Paul Auster on Writing in Oracle Night

Auster Oracle NightI usually find it kind of boring or annoying when writers write about writers (and about writers writing, especially, or even worse, about writers struggling to write), but Paul Auster has managed to do it well, both in his autobiographical Hand to Mouth (a review of which I wrote in 2006, though it was lost to the aether at the time and I never rewrote it), and in the book I’m reading now, Oracle Night. A snippet from the novel, wherein a the narrator is writing fiction, for the first time in a long time, and just getting into the groove of it. He’s got nothing but a sketched scene–one based on his own life, the narrator’s I mean–and he’s flying a little blind as he describes a man (loosely based on himself, again, the narrator of the book, I mean) falling in love at first sight with a woman who comes to his publishing office one day:

There were other decisions to be made, of course, a host of significant details that still had to be conjured up  and worked into the scene–for purposes of fullness and authenticity, for narrative ballast. How long has Rosa been living in New York? for example. What does she do there? Does she have a job and, if so, is the job important to her or simply a means of generating enough money to cover the rent? What about the status of her love life? Is she single or married, attached or unattached, on the prowl or patiently waiting for the right person to come along? My first impulse was to make her a photographer, or perhaps an assistant film editor–work that was connected to images, not words, just as Grace’s job was. Definitely unmarried, definitely never married, but perhaps involved with someone, or, even better, perhaps recently broken up after a long, tortured affair. I didn’t want to dwell on any of those questions for the time being, nor on similar questions relating to Nick’s wife–profession, family background, taste in music, books, and so on. I wasn’t writing the story yet, I was merely sketching out the action in rough strokes, and I couldn’t afford to bog myself down in the minutiae of secondary concerns. That would have forced me to stop and think, and for the moment I was only interested in forging ahead, in seeing where the pictures in my mind were going to take me. It wasn’t about control; it wasn’t even about making choices. My job that morning was simply to follow what was happening inside me, and in order to do that I had to keep the pen moving as fast as I could.

And just a couple of pages later, as if to refute some of the above, his characters snap into vivid life even sans narrative ballast and the million details, just by the way they speak… or, at least, one of them does:

Nick is not a rogue or a seducer of women. He has not made a habit of cheating on his wife during the course of their marriage, and he is not aware of having any designs on Sylvia Maxwell’s granddaughter now. But there is no question that he feels attracted to her, that he has been pulled in by the iridescence and simplicity of her manner, and the moment she stands up and leaves the office, it flashes through his mind–an unbidden thought, the figurative thunderclap of lust–that he would probably do anything to go to bed with this woman, even to the point of sacrificing his marriage. Men produce such thoughts twenty times a day, and just because a person experiences a momentary flicker of arousal doesn’t mean he has any intention of acting on the impulse, but still, no sooner does Nick play out the thought in his head than he feels disgusted with himself, stung by a sensation of guilt. To appease his conscience, he calls his wife at her office (law firm, brokerage house, hospital–to be determined later) and announces that he is going to book a reservation at their favorite downtown restaurant and take her to dinner that night. They meet there at eight o’clock. Things go pleasantly enough through drinks and the appetizer course, but then they begin to discuss some minor household matter (a broken chair, the imminent arrival of one of Eva’s cousins in New York, a thing of no importance), and soon they have fallen into an argument. Not a vehement one, perhaps, but enough irritation enters their voices to destroy the mood. Nick apologizes and Eva accepts; Eva apologizes and Nick accepts; but the conversation has gone flat, and there is no recapturing the harmony of just a few minutes ago. By the time the main course is delivered to the table, they are both sitting there in silence. The restaurant is packed, humming with animation, and as Nick absently casts his eyes around the room, he catches sight of Rosa Leightman, sitting at a corner table with five or six other people. Eva notices him looking off in that direction and asks if he’s seen someone he knows. That girl, Nick says. She was in my office this morning. He goes on to tell her something about Rosa, mentions the novel written by her grandmother, Sylvia Maxwell, and then tries to change the subject, but Eva has turned her head by then and is looking across the room at Rosa’s table. She’s very beautiful, Nick says, don’t you think? Not bad, Eva answers. But strange hair, Nicky, and really terrible clothes. It doesn’t matter, Nick says. She’s alive–more alive than anyone I’ve met in months. She’s the kind of woman who could turn a man inside out.

It’s an awful thing for a man to say to his wife, especially to a wife who feels her husband has begun to drift away from her. Well, Eva says defensively, too bad you’re stuck with me. Would you like me to go over there and ask her to join us? I’ve never seen a man turned inside out before. Maybe I’ll learn something. Realizing the thoughtless cruelty of what he’s just said, Nick tries to undo the damage. I wasn’t talking about myself, he replies. I just meant a man–any man. Man in the abstract.

Which, of course, is exactly what Nick is here: man in the abstract. (Just as Rosa is, in his mind, woman in the abstract, or, more specifically, “another woman” in the abstract.)

Here it is Eva whom the author manages to make seem both intelligent and funny, the kind of character you don’t mind spending some time with even though you’re not sure how long she’s going to be around; she seems, in fact, the least abstract of the characters, somehow. Perhaps it’s because she seems the most determined to resist the narrative flow that the sickly, frustrated narrator-author, and, for that matter, her bored middle-aged husband, are trying to impose on their lives, while he scribbles in his little blue notebook?

And of course, the author-in-the-novel is basing so much of this on his own life–Rosa is based on his wife, and his character Nick’s ennui based on his own–that there’s a sense in which, writing this all, the author is attempting to impose a narrative on his own life, too. Interestingly enough, the resistance to this is coming from Eva. I think a lot of people, reading the above, would have slotted this narrative solidly into “by a man, of a man, for men,” territory, but here I am finding the most engaging character isn’t the guy at the center, isn’t the young woman who’s caused his eye to wander, but is the wife. And I have a feeling both the narrator and Auster himself realize it, and are going to run with it.

Maybe… I’m only 22 pages in. It’s hard to say, because this is such a palace of mirrors, so multiplex-self-referential (or “meta,” as young folks like to say these days) that it invites speculation as to what degree all of this is based on Auster’s life, and to what degree he’s implicitly arguing that the imposition of narrative and order on one’s life is the primary motivation of writers. We cannot really resolve that question, and needn’t, to appreciate the hints and the chewiness of the metafictionality at work here.

Which is to say, this is not really “meta” the way that term gets kicked around. Much as I get a kick out of some of the pop culture references in a show like Community:

… even the ones that speak directly to my home sectors of pop culture:

… in the end it seems to me to devolve into more of a game of referentiality: the “meta”-fiction seems to have become the structure and purpose of the fiction, so that watching, what you’re getting is a kind of game to play with yourself, with friends, or with the people making the show: did you get this reference? Did you catch that reference? It can be fun, and even very clever, of course:

… but it’s not the usual mode, and we seem to default to the inauthenticity that Jeff (mostly, usually) espouses, rather than the authenticity that Abed pretends to advocate for her. (While, of course, ironically enacting the film My Dinner With Andre. We’re supposed to enjoy getting the joke; and enjoy getting it with Abed, while Jeff fails to get it. And enjoy the irony of Abed and Jeff arguing positions that are the opposite of what they’re actually enacting: Abed enacting and artificial interaction while arguing for authenticity; Jeff arguing against any sense of authenticity while actually responding to the situation in an authentic way.)

But you knew that, right? And didn’t you feel oh-so-clever because you knew that?

Clever, perhaps. But that feels like a hall of mirrors where what’s reflected is always more mirrors, more mirrors reflecting mirrors, and never, somehow absolutely never, containing a reflection of anything from outside the hall of mirrors. It’s like a waxworks where people congratulate themselves on noticing that the figure of Queen Victoria has the same hairpin as the figure of Victoria Jackson, who is wearing the same jeans as Michael Jackson; where William S. Burroughs is dressed like a garbage man (get it?!?); that is, where metafictionality seems to be stuck in “game” mode that doesn’t necessarily provide us with anything useful to put towards living our lives.

Not that games are bad and horrible, of course. Games are an important part of what makes us human, and Auster’s playing games here too, as are many of the greatest writers–or maybe all of them! But while the wax museum might be fun to wander through, even when you don’t get the in-jokes (it’s probably more fun when you do get most of the in-jokes, of course), ultimately it kind of feels like empty amusement.

A friend recently commented to me that he felt this media-meta was sort of the direction everything is taking these days, and I think he’s right; I just think it’s kind of sad that the superficial, less-chewy form called “meta” has come to dominate. People mistake clever barrages of references to other media for superlative metafictional narrative. It’s a bit like how I had to learn not to cringe while adjusting to the fact that 95% of the time, when someone uses the word “orientalist” (even when name-checking Edward Said) it’s blazingly clear they have no idea what Said meant when he used the word. (If you want to know what he meant, I suggest you read the book.)

Not that the story needs to preach or even be overt about it, but, you know… layers. There’s game, and then there’s deeper game, and there’s some thought going on on top of the game and deep underneath it too. Auster brings a more complex game to the table, which… well, that makes sense. You can do more in books than you can on a screen with this kind of metafictionality. Metafiction in media seems always to lead to invoking other media, or maybe that’s the influence of Tarantino. The media may be of a more obscure nature, like all the nods towards Thomas Ligotti and Robert Chambers and Lovecraft in True Detective, but it’s still referring to the other media materials.

That’s enjoyable… but in fiction, you can go a lot deeper, and do a lot weirder stuff with meta, if you like. Auster’s book seems to be digging toward the question of how the imposition of narratives on our lives is a willful act, an empowering one, a selfish one, and/or a foolish one. This cuts towards questions of great immediate relevance to anyone wishing to live an examined life, including the examination of why one is so attached to the act of reading and writing stories about the world–or telling them to others, and telling them to oneself. It’s a way of interrogating why (and how) someone would pick up a Paul Auster book and read it, but also interrogating what we tell ourselves about why we do things like that; and what we tell ourselves about the stories we tell ourselves, I suspect.

Here I am, only 35 pages in, fascinated.

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