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Loaded For Barra II

Allen Barra's review of Paul Auster's latest is not so good.  Why?

Here we go:

"The only thing I don't read much of now," wrote the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain in her 1998 memoir, "Are You Somebody?" "are middle-range authors -- Kundera, say, or Paul Auster. Writers who play middle-level games." Middle-range sounds harsh, particularly as it veers perilously close to middlebrow -- though if I were a novelist I don't think I would mind being bracketed with Milan Kundera.

So Barra chooses to begin with a ostensibly cutting quote from someone else.  Delightful.  Unfortunately, he immediately starts to quibble with the very quote he chose--Well, I don't quite agree with calling them middle range.  And Kundera's pretty good, etc.--which raises the question of why he included O'Faolain's carping in the first place.

Proceeding down:

...[A] writer has the right to be judged from his best work, and Auster is so prolific that it's difficult to bring his entire oeuvre under one critical umbrella. I don't think I've ever met anyone who has read all his books, and among those who have read most of them there is often sharp division over which ones they think best. Those who love his enigmatic and convoluted "Moon Palace" (1989) usually don't care for his post-apocalyptic "In the Country of Lost Things" (1987); those who were delighted by the surprisingly straightforward, autobiographical "The Brooklyn Follies" (2005) don't seem to get "Timbuktu" (1999), his fable-like story told from a dog's point of view.

That "a writer has the right to be judged from his best work" is debatable.

The rest of this paragraph is water-treading at its finest.  In theory, since he's discussing the specifics of Auster (i.e., works), this has some place in a review of an Auster novel.  The problem is that he's saying absolutely nothing specific to Paul Auster.  You can insert the name of any author with a reasonably large oeuvre, along with book titles, and make the same point: It's difficult to bring [Joyce Carol Oates/Philip Roth/etc.] under one critical umbrella.  Readers who like some of [JCO's/Roth's/etc.] books don't like others.

What follows is general discussion of Auster, along with standard plot summary of Travels in the Scriptorium.  What is meant as Barra's pull-quote masterstroke--When Auster gets cooking, he's like a magician who can amaze us by sawing a woman in half; when he's not, as in "Travels in the Scriptorium," it's as if he's sawing away without a woman in the box.--makes sense as long as you don't think about it too deeply.

It also implies that Auster is about trickery, which seems insulting and inaccurate.  I think of him, generally, as a writer who combines his interest in "meta" techniques with a tender concern for the reader's entertainment that manifests as "story"--or, more accurately, "suspense."  That is, one can be assured of some storytelling in Auster, not simply the bare clockworks of "experiment" and "invention."

Let's skip to the big finish:

I fear I'm making "Travels in the Scriptorium" sound like more fun than it is; none of the characters come alive, and if it weren't for our memory of them in previous books, they'd have no identity at all. Those who aren't familiar with Auster's work may be mystified, while those who are may wonder why the characters are dragged back into service for no apparent reason. "Travels" seems less a case of "Several Characters in Search of an Author" than "One Author in Search of Himself Through His Characters." (If Auster's catalog didn't list more than 30 titles, one might suspect that "Travels" was an attempt to work himself through writer's block.)

The term "self-referential" hardly begins to describe "Travels in the Scriptorium." It's intricate, all right, and at times intriguing, but all of its puzzle parts add up to a picture of a perfect blank -- or is that the joke Auster was playing on us with his protagonist's name? Auster offers a solution of sorts to his puzzle, though none is wanted. Without wishing to tip the ending, the notion that the author is nothing without his characters is surely as wrongheaded an attitude for a writer as is possible. They're nothing without him. And the sooner Auster gets around to remembering that, the sooner he'll leave the middle-level games behind.

There's no getting around the rank, self-referential atmosphere of Scriptorium.  That it is insular is a fair criticism, and I can't imagine wanting to read it without having taken in at least 4 or 5 other works from Auster first (which would describe yours truly).  Trotting out Quinn, for example, is a somewhat empty gesture if you can't count on the reader remembering him from City of Glass.

That said, I'm not sure where Barra gets off lecturing Auster on his "attitude" or "notion" that "the author is nothing without his characters." Most glaring, I can't find that "notion" in Scriptorium, at all.  I see some literary gaming, and, at most, a consideration of the responsibility of the author to his characters (and the at times perilious relationship between the former and the latter, which has a special resonance for Auster, I'd assume, given that he inserts himself as a character into his work with Hitchcock-like regularity).

This isn't a great book*, but its faults deserve the illumination of a better critic; we know that a negative review from a skilled critic can enlighten.

Yet Barra seems willing to see just misguided notions here, pages doomed to dust, and he's stuck his pointing finger in to draw a scold's half-witted response: WASH ME.

(*As far as "character revolt" goes, you are hard-press'd to best At Swim-Two-Birds.)


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Hmm. Well, I agree that it isn't the best review ever, but I do think that Mr. Blank was intended to be an "author's nothing without his characters" sort of exploration. Nothing except a confused, horny old troll.

It is strange, though, that Barra does this: "Without wishing to tip the ending, the notion that the author is nothing without his characters is surely as wrongheaded an attitude for a writer as is possible. They're nothing without him. And the sooner Auster gets around to remembering that, the sooner he'll leave the middle-level games behind." So the notion is wrongheaded, but Barra agrees?

I notice no offer of Mulligan.

If I'm reading Barra correctly, Auster is supposed to forget about the author being nothing without his characters (wrongheaded) and instead heed Barra: "They're nothing without him."

Then he'll get past the so-called middle-level, which Barra himself cast doubt upon in P1.

Or something.

Again, this is a muddle. I don't think the point is that Blank is nothing without his characters. If anything, he's haunted and hounded by them--perhaps "diminished" to their level, ultimately, and now subject to the whim of Narrator (whoever he/she is).

No mulligan this time.

Compare and contrast. Did this negative review by a skilled critic enlighten?

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