I am really uncertain why this book has annoyed me as much as it has. I have admired several of Paul Auster's novels and would rate them high; I have enjoyed reading his essays in periodicals when I have encountered them. I know that he is admired and awarded as a writer. But this book has struck me as so tiresome and trivial that I had a hard time finishing reading it.
The memoir purports to describe Auster's childhood and early adult years. The opening paragraphs offer a charming child's view of the world around him, not really reminiscent of Joyce's similar self-portrait in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but having some of the same naive appeal. But in the opening paragraph, Auster begins what is one of the narrative tics that he continues throughout the book--the narrator separates himself from the subject (himself as a younger person) by addressing that younger person as "you": "The face of the clock was a human face, each pea in your bowl had a different personality, and the grille on the front of your parents' car was a grinning mouth with many teeth." And later: "There was no problem in believing that the man in the moon was an actual man. You couild see his face looking down at you from the night sky . . ."
Of course, it is true that a 65 year old man is in many ways NOT the same person as the toddler or even himself as a 22 year old writing to a lover, soon to be lost. The span of this memoir is from babyhood to about 22 (1947 to 1969), and Auster frequently reminds the reader that he has no records--no photos, no letters, no documents--to support the claims he makes about his experiences. He bases his narrative on his memory, and we all know that memory is untrustworthy--gapped, inclined to fill in or even fabricate what we would like to have had happen, whether it did or not, and so on. So Auster constantly asks us to remember his "authority" as a narrator by asserting his honesty in saying that these may be false memories, though he is doing his best to tell the truth as he remembers it. But then in part three, "Time Capsule," he reports that his former wife has returned a batch of letters to him, those he had written to her over a period of several years, including his time at Columbia University in the late 1960s, when the turmoil of the rebellious student takeover of the campus occurred--part of his own experience, reported at that time.
All through the memoir, Auster speaks to "you," then, as though the younger self were a separate entity, even though he acknowledges and hopes we will agree that his memories of that other self are part of himself now. The subject of the
memoir is the problem of writing memoir--one does or does not have documentation to support the validity of one's memories; one is or is not the same person one remembers being at an earlier time; one is or is not the product of the earlier experiences, feelings, readings, viewings, fights, romantic crushes, and so on. And what if the truth is that one is NOT a product of the past, but a constantly evolving new entity--if that were so, what would be the point of repeating all those stories, which have no relationship or outcome. Of if one is the same person, why would one write a memoir as though it were a letter of advice and interpretation to the "you", the separate person, who lived these experiences and is now being reminded of them from a voice separated by many decades. And so on and on.
Part Two of this memoir is devoted almost entirely to detailed scene-by-scene recapitulations of two movies that had a powerful impact on the earlier Paul Auster. The first, "The Incredible Shrinking Man," and the second, "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang"; both movies are thought-provoking and emotionally engaging in ways that Auster makes clear--both in terms of their impact on his earlier self and, by describing them in detail, showing that they still have the power to challenge and move viewers.
These movies are two titles among many--Auster tells us of many of the books he read during his youth and college years, and speaks often of influential movies. Anyone who grew up in the 50s and 60s will recognize the titles, probably will have read and seen many of them during the same period. A reader might well agree that Diary of Anne Frank and On the Beach and many of his other titles were formative in one's own experience. And there is part of the problem.
Auster effectively disowns the effort to claim or to portray the power and the fascination of his early experiences. They all happened to the "you" he addresses, often in sympathetic tones. It certainly makes sense to treat with some skepticism the attitudes, enthusiasms, tastes, and supposed experiences of a much younger person, especially if one is not confident that the earlier person can be trusted as a construct of oneself. But how is that of interest to a reader? At one point, Auster tells us that he started to write a journal when he was 18, but quit because he could not see the point of writing about what he knew had just happened, and he concludes that his self at that time did not understand that the audience for that journal was his older self. Indeed.
The final section of this memoir is a collection of drawings and photographs, mostly still shots from the movies he has mentioned, a few news photos, especially of the Newark riots and the Columbia University insurrection, and for the most part, the photos are impersonal, except that they are all related to details narrated earlier in the book. They do not include pictures of Paul Auster.
I shared many of the experiences Auster describes, including much of the reading and many of the movies mentioned, as well as living near many of the dramatic events (even having been involved in a few) described. So why would I not be interested in reading Auster's account of them. It's very odd, but I was repeatedly bored and irritated and had to force myself, as I have already said, to continue to the end. I have no idea who the audience for this book might be--except for Paul Auster.