Friday, November 16, 2012

Unsolved Mystery: Paul Auster





When a close friend turned you on to Paul Auster eight years ago with a copy of Moon Palace, you happened to be in the process of sorting through the broken pieces of a personal crisis, wrestling with obscure matters of the soul.  In other words, you were completely vulnerable to the writer's haunting, literary, tractor beam and remain in its grip to this day.  When you hover near his novels amid the local bookstore shelves and run your fingers across the spines, your breath shortens and your eyes sting, and if you close them, you could just as easily be kneeling in a cemetery before a weathered headstone.  To you his words are the literary equivalent of a séance, his books ouija boards. 

Since you fortuitously discovered Auster in a valley, it's almost difficult for you to recommend that anyone pick him up during a shiny happy run of life.  That's not to say that you find his novels to be entirely bleak -- though most do tend to feature a protagonist whose world has crumbled -- because that would be denying the spirit that permeates his entire body of work: When we fall apart, when our support system fizzles, it doesn't have to be failure or the end; it can be a chance to see what we’re made of, to refresh and redefine.  So for you it was empathy in a bottle. 

Those wounds are now scars, and when you look back many years later, you are oddly thankful that things went to hell for a stretch because you believe it woke you up from so much sleepwalking.  And though it pissed you off immensely during the darkest days when friends dispensed the trite though well-intended cliché, they turned out to be right about the healing powers of time.  Today, when you pore over the latest Auster novel, which you always seem to anticipate with equal parts fear and excitement, you regularly pause to digest the language of certain passages, lingering, rereading, embracing a character, always wishing you could have a chat with the man behind these pages. 

The day Winter Journal drops, you call Politics & Prose, your favorite of the few remaining locally owned shops in town, to ask if they have the second memoir in stock.  The clerk offers to hold a copy at the front desk and, to your sudden delight, adds that the author will be reading and answering questions in the store a week later.  Your wish is granted, and suddenly you recall the phrase, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. 

When the date arrives, the bookstore posts this tweet:


Your knee-jerk giggle yields to a ripple of panic over the scale of the crowd and the question of what time you should plan to beat it to score four seats.  You’ve never been forward or blunt enough to be that guy who saves seats and feigns ignorance over what a rude asshole it portrays him to be.

Since your local go-to spot, Buck’s Fishing & Camping, sits doors away from Politics & Prose, it makes perfect sense to linger over a Manhattan while you skim the memoir and glance at your watch.  The owner, who rarely graces the place, typically logging more time at his nearby hipster pizza joint, flutters about the Buck’s dining room fussing over flower arrangement and candles.  The last time you saw him in such OCD lather ahead of a dinner rush, Julian Schnabel was the guest of honor, who incidentally and inexplicably wore pajamas for the occasion.  It doesn’t take much foresight to guess who will be coming to dinner tonight. 

You see very few, if any, hipsters in Politics & Prose and no flannel whatsoever.  The audience turns out to be mostly senior citizens.  All the hand wringing over seats and timing was for naught -- yet another lesson about the futility of worrying that you will ignore.  You find space in the back row next to a hunchbacked, little old man clutching a duffel bag stuffed with Auster’s books.  You assume he resides in one of the assisted living quarters on a nearby stretch of Connecticut Avenue that is often frequented by paramedics – a corridor of decrepitude.  That is to say, you peg him as alone but clearly well read, and you wonder what void the writer fills for him.

Paul Auster comes to the pulpit, and you are frozen, entranced.  You’ve listened to readings online so are familiar with the warmth of his tone and cadence, even when the subject is depressing.  He does not waste time, just dives right into reading various passages from the memoir in no particular order.  When he launches into one segment about James Joyce, you know the vulgar direction it’s headed and brace yourself.

Keats to begin with, but no sooner do you think of This living hand than you are reminded of a story someone once told you about James Joyce, Joyce in Paris in the 1920s, standing around at a party eighty-five years ago when a woman walked up to him and asked if she could shake the hand that wrote Ulysses.  Instead of offering her his right hand, Joyce lifted it in the air, studied it for a few moments, and said: “Let me remind you, madam, that this hand has done many other things as well.”  No details given, but what a delicious piece of smut and innuendo, all the more effective because he left everything to the woman’s imagination.  What did he want her to see?  Wiping his ass, probably, picking his nose, masturbating in bed at night, sticking his fingers into Nora’s cunt and diddling her bunghole, popping pimples, scraping food from his teeth, plucking out nostril hairs, disgorging wax from his ears – fill in the appropriate blanks, the central point being: whatever was most disgusting to her.

The sight of so many old folks squirming in their chairs, fidgeting with their collars, when he dropped that glorious C-bomb will stick with you for some time.  You bite a hole in your lip to contain your laughter.  The balls on him to throw that passage into the night’s mix.  It’s one thing to read filthy words in private, but to hear them read aloud in a room full of gray hair?  You applaud him.

However, when it all boils down, you blow it.  You don’t find the courage to approach the open microphone during the Q&A, despite the litany of questions you’ve been harboring for years, and when your turn comes to have your book signed, a last merciful chance at redemption, you wilt with some poorly articulated comment to the effect of ‘thanks for the insomnia,’ to which he replies while scribbling, ‘I can’t win.’  Eight years of literary crushing on this guy, and you are suddenly a nervous, pale-faced, loser tween backstage with Justin Bieber.  You are pathetic, so off you shuffle with your signed book to Buck’s bar where your wife and friends are dying to know how it went, since they know how monumental the moment was, or was to be.  Reluctantly you share the truth about how it transpired and feel generally lousy as you watch Auster and entourage enter the restaurant. 

Two hours later, your blood alcohol level surpasses your level of regret, and your recent moment-of-truth whimper fades into the shadows of the night.  Feeling loose and getting loud, you keep going back to that C-bomb, insisting to your crew that you should have just thanked him for that gem, scored the signature and moved along.  Soon Auster strolls by the bar with two crusty old jackals and out the door for a cigarette.  The decision is wisely made, not by you, to call it a night, so you settle up and stumble outside.  Suddenly you have a newfound, ill-advised craving for reconciliation and approach the patio café table where he and his companions are huddled.  You open with a caveman ‘Hey,’ but that’s as far as you get because you realize that both of the leeches flanking him, pressed against him really, point recording devices, like small pistols, at his face, and you have interrupted what suddenly feels like a seedy ménage a trois or gangbang.  All three of them look at you, but you are focused on Auster’s expression, which to this day you cannot decode.  Was it one of gluttonous pleasure?  Or was it the face of a listless, abused victim? 

Either way, the scene rattles and fills you with regret about ever venturing to look behind the curtain in the first place, so you retreat.  As you slink into the back seat of a cab you are clobbered by the epiphany that sometimes it’s just better to leave your idols on the pedestal, to give them space, to keep your distance and to embrace the mystery.