Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lost in the Mailer

Norman Mailer once wrote of Samuel Beckett that, as "he never enters a situation where any of his people might try to break out of whatever trap they are in", his work is "obsessive rather than haunting".
This is how Stephen Abell begins his review of Paul Auster's Man in the Dark. Mailer is right of course; not one of Beckett's characters kills themselves. I mean, in what other traps are his characters other than the eternity of stories? "His people" go on; they have to. Beckett's fiction explores the "obsessive" state we might call life (whatever trap that is) which, in writing, never dies. However, in life there is one way, apart from suicide, of breaking out: by writing. But this would mean including in one's writing an awareness of the trap into which one is falling; otherwise it would be a false escape. Sidney Orr in Oracle Night writes this conundrum into the story within the novel. To deny it is perhaps a symptom of a condition from which Mailer suffered badly: optimism.

Abell also uses Mailer's wrongheadness to frame his review of Auster
whose fiction has seemed resolutely to obsess about recurrent problems with little hope of resolving them: coincidence; indigence; and – most commonly – the troublesome act of writing itself.
A summary that is fair enough, except that he seems to think that the latter problem defines the work as "postmodern". He argues that there's an additional problem for readers "when the process neglects to be relevant to ... outside existences".
If postmodernism is a jail freely entered, the writer must ensure that he always looks out as well as in. When Auster writes only about writing, he removes his relation to the outside world.
Well, apart from the fact that writing (about anything) is part of "outside existences" too, "looking out as well as in" is how I'd define modernism. Writing about the process or experience of writing in itself signals nothing except an author's willingness not to exclude elements of life from his or her work considered taboo by others. Whether it is a justified use depends on the individual work.

The good news is that Abell reckons Auster includes the dual vision in the new novel (even if such things are determined less by an author's agency - suggested by "ensure" in the quotation above - than by the inspiration of the work): "It is a piece of work that is artistically life-affirming; it is postmodernism, for once, with a pulse." Postmodernism, that is, that isn't postmodernism.

I'm sure it is accepted in polite society that "outside existences" haunt writing just as the whiteness of a page haunts black ink. Yet writing also haunts the outside. Auster's inclusion in his fiction of this relentless mutuality makes him one of the few US American novelists still worth reading.

PS: Auster is the guest on the latest Bat Segundo show.


  1. Anonymous9:45 am

    Mailer is right of course; not one of Beckett's characters kills themselves.

    The narrator of 'The End' kills himself (though he does 'come back' in an earlier story).


  2. Anonymous9:02 pm

    Read Man in the Dark recently and will ponder this post as I consider what to say about it. The Beckettian element, while present, is not as explicit as in, say, The Music of Chance. My gut feeling is that this is a better work than Travels in the Scriptorium but a lesser one than Oracle Night. Nonetheless he remains, as you say, always worth reading.

  3. "Man in the Dark" is lesser Paul Auster, a plot outline, I think, a storyboard if you will, rather than a novel worth taking seriously. It's hardly a novel at all, and the tale the author gives us of a bestricken man fluctuating between two realities , ala "Slaughterhouse 5", doesn't satisfy as short story. Not that Auster is bad writer , but he is prone , like Woody Allen, to , if not overwork his themes, at least repeat them too regularly , too rapidly, the result being a string of shallow productions. There is , of course, a good amount of quality Paul Auster to be read, specifically The New York Trilogy in its entirety, "Leviathan", and "Book of Illusions". The majority of his works are sufficiently Beckett -like in their chronicling the doings of characters who are compelled without rational reason , on impulse, toward a problematic outcome. "Man in the Dark" reminded me only of better writing by the same author.



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