Read Then Recycle

Foot in Mouth: Paul Auster's aptly subtitled "chronicle of early failure."

Paul Auster
Hand to Mouth
Henry Holt

LET ME TELL about the time Topinka--lost, frozen, and starving--ate three of his own toes to survive. Story in a nutshell: My old roommate takes a semester sabbatical for walkabout and strays into some nasty arctic hinterland. He runs low on food--first powerbars, next his leather belt--before submitting to truly miserable recourse. Picture the scene: sock and boot scattered carelessly across the hard-pack snow in the background, wide-toothed blade sawing dully in the fore. Oh cannibalism. Oh horror. Oh Topinka.

I could go on--really I could--about the dozen robust huskies who finally dragged him home; about the way Topinka hobbles to this day; about how he lost his nose to frostbite and how his prosthetic one leans 20 degrees to starboard. But then I'd be drafting a real whopper--which is more than Paul Auster seems willing to do in his new memoir Hand to Mouth, the actual subject of today's essay.

Yet over the course of 126 pages of reflections on his early writing life, and the three plays and detective novella that follow, Auster proves himself as able an auto-cannibal as my dear (and dearly libeled) Topinka. The author that emerges from this collection is one who will recycle plots, characters, and jokes, as a matter of course; and a man who can muster the nerve to strip and then sell the corpse of his earlier body of work at age 50. And that corpse, with some exceptions, stinks.

We ought return, though, from morgue to man. Paul Auster is probably best known for having scripted the film Smoke and its makeshift sequel, Blue in the Face. He has also written books of essays, translations, and poetry in addition to eight novels. The best of these titles--the plainspoken Leviathan and Mr. Vertigo--launch their characters into an abstract Americana of self-mythology and idealism. The worst--Music of Chance and parts of the New York Trilogy--jam ponderous philosophy and metafiction into misguided detective writing. (I hear these are quite popular in France, where Auster is photographed wearing all black and smoking brown cigarillos. All nativist chauvinism intended.)

Auster, who grew up in suburban New Jersey and graduated Columbia College in 1969, migrated to Paris after working the mess hall of a dilapidated oil tanker. But Hand to Mouth takes many pages to get us there, bogging down instead in sundry, tedious teenage jobs. Later, Auster will shortchange his work on Jerzy Kosinski's (allegedly ghost-written) novel Cockpit and an anecdote about a simultaneous translation of Jean Genet before an audience of Black Panthers. The self-mythologizing of a struggling young author owns this volume; Genet and Kosinski can presumably return for Auster's third memoir.

The fictional appendixes that make up 300-odd pages of Hand to Mouth tell a more informative story of Auster's early efforts as a writer--and his subsequent droughts of creative inspiration. Even faintly attentive Auster readers will have already noticed a consonance between The Locked Room, the closing episode of the New York Trilogy from 1984, and Leviathan, published but a few years later. (Both involve disappearing authors and the friends left behind.)

Now we learn that the middle segment of the same trilogy, Ghosts--which concerns a detective named Blue who is hired to watch a stranger, Black, write a confessional--has its own antecedent in the similar play Blackouts from 1976. And Music of Chance was partially created a decade before in a Beckett knock-off titled Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven--a piece just as wrong as its surprisingly literal title. Even a fairly average joke (the punchline is "don't ask") manages to migrate from the script for Hide and Seek into Squeeze Play, the short novel that closes the collection.

So Paul Auster often took a few tries to get a story right: nothing wrong with that. What deserves attention (and probably some mild scorn) is the author's decision to scare these proto-mediocrities out from the safety of his sock drawer. The embarrassment in this instance does not belong to the young man who wrote the line, "'Fuck off fuzz. I don't got no mommy and daddy, you dig? I got born last week when you screwed some dog up the ass.'" No, however unfortunate that rejoinder from Squeeze Play may be, it's the fine author who came a decade later who owns the shame.

What is revealed in the error of this publication is the curious ambivalence the older writer has toward that fatuous yet uncomfortably familiar doppelgänger who came before. "I can't very well just 86 this guy from my life," Thomas Pynchon derisively wrote of himself in the crafty introduction to his own house-cleaning anthology, Slow Learner. "On the other hand, if through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?"

There are wasted words and wasted years represented in every author's back catalogue, and a pent-up frustration from rejections of times long gone. An anthology like Hand to Mouth, it follows, is not just an antidote to previous self-doubt and public neglect, but a revenge upon a once indifferent world.

 
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