t least since Alexander Pope, literature has been drafting dogs into service as metaphysical guides: ''I am his Highness' Dog at Kew; / Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?'' The protagonist of Paul Auster's latest novel, ''Timbuktu,'' may be a ''hodgepodge of genetic strains'' who's all burrs and bad smells, with a ''perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes,'' but he carries on that tradition. Unable to speak (though he can passably render the anapest of his three-syllable name: ''woof woof woof''), Mr. Bones opens the novel in a state of near-pure ontological terror, mostly because Willy G. Christmas, the homeless man who has been his boon companion and spiritual adviser, isn't long for this world, and in such a case, what's a poor dog to do? ''Every thought, every memory, every particle of the earth and air was saturated with Willy's presence. . . . Subtract Willy from the world, and the odds were that the world itself would cease to exist.''
Together Willy and Mr. Bones have walked to Baltimore from Brooklyn in the hopes of persuading Willy's high school English teacher, out of touch for 17 years, to provide a new home for Mr. Bones and become the literary executor of Willy's lifework: 74 notebooks crammed into a locker at the bus terminal. Willy considers himself an ''outlaw poet prowling the gutters of a ruined world.'' Primed by a lifetime of voluntarily ingesting ''enough toxic confections to fill a dump site in the Jersey Meadowlands,'' he experienced, years earlier, a mystical encounter with blessedness in the form of a television Santa excoriating him and exhorting him to goodness, as if in a Beat version of ''A Christmas Carol.'' Since then, he's been trying to make the world a better place, with Mr. Bones as sidekick.
Now, coughing up blood, Willy is clearly headed for the next world, ''an oasis of spirits'' where you become ''a speck of antimatter lodged in the brain of God.'' He names that world Timbuktu, the colloquial site of the unimaginably exotic and distant. To his dog, the word alone seems ''a promise, a guarantee of better days ahead.'' But will poor Mr. Bones take the trip too, when his time comes? Willy expires before he makes this clear; his friend will have to figure it out for himself. But this is only fitting, given that he's named for the comedian at the end of the line in the minstrel show who gets peppered with questions from the straight man.
Fans of Auster's work will recognize some familiar themes in ''Timbuktu'': the nature of solitude and memory; the lost father and abandoned son; the power of contingency; the confrontation between the individual and the void. Here, as in his New York Trilogy, the forms of popular culture are enlisted in the service of the most weighty sorts of meditations.
At times, the book flaunts the fairy-tale simplicity of its plot. ''Thus began an exemplary friendship between dog and boy,'' we're told after Willy's death leaves Mr. Bones free to find another companion. A ''new chapter in Mr. Bones's life began,'' we're informed at another stage in his adventures. Angelic benefactresses appear as needed to shelter both man and dog. It's as if everything that might clutter our perception of the central issues has been pared away or simplified.
Yet this particular fairy tale is also constructed with cultural detritus, since nowadays there's all this gunk gumming up the imaginative works. A little girl, reacting to Mr. Bones's general dilapidation, exclaims, ''There's nothing wrong with him that a little soap and water can't fix,'' and ''We've just got to keep him, Mama. I'll get down on my hands and knees and pray to Jesus for the rest of the day if it'll make Daddy say yes.'' In the meantime, we're provided with persistent hints of a self-conscious design at work: ''What was true, what was false? It was difficult to know when dealing with a character as complex and fanciful as Willy G. Christmas.'' ''Pure corn will cure porn,'' Willy remarks. Later he confesses that ''it feels good to let the purple stuff come pouring out sometimes.'' Mr. Bones becomes an actual fly on the wall to witness an important moment. There are references to dreams within dreams. And Paul Auster as a character peeks out, sometimes half-hidden, sometimes not, from within the machinery of the plot. The book even provides its own operating instructions. ''The thing I look like is the thing I am,'' the television Santa tells Willy. ''This unlikeliest of fictions . . . this absurd display of hokum,'' we learn, ''had sprung forth from the depths of Television Land to debunk the certitudes of Willy's skepticism and put his soul back together again. It was as simple as that.''
Unfortunately, gunk is still gunk, and however self-conscious the intent, the reader still must negotiate the occasional sentence like ''How could a man of his ilk propose to don the mantle of purity?'' or endure the Norman Rockwellish brio of archetypal collisions between boy and dog: ''The little fellow howled with laughter, and even though the thrust of Mr. Bones's tongue eventually made him lose his balance, the rough-and-tumble Tiger thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to him, and he went on laughing under the barrage of the dog's kisses even as he thudded to the ground on his wet bottom.''
Things also get thematically insistent for those of us slow to make connections. ''Dog as metaphor, if you catch my drift, dog as emblem of the downtrodden,'' Willy lectures our hero. And later: ''People get treated like dogs, too, my friend.'' Such moments seem more committed to providing answers than to fully interrogating questions.
Ultimately, though, ''Timbuktu'' is much smarter than either of its seekers of wisdom, and there are periodic flashes of gorgeous prose to prove it. For Mr. Bones, we're told, the word ''Tucson'' bears ''the scent of juniper leaves and sagebrush, the sudden, unearthly plenitude of the vacant air.''
On his own, Mr. Bones samples urban, suburban and rural America, and after being partly seduced -- especially by the ''splendor and well-being'' of a yuppie household -- he decides to go his own way, understanding that his own health is failing. When the departed Willy suggests in a dream that his friend transmute Sparky, the humiliating new name he's been given in suburbia, into Sparkatus (the dog who sought to free Rome's slaves?), we begin to see where all this is headed. Throughout his story, Mr. Bones has been demonstrating the ways in which we're both haunted by and find solace in memory, and as he comes to understand the uses of memory in the construction of dreams, he begins to move into the presence of a beauty ''beyond the boundaries of hard fact,'' a place where our solitude is alleviated -- the Timbuktu he's been seeking. Its threshold is ''a spectacle of pure radiance, a field of overpowering light.''
Mr. Bones has earned his election. He's convinced us that he harbors a divine presence, possibly first and foremost because he is the thing he appears to be: a dog unshakably devoted to his longtime companion. Their connection has allowed them both access to a world beyond themselves, a glimpse of a kind of continuum that puts their own mortality into perspective. Contemplating Willy's death, Mr. Bones is better armed to face his own, and vice versa. Unable actually to speak, he has communicated all he hoped to and more: ''He was painfully aware of how far from fluency these noises fell, but Willy always let him have his say, and in the end that was all that mattered.''
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Paul Auster 1947-
American novelist, poet, memoirist, essayist, critic, screenplay writer, translator, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Auster's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 47.
A provocative experimental novelist whose work represents an amalgam of several genres, Paul Auster is best known for his New York Trilogy, which consists of City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1987). In these novels and others, he combines elements of hard-boiled detective fiction, film noir, dystopian fantasy, and postmodern narrative strategies to address the possibility of certain knowledge, human redemption, and the function of language. His ambitious work is distinguished for challenging the limits of the novel form and tackling difficult epistemological concepts.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Auster was raised by parents Samuel, a landlord, and Queenie on the outskirts of New York City in the North Jersey suburbs. His interest in literature is indirectly attributed to his uncle, translator Allan Mandelbaum, who left a box of books at the Auster home while away in Europe. The teenaged Auster began reading them and soon resolved to become a writer himself. Upon graduating from high school, he attended Columbia University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1969 and an M.A. in 1970. While still in college, he wrote both poetry and prose and participated in campus protests against the Vietnam War. He then worked as a merchant seaman for several months to fund a move to France, where he remained for four years and worked a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet. In 1974, he married writer and translator Lydia Davis, with whom he shares a son; they divorced in 1979 and Auster remarried Siri Hustuedt in 1981. After returning to New York, Auster published his first two books—the thin poetry collections Unearth (1974) and Wall Writing (1976). He was awarded Ingram Merrill Foundation grants in 1975 and 1982, as well as National Endowment of the Arts fellowships in 1979 and 1985. Auster continued to labor in relative obscurity as a poet, essayist, and translator of French literature until the publication of his first novel, City of Glass, which was rejected by seventeen publishers before Sun & Moon Press finally issued the book in 1985. The novel was nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 1986. The third volume of his New York Trilogy,The Locked Room, was also nominated for several awards. Auster taught creative writing at Princeton University from 1986 to 1990. In 1994 he collaborated with director Wayne Wang on the films Smoke and Blue in the Face, which he co-directed. Auster was awarded the prestigious Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts des et des Lettres in 1993.
Though Auster's fiction eludes easy classification, his novels embody several recurring elements: the use of metafictional narrative techniques, textual puzzles, doppelgangers, ironic distancing, and self-reflexivity to underscore the relationship between past and present and the ambiguous nature of language and identity. While instances of confused or mistaken identity are common in the mystery genre, Auster adapts this stock device into a metaphor for contemporary urban life in his New York Trilogy, deliberately blurring the distinction between author and text. City of Glass, a grim and intellectually puzzling story, superficially resembles a mystery novel that exploits the conventions of the detective genre. The protagonist, Quinn, is a pseudonymous mystery novelist who assumes the identity of a real detective, named Paul Auster, after receiving a phone call intended for Auster. Lonely and bored, Quinn accepts the case in Auster's place. His assignment is to shadow Stillman, a brilliant linguistics professor whose obsessive quest to rediscover humanity's primordial language compelled him to isolate his own son in a closet for nine years. Newly released from a mental hospital, Stillman poses a threat to his son's life, prompting the need for a detective. In Ghosts, the second volume of the trilogy, Auster continues his investigation into lost identity with increasing abstraction, including characters identified only as Blue, White, and Black. The novel's coy tone and austere plot—a detective named Blue is contracted by a client named White to pursue a man named Black—places the action in a cerebral context largely disconnected from reality. The trilogy's concluding volume, The Locked Room, is less abstract and more accessible than the previous two. This novel features flesh and blood characters with whom readers can easily identify, including a nameless first-person narrator who ostensibly represents Auster himself. The narrator is summoned by the wife of a childhood friend named Fanshawe who has disappeared and is presumed dead. A fantastically gifted writer, Fanshawe has left behind some unpublished writings as well as instructions for his friend to see them into print. As time passes, the narrator easily moves into Fanshawe's existence, marrying his wife, publishing his work, and eventually engendering rumors that he is actually Fanshawe or, at least, the man who created the works. His deception is finally jeopardized when he receives a communication from the real Fanshawe.
In the Country of Last Things (1987), published the same year as The Locked Room, is an epistolary novel depicting a dystopian American city of the future. As in previous works, this novel evinces Auster's abiding interest in the nature of language and reality. The protagonist, Anna Blume, travels from one continent to a large metropolis on another, where she hopes to find her missing brother. Instead, she discovers a city in chaos where criminals brazenly exploit the desperate and homeless, “Runners” trot themselves to death, and “Leapers” jump to their deaths from the city's crumbling skyscrapers. Anna relates her search through this hellish environment in a letter to someone left behind on the other continent. Though Auster seems to have shifted from mystery to science fiction, In the Country of Last Things shares many of the narrative devices and thematic preoccupations of his New York Trilogy, most apparently the search for identity, also the central theme of Moon Palace (1989), a postmodern bildungsroman around the theme of lost family. In this story, the protagonist is Marco Stanley Fogg, an orphan who eventually becomes homeless in New York City after running out of money while studying at Columbia University. After recovering in the care of a college friend and a Chinese woman, Marco goes to work for an eccentric old man who turns out to be his paternal grandfather. The remainder of the narrative follows Marco's journey of discovery and loss as he encounters his previously unknown relatives and records the fantastic tales of his grandfather's youth. Auster's next novel, The Music of Chance (1990), begins as a generative personal journey, bringing to mind such fictional characters as Mark Twain's Huck Finn, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, and Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty. Protagonist Jim Nashe hits the road in search of self-knowledge after his wife leaves him and he receives an inheritance from his deceased father. His tour of the country winds down at about the same time as his money runs out, whereupon he meets a young gambler, Pozzi, who entices him into a poker game with two eccentric lottery winners from Pennsylvania. The two lose what they have and fall further into debt. In order to pay off the debt, Nashe and Pozzi are forced to build a stone wall for the eccentrics. Auster continued the thematic and stylistic concerns of his previous novels in Leviathan (1992), whose title brings to mind the legendary ocean beast and the seventeenth-century political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. The opening event of this novel is actually its denouement—the death by explosion of a New York writer, Benjamin Sachs. What follows—a reconstruction of precipitating events—is facilitated by Peter Aaron, another New York writer who learns of Sachs's bizarre death and becomes obsessed with writing the story of his friend. Aaron's investigation uncovers a world of secrets, multiple and exchanged identities, and previously unknown connections between characters.
In Mr. Vertigo (1994), Auster relates the story of Walter Rawley, also known as “Walt the Wonder Boy” and “Mr. Vertigo.” Set in the Midwest of the 1920s, Walt is an orphaned street urchin who is offered a new life by a mystical showman, named Master Yehudi, who teaches Walt to levitate. The two, along with a Sioux Indian woman and an Ethiopian boy, barnstorm the country, growing increasingly famous on their way toward Broadway. However, on the verge of stardom, Walt loses his gift for levitating. He begins to wander and eventually ends up in the mobster underworld of Chicago. Timbuktu (1999) revolves around a poignant relationship between a middle-aged homeless man named Willy G. Christmas and his dog, Mr. Bones. The narrative is notable for its unusual dog's-eye perspective, as an omniscient narrator relates the story through the observations of Mr. Bones. In anticipation of his death, Willy travels with Mr. Bones from Brooklyn to Baltimore to establish a new home for his dog and to vouchsafe the manuscript of his epic lifework with a former high school English teacher. After Willy's death, Mr. Bones passes through a succession of new owners—some loving, some cruel—as he traverses rural, suburban, and urban America. Throughout, Mr. Bones is sustained by his continuing love for the deceased Willy and the promise of their reunion in an afterlife destination called Timbuktu. Auster's various volumes of nonfiction and translation further display his diverse literary talents and knowledge of international literature. The Invention of Solitude (1982), a memoir written after the death of his father, details Auster's relationship with and impressions of his father. Through a discursive and fragmented presentation, this book also contains discussions of authors such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Carlos Collodi. In addition, Auster has translated works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Dupin, and Mallarmé, edited the Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (1982), and published a collection of essays and interviews entitled The Art of Hunger (1992).
Often regarded as a postmodern writer, a default classification due to his metafictional techniques and ironic posturing, Auster is noted for his idiosyncratic work, which resists simple categorization. His critical reputation rests largely upon his New York Trilogy, which was enthusiastically received by reviewers, winning him respect as a formidable new literary talent during the mid-1980s. While The Locked Room is judged by many to be the richest and most compelling book of the trilogy, all three volumes have been commended for their facile appropriation—and dismantling—of conventional detective motifs to expose contradictory aspects of reality, literary artifice, and self-perception. Additional genre-defying novels such as Moon Palace,The Music of Chance,Leviathan,Mr. Vertigo, and Timbuktu won critical approval for tackling difficult themes without sacrificing the pleasures of entertainment or alienating the reader. Though some commentators have dismissed Auster's intellectual game-playing as unconvincing and gratuitous, and others find his wit and symbolism labored, most critics praise his sophisticated narrative structures, lucid prose, and daring forays into the philosophical paradoxes surrounding issues of linguistic self-invention and metaphysical doubt. Auster's innovative work is appreciated by many critics for reclaiming the vitality of contemporary experimental literature, for which he is widely regarded as one of the foremost American novelists of his generation.