Paul Auster: a magician who assembled mosaics of meaning and memory

Author and academic Kevin Power assesses the career of the New Yorker, whose fiction was a game of hide and seek

When Paul Auster was 14, he saw a young boy struck by lightning. This was at a summer camp in upstate New York, in July 1961. The boys were on a hike in the woods. A storm broke – “the summer storm to end all summer storms”, as Auster described it in his 1995 essay Why Write? “[E]verywhere we went, we were met by more lightning.” At last, someone spotted a meadow. “[T]o get to it, we had to crawl under a barbed-wire fence.”

Auster wriggled through; ahead of him was a boy named Ralph. Lightning struck. “I had trouble making out what happened,” Auster wrote. “All I knew was that Ralph had stopped moving […] Later, when they told me he was dead, I learned that there was an eight-inch burn across his back […] It was the barbed wire that did it, I suppose.”

The incident “absolutely changed my life”, Auster told a BBC interviewer in 2012. “I think about it every day. It never goes away.” The lesson Auster learned from Ralph’s death was the lesson of contingency. “There are very few necessary facts,” he said, in that BBC interview. “Once we’re born, we’re destined to die, and pretty much everything in between is up for grabs.”

Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947; he has just died, at his home in Brooklyn, of complications associated with lung cancer. In between, much was “up for grabs”. Auster studied English and comparative literature at Columbia, taking a BA (1966-69) and an MA (1970). After college he moved to Paris, where he scrounged work as a translator. To make extra cash, he published a novel, the baseball-themed thriller Squeeze Play (1982), under a pseudonym (Paul Benjamin, his first two names).


The same year, The Invention of Solitude, a memoir of Auster’s recently deceased father, was published to critical admiration but no great sales. “And then, suddenly, it happens there is death,” Auster writes, in the first paragraph of that book. “Death without warning. Which is to say: life stops. And it can stop at any moment.” The lightning strike, again.

In 1971 Auster married the writer Lydia Davis; they divorced in 1974 (asked about Auster in a 2013 interview, Davis said only, “Oh, yeah, I don’t go there”). Davis and Auster had a son, Daniel, who struggled in his adult life with drug addiction. In November 2021, Daniel was minding his 10-month-old daughter, Ruby, in his Brooklyn apartment. Daniel took heroin and passed out; when he awoke, Ruby was dead. An autopsy concluded that she had died of an overdose of fentanyl and heroin. A few months later, in April 2022, Daniel himself was found dead of an overdose on a subway platform in lower Manhattan.

Neither Auster nor Davis publicly discussed these events; nor did Siri Hustvedt, the writer to whom Auster was happily married from 1981 until his death. But Daniel, or a Daniel-like figure, appears in Auster’s 2003 novel Oracle Night. The novels flirted with personal trauma and self-disclosure – the narrator of Oracle Night is named Trause, an anagram of Auster; a writer named “Paul Auster” features in City of Glass, the first volume of The New York Trilogy (1985-86) – but settled, almost always, for mediation, epistemological uncertainty, word games.

Auster’s habitual method, in memoir and in fiction, was mosaic. Between the tiles of significant memory, what? Often, the answer was padding, or cliche. Winter Journal (2012), a memoir, consists mostly of stock phrases: “The awful sting of the cold”; “A pounding storm”. The Washington Post critic Michael Dirda praised Auster’s style as “limpid”; Michelle Dean of the Los Angeles Times called parts of The New York Trilogy “surpassingly beautiful”. Others were not so charitable. “Although there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction,” James Wood wrote in 2009, “the prose is never one of them”.

Auster’s least successful books might tell us something about the relationship between contingency (the music of chance) and cliche (the music of emptied forms). Contingency, as an aesthetic given, tends to undermine meaning from the ground up. Where meaning is absent, dead language creeps in. Auster never quite managed to reconcile his epiphany about randomness (that lightning strike) with the essentially dialectical nature of literature’s relationship with the real, and with its responsibilities to see the world anew. Hence the placeholding cliches. Hence the recurring obsessions, turning sterile as the books piled up.

You could also say that a cloud of cliche is not just an aesthetic failing; it can also be a place to hide. Auster’s work – across 40-odd volumes of fiction, nonfiction, poetry – teeters bewilderingly between the higher evasiveness (a serious attempt to render the mediated nature of the postmodern self) and the lower evasiveness (bluster, boilerplate, banality). Now you see him, now you only think you do.

That Auster’s first published novel was a pseudonymous thriller is significant. All his life, he was a hermit crab, occupying the discarded shells of popular fiction – yet another place to hide. His novels are full of detectives, actual and metaphorical; they tend not to find out very much. The New York Trilogy parodies the detective story by sending its murder mystery plots down rabbitholes of epistemological ambiguity. Oracle Night riffs on Dashiell Hammett’s parable, in The Maltese Falcon (1930), about Flitcraft, the man who walks out of his successful life when a near miss with a falling girder shows him the randomness underlying everything.

Auster infiltrated the locked room of genre storytelling – all plot details sealed up tight – with serious questions about how we know what we know, how we assemble the tiles of our own mosaics of meaning, how stories shape our lives without our noticing. At the same time, he was the exemplary magician, directing your attention away from the serious questions he wasn’t asking – or answering.

Twenty years ago, The New York Trilogy looked like a fairly safe bet for canonical status. But literary fashion has moved on. (Another lightning strike.) For interested parties, Auster’s best, and most representative, book is probably Leviathan. Its opening sentence (“Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin”) ushers you superbly into Auster’s world of accident and memory. After that, as Auster’s various narrators will certainly remind you, you are, like the rest of us, on your own.

Kevin Power is a novelist, critic and assistant professor of creative writing at Trinity College Dublin.

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