Wood's Auster(e) review

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I haven't read any of Paul Auster's novels.  But after reading Clancy Martin's review of Invisible in The New York Times Book review, I added Invisible to my list of "books I want to read."  I was particularly impressed by praise like,

  • "'It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written,'" and
  • "The prose is contemporary American writing at its best: crisp, elegant, brisk.  It has the illusion of effortlessness that comes only with fierce discipline.  As often happens when you are in the hands of a master, you read the next sentence almost before you are finished with the previous one."
Such effulgence seems to have annoyed James Wood, The New Yorker's book reviewer.  In his review of Invisible, he complains, "[Auster's] pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue."  In his vehemence, Wood targets not merely Auster, but also the competitor reviewers who might challenge Wood's assessment, which covers not merely Invisible, but Auster's entire career.  Wood has written a hit piece on Paul Auster.

Wood is, of course, entitled to write whatever he wants, and his opinions about authors are no less informative - indeed, they're undoubtedly a good deal more informed - than most you'd read in a general-interest publication.  But the energy and apparent meanness with which Wood trashes Auster's oeuvre is thought-provoking.

Wood begins his review by parodying Auster's novels, a technique that Wood himself describes as "unfair."  (He justifies himself by qualifying that his unfairness is "diligently so," as if careful, systematic unfairness is better than the sloppy, random sort.)

Wood then works very hard to characterize apparent strengths in Auster's writing (e.g., readable prose) as weaknesses:

One reads Auster's novels very fast, because they are lucidly written, because the grammar of the prose is the grammar of the most familiar realism (the kind that is, in fact, comfortingly artificial), and because the plots, full of sneaky turns and surprises and violent irruptions, have what the Times once called "all the suspense and pace of a bestselling thriller."  There are no semantic obstacles, lexical difficulties, or syntactical challenges.  The books fairly hum along.
If you don't understand that Wood means this description as a negative criticism, he insists in summation, "Although there are things to admire in Auster's fiction, the prose is never one of them."  (Compare what Clancy Martin says about Auster's prose: "You want to reread Invisible because it moves quickly, easily, somehow sinuously, and you worry that there were good parts that you read right past, insights that you missed. . . . The novel could be read shallowly, because it is such a pleasure to read.")

Wood also glosses over other reported strengths in Invisible with toss-off parethentical praise:  "The second section of Walker's narrative contains a scandalous (and quite touching) account of an incestuous affair that Walker carried on with his sister."  (Clancy Martin describes the passage this way:  "It's five or 10 exceptionally beautiful, disturbing pages, and it [the incest] is occasioned by their mourning the loss of a long-dead younger brother.")

The point of my analysis is not the unremarkable fact that critics can disagree about a book, but the unusual emphasis that Wood seems to place on dismissing Auster, otherwise recognized as a major American writer.  Indeed, far from disagreeing, Wood and Martin are united in their conclusion that some of Auster's preceding novels are tiresome.  Wood diagnoses Auster's fundamental problem (somewhat opaquely) as follows:

What is problematic about these books is not their postmodern skepticism about the stability of the narrative, which is standard-issue fare, but the gravity and the emotional logic that Auster tries to extract from the "realist" side of his stories.  Auster is always at his most solemn at those moments in his books which are least plausible and most ragingly unaffecting. Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched. (The disassembly is also grindingly explicit, spelled out in billboard-size type.) Presence fails to turn into significant absence, because presence was not present enough. 
Martin (somewhat more accessibly) explains: 

I was not a fan of Auster's last few books.  Invisible is his 15th novel, and I was afraid that this would be, as I felt with his recent work, another instance of Auster playing Auster - a kind of arch exercise in the clever but cloying metaphysics of textual irony, a cat-and-mouse toying with the fiction and the reader . . . . One leaves the text and feels that one has been left with nothing. The irony vacuums out the content and, with it, our interest.
Nonetheless, Martin is open to the possibility that Auster's new book is a worthwhile departure from "another instance of Auster playing Auster," but Wood is not.  And Wood's pinched and pitched closure is not entirely understandable from the face of his review.

Interestingly, what Invisible prompts in Martin is the observation that, "Love is always invisible, and in our world of hard-nosed materialists . . . our highest good is something we can never really see or grab hold of . . . . What we take as the real world is not the world that matters most to us: the substance of our lives takes place in an invisible realm."

Perhaps Martin is too optimistic in failing to mention that, jealousy, like love, is also invisible, and that getting a grip on our least attractive aspects is at least as difficult, if not more so, as grabbing hold of our "highest good."  That substance of our lives is never solely positive . . . and rightly so.

(Photo from The Age)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on December 21, 2009 11:50 PM.

All I really need to know I . . . don't appear to have learned yet was the previous entry in this blog.

Off-road, unmapped and out of her mind is the next entry in this blog.

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