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Auster, Paul

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1947-2024) US translator, screenwriter and author, active from around 1970, who came to sudden attention – after years of unrecognized work, culminating in an undemanding Baseball mystery, Squeeze Play (1984) as by Paul Benjamin – with a series of Fabulations playing on detective genres and the French nouveau roman. City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986), assembled as The New York Trilogy (omni 1987), though not sf, interrogate the narrative abysses between self and reality in a manner evocative of the Fantastika of an author like Franz Kafka, who was also pre-occupied with fathers lost and persistent. Moon Palace (1989) more overtly achieves an Equipoise between "realistic" narration and a literal reading of its picaresque metaphorical structure, which may be seen as lunatic, en passant invoking Nikola Tesla, a mysterious boxed Library and a surreal vision of the American West (including long excepts from an sf-like Western). Three later novels – Leviathan (1992), which features systematic destruction of models of the Statue of Liberty; The Music of Chance (1990), which houses a potential model of the model City featured in the tale, and within that another (see Great and Small); and Oracle Night (2003), in which a blank notebook inflicts devastating premonitions upon its owner – gain a similar goal, that of achieving a fantastic effect through adherence to what might be called an Equipoise of sequence: a storyline whose mirrorings and prolepses and exquisitely narrated culmination inherently violate mimesis.

Two novels can be understood through an sf lens. Mr. Vertigo (1994) is a Magic Realist vision of early twentieth-century America as remembered by an old man who, in his elated childhood, was literally able to fly. The narrator of the fantasy, Timbuktu (1999), is a Dog, and the protagonist of the illustrated "essay", The Story of My Typewriter (graph 2002) illustrated by Sam Messer, may be the typewriter Auster used to transcribe his handwritten manuscripts. The Book of Illusions (2002), like Theodore Roszak's Flicker (1991), plunges spelunker-deep into the past of California Cinema, where a long-disappeared director is discovered who may not be real. The possible imagined contents of a notebook in Oracle Night (2003) torment two blocked novelists with hints that the future is being predicted within (see Prediction). Travels in the Scriptorium (2006) is a study of Amnesia that edges into the fantastic; Man in the Dark (2008), set partly in an Alternate World America where the Twin Towers did not fall, sees little joy in this, as the land falls into civil war: but this terror may be imagined by the tale's protagonist, whose life has collapsed.

In the Country of Last Things (1987), on the other hand, is sufficiently firm about its Near Future New York setting – and the nightmarishly Entropic landscape its protagonist must traverse, the entire city being imprisoned by a vast Sea Wall Project (see Keep) – for it to be understood as latter-day sf, the sort of sf in which recognizing the world is tantamount to perceiving it as a Novum. 4 3 2 1 (2017) begins with the birth of its protagonist (exactly one month after the birth of Auster himself) whose life fissures into four separate versions set in four Parallel Worlds, any Jonbar Points involved being skidded over; the tale clearly echoes Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (2013) and even more clearly Jo Walton's Her Real Children (2014). Though it lacks the political cruces of the first, or the Feminist bite of the latter, the intensity of Auster's depiction of his four lives, which subtly echo each other, distinguishes it. He is further distinguished from many of his peers by a difficult-to-pin-down but remarkably engaging storyteller gift: some of his most seemingly abstruse fictions are in fact page-turners. [JC]

Paul Benjamin Auster

born Newark, New Jersey: 3 February 1947

died New York: 30 April 2024



New York Trilogy

  • City of Glass (Los Angeles, California: Sun and Moon Press, 1985) [New York Trilogy: hb/]
    • Paul Auster's City of Glass (New York: Avon Books, 1994) [graph: adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli: New York Trilogy: illus/pb/David Mazzucchelli]
  • Ghosts (Los Angeles, California: Sun and Moon Press, 1986) [New York Trilogy: hb/]
  • The Locked Room (Los Angeles, California: Sun and Moon Press, 1986) [New York Trilogy: hb/]
    • The New York Trilogy (London: Faber and Faber, 1987) [omni of the above three: New York Trilogy: hb/Irene von Treskow]

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