4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Let’s establish right away that Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors.  In fact, I’d consider myself something of a “fanboy.”  I’ve read the vast majority of his published work after discovering him about ten years ago.  He earned my trust back then, which means I will read anything he releases.  Anything.

4 3 2 1 is an ambitious work that absolutely experiments with style and execution.  It is extremely well written, meticulously organized, and clearly a labor of love.  This is an important novel due to its sheer moxie; it not only challenges well-established conventions in the field of literature, it summarily ignores them.

But, even with all of that being said, it missed the mark for me.  At 866 pages, 4 3 2 1 proved too much for this reader.  As you know, Auster is an avid baseball fan, and I definitely felt like I needed a scorecard for this epic volume.

Without spoiling too much, this novel imagines the four possible lives of a single man.  We follow him from boyhood all the way to death.  There are many touchstones that are obviously invariable from life to life, but there are also several deviations that alter one life drastically from another.  It’s a fascinating premise, one that we’ve all thought about from time to time.  What if my parents had separated?  What if I’d chosen a different school?  What if I had fallen into that pit and been paralyzed?  So many “what ifs” in life … Auster delves deeply into this notion while leaving no detail unexplored.

But, like Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, those nuanced details can overwhelm the reader to the point of provoking disengagement. At least, that’s what happened in my case.

Furthermore, if I’m being honest, Ferguson (the main character) is not especially interesting.  No matter which life we address, Ferguson is a bit aloof, a bit too precocious, a bit unlikable.  Well, perhaps “unlikable” is too strong of a word.  I would never describe him as “likable,” though.  Keep in mind, I don’t believe a character has to be “good” in the moral sense to be “likable.”  There have been plenty of “bad” characters that I thought were incredibly charismatic.

On the subject of morality, be warned … there is a lot of sex in this book — more than any Paul Auster book I’ve ever read.  There is straight sex, gay sex, committed sex, casual sex, oral sex, anal sex … you get the idea.  The sex often seemed to me as forced.  It never quite struck me as organic to the story.

While I found this to be a relevant addition to the author’s library because it broke new ground for an already inventive artist, it did not hold my attention.  While the writing is masterful, it failed to capture my imagination.  And while the characters are pounding with life, none of them seemed to take hold in my own.

 

 

Image result for 4 3 2 1 by paul auster

The 12th DAUSTER

I love Doctor Who, though I’m a relatively recent convert.  I think I became a fan about two years ago.  I’m very much enjoying Peter Capaldi’s take since taking over the role of The Doctor.

It was around 2004 that I discovered one of my favorite authors, Paul Auster, and I’ve read nearly every one of his books since.  Of late, Paul Auster has been appearing in my various Facebook and Twitter feeds for this video/article.

And then it hit me – Paul Auster and Peter Capaldi look very much alike.  I created the below image very much in admiration of the two men.

12 DOAUSTER

 

Report from the Interior by Paul Auster – A Book Review

If you follow this website, you know I’m a Paul Auster fan and will read anything he publishes.  I love the man’s fiction just as much as his nonfiction, and I’ve learned more about the craft of writing through his personal tales than I thought possible.

Report from the Interior is about his coming of age through his very own eyes.  He recounts his thoughts and feelings on a great number of subjects from the time he was a little boy all the way into adulthood.  Somehow, he makes almost all of it riveting, even as he’s describing movies he watched that heavily influenced him.  I attribute the dynamism of rather mundane topics to his unparalleled mastery of the captivating sentence.  The man simply knows how to write in a way that cannot be ignored, no matter what the topic!

Report from the Interior serves almost as a history lesson, for Auster not only recollects the little personal things he experienced, but also the world’s happenings and his reactions to them.  I loved viewing these events through his eyes, with his voice serving as a guide.

And though I’m an unabashed fan of the man, I cannot suppress some criticism.  The book is divided into four parts.  It’s the third part that, frankly, I had difficulty reading.  It is largely comprised of notes he wrote to a loved one during his late teens and early twenties.  They are pretentious, arrogant, and self-obsessed.  And while I know all of us are those things at that age, it was very challenging to stomach.  I do, however, admire Auster that he was brave enough to put those letters out there, to display an aspect of himself that I didn’t find terribly flattering.  The man continually takes risks, even as an established master, and he has my unending readership as a result.

In the end, Auster continues to give himself to us, to peel away layers of his persona that contribute to the writing we so love.  The most amazing thing is, and this is yet another credit to the man’s skill, that the more he reveals to us, the greater of an enigma he becomes.

To the uninitiated, I’m not sure this book is a good place to start with Auster.  But for those who have read much of his work, it’s yet another volume that adds to the overarching epic that is, in my mind, one continuous story blending fiction with nonfiction, novel with memoir, poetry with correspondence.

My Summer Rereading Program

I teach a class during the school year called Modern Fiction, and it’s basically an independent reading class for upperclassmen.  They get to read virtually whatever they want, but they do have to read each and every day.  If you’re thinking that’s awesome, you’re right.  Furthermore, as any good teacher should, I model expected behavior by reading right along their side.  With two small children at home, this fortunately allows me the opportunity to fulfill my love of reading during the day.

I’ll admit, though, by the end of the school year, I’m a little burned out.  I always struggle to find things I want to read in the summer because I’m both fatigued and also saving books for when the year starts back up.

So, I came up with the perfect solution.  I’ve always told myself that I should reread certain books for different reasons.  Well, this is the perfect time to do so!

In no particular, here are the books that comprise my summer rereading program!

 

Let me know what you’re reading this summer in the comments.  I’m always on the lookout for a good book!

Winter Journal by Paul Auster – A Book Review

An eclectic collection of miscellaneous thoughts, Winter Journal is exactly what the title asserts.  Always brutally honest, Auster reflects upon his sixty-three years thus far, paying special attention to the many trials and tribulations his body has withstood throughout its lifetime, the myriad places he has called home, those he has loved over the years, and (though not as explicitly as some would have you believe) his mother.

While this all sounds rather pedestrian, I assure you, Auster renders it fascinating.  Of course, it helps to be an Auster fan where this book is concerned.  As a work of nonfiction, it reveals much about the man and offers insight into his fiction.  However, even if this is one’s first encounter with Auster, the expert writing and vivid description will titillate.

Furthermore, and I can’t emphasize it enough, Auster’s honesty is astounding.  I’m amazed at what he’s willing to divulge about himself, especially because this is a man who doesn’t need to take chances anymore.  His name could sell his book alone.  Fortunately, Auster is always the inventor, forever the innovator, and so he invites us into his life and discusses things I wouldn’t tell my best friend.  Perhaps this is why he has become so successful over time – he has no fear when it comes to the written word.

To read this book is to experience Auster’s life itself, and I can offer no author a greater compliment than that.

Sunset Park by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Sometimes if you read enough of a certain author, you tend to notice the author’s trends, tendencies, and recurring themes.  Sunset Park is clearly a Paul Auster book, especially in regards to the above mentioned, but I believe it also features the most engaging and well-rounded characters he’s presented in quite some time.

Sunset Park features Miles Heller, a young man of once great potential who has since decided to coast through life with no ambition and little influence.  Auster makes a point to allow us into Miles’ life—his very soul—and shows us every wart.  By the end of the book we know Miles.  We know his capabilities, we know his limitations.  He is a man who turned his back on his own life, and we must wonder if such a man can ever really rejoin the human race.

Miles’ story begins in Florida in 2008 after the economic collapse.  He cleans out deserted home or foreclosed homes and earns a modest income.  Due to some significant complications with his girlfriend—someone Miles can’t help but love—he must return to New York.  He is given an offer from an old friend to join a few people in an abandoned home where they are squatting.  These are not your typical squatters, however.  Their organizer is a musician and small business owner, and the other roommates are a graduate student and, ironically, a real-estate agent.

While Auster is superb at depicting Miles, he’s even better with the squatters.  None of these characters are perfect people, and most should not even be likable, yet Auster delivers each of their plights in such a human, identifiable, and charismatic style that you cannot help but root for them to win in the end.

And though he wasn’t one of the squatters, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Miles’ father in the story.  Though Morris is a relatively minor character, he is given his just due by Auster.  Perhaps it’s because Morris has had more battles, more defeats, and ultimately more tragedy than any of the other characters that I gravitate towards him so.  He is a flawed man, but a loveable man, a man trying to do right even though he’s committed wrongs.  He is a father and a husband trying to do his best at both, and he is a loyal friend.

As probably apparent, I enjoyed Sunset Park.  I am an Auster fan; I’ve read most of his work, and I’d have to say that this particular book is among my favorites from him in recent memory mostly because of his careful attention to character.

However, even with that being said, I do have one complaint.  I cannot delve too much into it for fear of revealing the ending, but I felt the finish both inconsistent and rushed.  Granted, where Auster is involved, unexpected and abrupt endings are nothing new, but out of all of his books, this one seemed the most erratic.  Auster spent page after page establishing character not just with Miles, but with virtually everyone who came into important contact with the protagonist, and all of that previously established characterization was undone without warning or, in my mind, logic.

But then again, I firmly consider Auster a genius, and I know he favors the themes of chance, coincidence, and the chaos of living life, and so I cannot criticize his ending as too abrupt, too inconsistent, without wondering if he absolutely did it on purpose simply to prove a point.  Was it an error in coherence or a reminder of persistent pandemonium?

Whichever the case, I highly recommend Sunset Park as among some of Auster’s best contemporary work and believe it will appeal to Auster fans as well as a casual reader.

Invisible by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Invisible spoke to me more potently than many of Auster’s other recent works.

Don’t misunderstand, Auster again explored themes of identity, chance, and reality, but this novella in particular struck me as being far more concerned with character.  Moreover, though the story jumped around in time and made use of several perspectives, it was one of his more linear stories in quite some time—that is, it definitely had a clear beginning, middle, and end.

I also appreciated the format in which he chose to deliver the story.  Auster is always one to experiment with narrative technique, and Invisible’s endeavor succeeded.  Sometimes such fiddling can distract the reader, but not with Invisible.  The shifts felt organic and added to the overall story, making it far more interesting than had it been written conventionally.

Perhaps the most electrifying aspect of Invisible was the pure mystery involved.  I don’t want to go into detail for fear of spoiling any plot points, but Auster did a magnificent job of providing enough evidence to make you scratch your head and question your allegiances.

The only complaint I have—albeit a minor one—is that the book ended rather abruptly, even by Auster’s standards.  It had to conclude somehow, I suppose, and it’s always better to leave the reader wanting more, but I think a very interesting discussion could ensue analyzing why Auster chose to end the book with the specific scene he did.  I was also surprised by the sexual explicitness in this work.  I’ve never read anything quite so sexually descriptive from Auster, but the scenes ended up playing a very important role in the question of character and were absolutely warranted.  He even added a line about writers having to be willing to make themselves uncomfortable if they wanted to be any good, and I wonder if that was a nod to the gratuitousness.

All in all, if you’re an Auster fan, I think you’ll find this outing enjoyable and challenging.  If you’ve never read Auster before, you have to accept him as a writer who demands much from his readers and offers few answers in return.  However, he is a superb writer and he will make you think, which is unusual in today’s books.

Man In the Dark by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Like so many other Paul Auster works of late, Man In the Dark is a story taking place within another story.  The basic premise is that an old man can’t sleep at night, and so he tells himself stories in order to pass the time.

Auster flashes between the reality of the old man and his fictional story detailing a second American civil war.  Consequently, things get interesting when the fictional bleeds into the real.  Yes, that’s right: the old man’s character is assigned to find the old man, and carry out a special task.

However, the real meat of this story occurs when we get to know the old man better.  His wife is dead and he lives with his daughter and his granddaughter.  His daughter’s husband left her, and his granddaughter’s boyfriend has been recently killed—the circumstances of which are severely disturbing when finally revealed and haunted me for days afterward.

Auster has been experimenting with the story-within-a-story technique for quite a while, and “real” characters meeting “fictional” characters is nothing new in Auster works either, but, I believe Auster broke ground with Man In the Dark because he makes a point to familiarize us with the old man’s fictional characters before we get better acquainted with the old man himself.  We then realize that much of the “fictional” story the old man concocted had myriad details from the old man’s personal life—and that’s where Auster really shined.

We all know that authors pick and choose aspects from their private lives to drop into their works—I do it as well.  But in Man In the Dark, the old man employs facets from his own life in the tale he develops, which makes us wonder how much of the storyteller’s life is derived from Auster’s actual life.  Confusing, I know, but fun to analyze.

I also love the particular significance of this work’s title.  It can refer to the old man laying awake at night, to the fictional character the old man creates and who doesn’t have any idea how he happened into a second American civil war, or it could refer to the granddaughter’s boyfriend, who died under horrendous circumstances which I won’t spoil for you.

I do have one criticism of Man In the Dark, however, and that’s the fact that Auster’s characters are beginning to sound an awfully lot alike.  It’s not enough to turn me off, but it is something I’ve noticed in the last few books of his that I’ve read.  But again, is this simply a mistake, or is Auster experimenting somehow?  Is he driving home the fact that each character created by an author is an aspect of the author himself, and thus illustrating that they therefore should sound similar?  I don’t have the answer to that, but once more, it sure is fun to think about.

Man In the Dark is a short read, and if you enjoy experimental storytelling and style, and think you’ll be pleased with this work by a master.

The Music of Chance by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Paul Auster once again scribes a tale that lingers in the consciousness long after the initial reading.

In The Music of Chance, Auster provides an utterly unpredictable story focusing upon Jim Nashe, a firefighter who inherits an unexpected sum of money and begins driving cross-country for no real reason.  As chance would have it, he happens across a self-proclaimed poker savant just as Nashe is in danger of running out of funds.  The poker aficionado, Jack Pozzi, guarantees Nashe he can multiply Nashe’s capital if only Nashe will back him in a big, upcoming game with a couple of millionaire dunderheads.

I won’t spoil any of the outcomes, but I can tell you that Auster’s story abruptly shifts direction so often and so savagely that it’s like riding in a brakeless car – thrilling and nerve-wracking.   Furthermore, when dealing with chance, there is often no reasonable explanation, and such is the case with The Music of Chance.  Auster’s brilliance with this novel is his sheer disregard for pattern.  Don’t get me wrong, Auster is always mindful of his thematic favorites – isolation, freedom, identity – but The Music of Chance has such unforeseen events that the mind races trying to fill in the unexplained gaps.

Perhaps most hauntingly is the fact that Auster appropriately provides no answers as to why certain events occur in The Music of Chance.  In the hands of a lesser author, this would be maddening, but Auster’s rebellious plot is delivered eloquently, skillfully, and engagingly, and so his unwillingness to elucidate certain incongruities somehow serves as a strength in The Music of Chance rather than a hindrance.  Consequently, if you’re like me, you’ll take joy in dissecting these mysteries long after you’ve finished the book.

Travels In the Scriptorium by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Here’s the thing: if you’ve been reading Paul Auster for a long time, you’re going to love Travels In the Scriptorium because it was written for you.  Meaning, this little devil is so full of Easter eggs from Auster’s past works that longtime readers will have a field day.

Because I’ve read many of Auster’s works, it’s hard for me to disassociate what I’ve read before and look at Travels In the Scriptorium objectively as a stand-alone project.  If I were going to recommend this book to new Auster readers, I would say it is once again a captivating story that makes expert use of metafiction.  Auster often submits stories-within-stories in his writings, and Travels In the Scriptorium is no exception.  Furthermore, Auster explores his classic themes of isolation, identity, and self-analysis.

To the experienced Auster fan, I would say that yes, while Auster once again presents a story-within-a-story, and while he once again delves into ideas of isolation and ambiguous identity, he does so in a fresh, enjoyable manner.  I compare Auster’s talent to that of Michael Jordan.  Sure, when Jordan played, there came a time when we’d seen most of it all before, yet we still couldn’t take our eyes off of him because he made each dunk, each three-pointer, and each cross-over a thing of beauty, something far and away better than anything anyone else could ever hope to do.

Such is Auster.  I’ve read all of these themes before and seen most of the techniques, but he makes it all seem original with each new outing.  Consequently, though I won’t spoil the book, Travels In the Scriptorium covers new metafictional ground for Auster, and I think if anyone deserves to try something like what occurs in this book, it’s Auster.

I wouldn’t recommend Travels In the Scriptorium as a first read for someone new to Auster, but to those loyal Auster fans, it was a real delight for reasons you’ll notice almost immediately.