Paul Auster’s Voice

Paul Auster died on April 30 after being the voice in my ear for a month. I had only recently finished his massive novel 4321, using an approach I learned from my wife to preserve momentum on very long books. (It is almost 1,100 pages.) By taking up an audiobook alongside a physical volume and alternating between the two as circumstances require, the reader can keep a story going without getting stuck. The only downside is the tricky business of finding one’s place while jumping back and forth between media. Auster narrated his own audiobook version of 4321, so I had been listening to him talk quite a bit before learning he was gone.

Paul Auster

Auster spoke in a rolling purr that was equal parts seduction and lament. His voice sounded like cognac poured over stones instead of ice. In narrating 4321, he covered the whole range of human experience: birth, death, illness, sex, hope, failure, parents, children, revolution, and disillusion, all against the noisy backdrop of the midcentury American colossus. In an eerie parallel, one of the novel’s subplots deals with the student protests at Columbia University in 1968, which have been repeating themselves in a different context this spring. As a result of his constant presence, the topicality of his subject matter, I felt a keen pang of the false intimacy that sometimes strikes when celebrities die. I had listened to Auster speak for nearly the entire month of April. It is dreadful to know that his voice in all senses has been silenced.

4321 explores the life and times of a young man named Archie Ferguson born in 1947 to a Jewish family in Newark. The novel tells four diverging stories of a single individual in parallel chapters. The Archie described in chapters 1.1, 2.1, 3.1, and so on, is born into a stable family with loving parents who occupy traditional gender roles and harbor modest aspirations. This provides Archie 1 a suburban upbringing and yields a certain bourgeois outlook. By contrast, the Archie Ferguson of chapters 1.3, 2.3, 3.3, etc., loses his father at a young age to a fire. His mother as a result acquires independence and pursues her dream of becoming a photographer. Mother and son move to Manhattan. The limitless possibilities of the metropolis inspire but also bewilder the young man, giving him a broader understanding of romantic love, a thirst to pursue art, and a wayward trajectory. In this storyline he becomes a novelist. Archie 1 is a newspaper reporter.

In keeping with his reputation for formal playfulness, Auster had some fun within this structure. Novelist Archie has a great passage about the emptiness one feels upon completing a book: “[B]ooks lived inside you only as long as you were writing them, but once they came out of you, they were all used up and dead.” At another point, Archie muses about the way we don different masks in our daily lives, depending on our interlocutor. Yet Archie does so while flirting with Auster’s broader project: “One of the odd things about being himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well. With an outspoken extrovert like Noah, he felt quiet and closed in on himself. With a shy and guarded person like Ann Brodsky, he felt loud and crude, always talking too much….If either one of the two A.F.s had been a slightly different person, they easily could have wound up as enemies.”

Auster showed a keen sensitivity to the issues children face, which was no mean feat for a writer in his seventies. One of Archie’s sorrows is his status as an only child. Yet when Archie 4’s mother divorces and remarries, and he finally acquires step-siblings, he finds it is too late. He is 16 and his boyhood is nearly over. Archie considers philosophically what he has missed, as well as what he has perhaps been spared: both “the rough-and-tumble joys and high-spirited camaraderie that most children live through with their siblings,” but also “the conflicts and hatreds that can turn childhood into a hellish, unrelenting brawl.” This observation has the ring of authenticity. At other times Auster overstretches, as when the young Archie instantly grasps the racial nuances of a tense basketball game played between schools from different sides of the tracks.

The novel does best at the level of the grand idea rather than the brilliant phrase. Some of Auster’s bravura run-ons last for a good half page. They work better in audiobook format than in print. (Note to writers: if you are reading your book aloud, you should probably be able to say your sentence on a single breath. But certainly four or five breaths means you have missed a period—or a question mark.) And Auster was not a pyrotechnician of style in the school of Bellow or Joyce. Instead, he excelled as a big-picture storyteller and narrative provocateur. Would spending more time with mother really nudge a young man toward bisexuality? Is there such a thing as destiny?—for the girl who gets away keeps getting away for Archie in every storyline. It wasn’t meant to be, Auster implies. I find myself pondering these matters long after finishing the book.

One of 4321’s most shattering moments happens at the end of chapter 2.2. Archie 2 is a boy away at summer camp. Exhilarated by a thunderstorm and possessed by a sudden instinct to showboat, he runs headlong out into the rain toward the shelter of a tree. Lightning strikes, a branch falls, and he is struck down. Just like that, one of the novel’s four characters dies in a senseless accident. Yet the implications of this tragedy do not come home until many pages later, when chapter 3.2 arrives. I found myself wondering as it approached whether the story would carry on with Archie 2’s parents and family bereaved by his loss. But there is only a blank page bearing the chapter title 3.2. I dreaded its simple return in each new section of the book, as austere as a gravestone.

Such is the loss of a voice and the marking of a life: sudden, unequivocal, cruel. When a writer dies there is some consolation in the record that he or she has left behind. Auster was magnificently prolific, and his many other works, from The Book of Illusions to the New York trilogy, will linger on the shelf. As it happens, he generally preferred to narrate his own audiobooks. So those who want to keep listening to his voice don’t need to say goodbye just yet.

Michael O’Donnell
is the author of the novel Above the Fire. His writing also appears in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist.

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