One rainy spring night back in 1987, I wandered into Guild Bookstore (Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, extinct) and was beguiled by a sexy set of hardbacks – The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster – an author I'd never heard of. Guild was known more for its selection of esoteric lectures by Noam Chomksy than for modernist fiction; this set, published by Sun & Moon Press, looked like something I'd expect to find at the Art Institute. The books had a cool stylish look (including the author photo); the prose was set in a smart Bodini. I bought them for their dust jackets alone – which for me captured the romance of my recent wide-eyed visits to Manhattan, with its Bright Lights, Big City/Liquid Sky appeal.
So I was delighted when I discovered the stories were as aesthetically satisfying as desaturated cityscapes on their covers. The trilogy offered an artfully convoluted set of variations on the classic urban detective story, Dashiell Hammett filtered through Beckett (and I'm undoubtedly echoing a cliché here) – but back then this opus seemed just about perfect: pure style in the guise of existentially-tortured substance.
Regrettably, the experience wasn't easy to duplicate. Over the years I'd pick up each Auster book as it appeared; few provided the same thrill. From the distance of 20-odd years I observe that I've found more pleasure in his autobiographical essays (and the peculiar mini-classic The Red Notebook) than in his novels. In recent years, I enjoyed Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions; I cheerfully succumbed to the crowd-pleasing Brooklyn Follies; but I found Man in the Dark and Travels in the Scriptorium impossible to finish. (The objective correlative for that last one is the smell of old man's urine.)
A couple weeks ago I read Auster's newest – Invisible – and fortunately had finished it before I read the evisceration by James Woods in this week's New Yorker. Woods begins his review with a précis of a mock-Auster novel and it's cruelly exact. It may even be fair. But I doubt it will affect my proclivity for Auster, however abused it's become.
As I read Invisible, I felt as if I was watching an old friend perform his usual set of magic tricks. The plot unfolds in a set of familiar games, elliptical exercises on first-, second- and third-person narration, found manuscripts and unnerving coincidences, served up with usual tenor of agonized introspection. The plot, such as it is, completely collapses by the end. But no matter. The book is entertaining, even in its clichés. Auster may not be the transgressive modernist he affects to be (if indeed he does) but I still relish the ominous play of character and coincidence, as predictable as a ghost story, best read before bed with a dram of single malt.