What Happened to Paul Auster? A Decade Ago, He Was a Nobel Candidate.

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What if you were made to account for the books on your shelves, the way souls have to account for their sins? I’m not talking about some bogus social signaling when a date is brought home or people are over for dinner. How do you reckon with your younger, naïve self, the person you were before your tastes matured? You were better looking then, but those books you were reading, turn their spines away from the light. Better yet, put them on the curb. In my case I sold them all in 2010 — anything that didn’t have sentimental value as an object or couldn’t be easily replaced. That was how I first said good-bye to Paul Auster.

It must have been my freshman year of college, in the fall of 1995, that I inhaled The New York Trilogy. The copy belonged to my roommate from Chicago whose other favorite author was T. Coraghessan Boyle (as he was known before he committed to his initials). The Trilogy was one of those books combining noir thrills, existentialism, and an exquisite earnestness that’s irresistible to a certain sort of bookish 18-year-old American male who considers himself both tough and deep. Meta-detective fiction, turning Dashiell Hammett’s biography on its head so the mystery writer becomes the shamus, is heady brew when you haven’t yet seen a Bogart film or read a Hammett novel.

Auster’s In the Country of Last Things was on the syllabus of the postwar-novel class I took, and while it didn’t quite stand up against the titans on the syllabus, which also included Nabokov and Beckett, its purpose — besides exemplifying dystopian genre fiction in pure form — seemed to be to indicate that literature was still being written.

As if living under Auster’s spell, I moved to Park Slope in 2000 and read his 1992 novel Leviathan in part for the local flavor. His slim novels continued to appear every year or two. The only one I touched was Oracle Night (2003). Several novels within novels spring from Dashiell Hammett’s digression in The Maltese Falcon about a man named Flitcraft who is narrowly missed by a falling object on a street and decides to walk away from his life. It was, as I recall, about as enjoyable as a double feature of movies I’d already seen at Film Forum during a noir program and it took about as long to read. Reviewing it for New York, John Homans wrote, “If Brooklyn, with its cadres of hyperintellectual bourgeois, has replaced the Upper West Side, Paul Auster is something like its Woody Allen.” Unlike Allen, Auster was never very funny. Both of them are popular in France.

It wasn’t just France, though, and it wasn’t just teenagers like me. A familiar list of “classics” endure by capturing generation after generation of adolescents, but Auster’s flame only burned bright during one era—the 1990s. The New York Trilogy appeared at a time when the world of the classic detective fiction had disappeared and Philip Marlowe and the Bogart persona were up for postmodern revision, as in Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye. A decade later, Auster approached his source material with a straighter face and a higher degree of existential dread, but the stakes would never be as high for his heroes as they were for the original Sam Spade. Somehow, that he had merely reduced existentialism to an aesthetic gesture, and noir to a bloodless mood shorthand, wasn’t quite clear until we had left an era we didn’t quite understand at the time had very little at stake itself, existentially speaking (and in which the Marlowe figure had gradually become a figure of farce, as in The Big Lebowski). Like Allen’s movies, Auster’s novels had grown more and more repetitive, and taken on a disposable quality. His familiar tropes — writers drawn into criminal intrigue, reunions of estranged relatives, doubles, fateful chance encounters — had become a sort of grammar, and every new book a rearrangement more than a reinvention. And soon the sort of meta–genre fiction that Auster pioneered was being tricked out with cultural comedy by a new generation. It’s hard to imagine Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemens Union without The New York Trilogy as a forerunner. And once they arrived, it’s easy to see why readers wouldn’t want to go back.

If there was any doubt that we had passed peak Auster, James Wood put it to bed with a mocking review of Auster’s 2009 novel Invisible. The piece was full of zingers: “This being an Auster novel, accidents visit the narrative like automobiles falling from the sky” and “Although there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, the prose is never one of them” and, perhaps most damningly, the epithet “hipper John Irving.” Wood’s ultimate target were the critics, none of them named, who’d held Auster up as a major postmodernist, an avant-garde writer. But who was still doing this? Surely, by this point Auster’s audience consisted of those who went to him for mildly intellectualized quasi-mystical entertainments, as well as young readers for whom he’s a gateway drug to stronger stuff — Beckett, DeLillo, Auster’s own ex-wife Lydia Davis. Not to mention J.M. Coetzee, another author with a flare for dystopias and games with alter egos, but unlike Auster, a writer with deep and complex political commitments. In 2013, Auster and Coetzee published a collection of their correspondence, Here and Now: Letters 2008–2011. “Thank you,” Auster writes to Coetzee, “for the kind words you e-mailed to Siri about the Woodian attack on my work, my life, and whatever it is I seem to represent for him. I haven’t read it. I have stopped reading all reviews of my books, whether good or bad, but I heard enough from others about what he wrote to feel as if I had been mugged by a stranger.”

Aw. With his new novel 4321, Auster can’t be accused turning out another version of the same old Auster novel. Nearly 900 pages, the book is more than twice as long as anything he’s yet produced. His thematic grammar remains intact, but he’s invented a new prose style. Gone is the short, Hammett-like line, and in its place are long twisty sentences that pile clause upon clause on joints of sinces, becauses, whens, whiles, whos, thats and whiches. There’s an ambition here that has a whiff of both “Proust” and “Nobel.”

Auster was born in 1947, but his status a baby boomer has never been in the foreground of his writerly identity as it is for, say, Ann Beattie. Since he often sets his work in abstracted ahistorical versions of New York, he’s never been a chronicler. (Leviathan, in which the writer turned terrorist served prison time for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, is something of an exception.) But boomer nostalgia saturates 4321, a quadraphonic bildungsroman about four versions of the same character, Archie Ferguson, born on March 3, 1947 (a month after Auster). The novel has several sections, each divided into four parts, for the four versions of Ferguson, though when in one strand he dies young (spoiler alert) by being hit by a falling tree limb that’s been struck by lightning, the chapters that follow in that strand become single blank pages. (This ending has an autobiographical source: At summer camp as a child, Auster saw another camper killed when the wire fence he was ducking under was struck by lightning.)

The concept and its resulting structure is intriguing, but Auster has stacked the deck against himself. There’s a reason why long, encyclopedic novels have multiple sets of characters who may or may not know each other, multiple settings and disparate time frames: Variation helps hold the reader’s attention, the more drastic the better. The variations in 4321 are decidedly minor key. In the first part they center around Double Indemnity–like plots surrounding Ferguson’s father’s furniture store: It’s robbed by thieves tipped off by his uncle, and the father loses out because he won’t turn his brother in and so can’t recover the insurance money; it’s burned down by unknown arsonists, and the insurance money comes in; it’s burned down by gangsters shaking down Ferguson’s uncle for gambling debts and his father dies in the fire; it doesn’t burn and the family prospers.

These B-movie twists are entertaining to a point, less so is the lavish attention paid to the various Fergusons’ childhoods. (The book never truly achieves escape velocity into adulthood.) He loves baseball and basketball, he starts his own newspaper in middle school, he takes European history and reads classic literature. There are indices of the books he reads and the movies he watches, but with the exception of a lengthy paean to Laurel and Hardy, these are just lists. Many passages sound like prolix outtakes of the voice-over to The Wonder Years.

Then there’s Auster decision to use his character’s life stories to register headline historical episodes. During the Kennedy administration — he worships JFK — Ferguson starts to kiss girls, and in one strand he loses his virginity on the afternoon after the president is assassinated. The novel’s historical digressions, until one Ferguson becomes a campus reporter at Columbia just before the protests of the spring of 1968, are superficial and serve little purpose other than marking time. Time is this novel’s worst enemy: It keeps not passing.

Auster’s moderate liberalism, which is congruent with the Fergusons’ political attitudes, such as they are, don’t do the novel any favors. Set as it is in the suburbs of Newark and in Manhattan, it invites comparisons with the history-inflected works of Philip Roth, but its level of engagement is child-sized. (One Ferguson, for example, is scolded by a school principal for a possibly Communist-sympathizing gag in his homemade newspaper.) But what really defeats Auster in 4321 is his decision to write against his strengths. His B-movie plots and narrative sleights of hand thrive on elision, and this book is overstuffed. The one thing he always seemed to know was the power of brevity.

What Happened to Paul Auster?