Some years ago, Time magazine wrote about American authors who were better known in France than in their own country. One was Paul Auster. He has a huge fan following in France, mainly because he spent some years in that country and spoke the language. Auster has a huge body of work spanning novels, screenplays, poetry, non-fiction, essays and translations of French authors. He has just come out with his 16th book, although Report from the Interior is really a memoir.
Auster’s writing and themes are not to everyone’s liking, a blend of existentialism, absurdism, and the search for identity and personal meaning. He usually adopts a limpid, confessional style that he has made his literary signature. His initial literary success came with detective fiction (The New York Trilogy), but since then, his focus has gone inwards, and increasingly sardonic.
His latest book follows the same trajectory. It is a miscellany of memory, early sensations and impressions while growing up in New Jersey followed by selections from letters written when he was in his 20s, followed by a sequence of photographs to do with his early influences and imagery — movies, cartoons, cowboys, conflicts and American triumphalism. Like some of his earlier novels, this one too appropriates elements from his own life — childhood, enrollment at Columbia in the 1960s, down and out in Paris, mellow years in Brooklyn. In his latest, we come the closest to a conventional autobiography since Hand to Mouth (1997). There is, in this book, even a character called Paul Auster. There are so many elements familiar with Auster’s works, a male protagonist, a writer or an intellectual, living monkishly, suffering personal loss, and random sequences to do with violence and brutality. The atmosphere is pretty depressing and some of the phrases he uses are quite cringe-worthy.
The book is narrated in the second person, and much of it is rooted in childhood.
Auster’s work has also been defined by his Jewish ancestry and escapism, mainly Hollywood, and in this book, he dwells extensively on two films that made a powerful impression during his early years. The Incredible Shrinking Man, a Kafkaesque drama and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a movie on social injustice.
The other major chunk of the book are excerpts from letters he wrote to his first wife, novelist Lydia Davis. This was a time of extreme loneliness and solitude. Taken together with the black and white photographs at the end of the book, this is more of a document-dump than a memoir.
His psychological mapping of childhood and young adulthood also seems recycled — the story of his financial hardship and creative struggle has appeared in earlier works. Even the second person narrative style is now so well-known that it ceases to have impact.
What is perhaps the most irritating aspect of this book is the desperate attempt to make banal and minor experiences into something special and rarefied, from his baby-eyed view of the man in the moon to childhood fantasies about cowboy stars. Where Auster does succeed in holding the reader’s attention, however fleetingly, is the backdrop to his moral and intellectual crawl to adulthood, the post-war 50s and the 60s marked by social turbulence in America.
Auster once remarked: “This idea of contrasts, contradictions, paradoxes… gets very much to the heart of what novel writing is for me.” Those are inherent in this rambling, largely incoherent memoir as well. The author has established a niche, setting his male heroes in a seemingly familiar world into which he gradually injects uneasiness, menace and possible hallucination. The result is that readers are often left confused about what they’ve just been through.
Auster is an accomplished writer but lately, seems to be clutching at literary straws. This four-part memoir only serves to reinforce that impression.