember the combination, that he holds the secret but wants me to solve it for myself prompts an eye rolled or sigh heaved. But I appreciate it relative to the alternative.
Stories don’t always need to be puzzles any more than reality does. We ascribe all sorts of deep currents and correlations to the world around, but sometimes things just happen and life turns on the flip of a coin. Sometimes we peak early, relish the simple and look back, shaking our heads, at the exciting bits. Auster doesn’t want to define what the parable means, but there’s a parable in every story for every reader and every situation and defining it for one person at one time inevitably hardens the possibilities. Mr. Vertigo is no different. I often think I want someone to tell me what it means, but in reality wondering is probably more useful.