For the past 30 years, Paul Auster has been one of the most consistently inventive writers in American fiction. From his New York Trilogy (CITY OF GLASS, GHOSTS, THE LOCKED ROOM) to recent works such as ORACLE NIGHT and INVISIBLE, he has redefined the possibilities of fiction and proved, as have many other fine novelists, that you don’t need likable protagonists or happy endings to create a thrilling and satisfying work of literature --- all of which, along with his frequent broadsides against American culture and his fluency in French, may explain why he is far more revered in Europe than in the United States.
In last year’s WINTER JOURNAL, Auster turned his considerable narrative gifts to the memoir. The book is a poetic work written in the second person, a wonderful volume from a man stunned to discover that he is suddenly 64 and who tries to understand the events of a life that is much closer to its end than to its beginning. In REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR, Auster’s follow-up memoir, he focuses on his early years, starting at age five and ending when he is in his 20s.
Auster divides the new work, also written in the second person, into four sections. In the first, “Report from the Interior,” he presents some of the salient events from his childhood during the years of ages five to 12. His 1950s New Jersey was a world of bicycles, black-and-white TVs and standard-shift automobiles. We learn of the many joys he experienced: listening to birds and imagining that they spoke a language only they could understand, whipping acorns into the woods and marveling at the speed and death-defying jumps of squirrels. But there were harsher lessons, too: His initial pride upon learning that his father once worked for Thomas Edison is complicated by the knowledge that his father was fired after only a few weeks once Edison learned that the Austers were Jewish.
Auster devotes the 70-page second section, “Two Blows to the Head,” to long descriptions of two films that influenced him when he was young. In 1957, at age 10, he saw The Incredible Shrinking Man. What makes the biggest impression on Auster is the way the ordinariness of the existence of Robert Scott Carey, the film’s protagonist, becomes extraordinary once Carey begins to shrink. The second movie, seen in 1961, was 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in which a sergeant played by Paul Muni is arrested for robbery and is later sentenced to a chain gang in the American South. In this tale of oppression and mistreatment, Auster writes, it was hard for him, a young Jewish man, not to see the film as a precursor to Hitler’s death camps.
In the third section, “Time Capsule,” Auster’s first wife, the short-story writer Lydia Davis, tells him that the papers she is preparing to donate to a research library include letters he wrote to her when they were married. She offers to make copies of them so that he can decide if anything in them is too embarrassing for the public to see. This section consists mostly of excerpts from those letters. Auster writes that they constitute a time capsule of his late teens through his 20s, the only remaining documentation of his past. The book closes with a photo album of items cited in the previous three sections.
REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR is a disjointed book. The abrupt shifts in tone from one section to the next are jarring. Some of the prose feels like padding. Thirty-page descriptions of the plots of Shrinking Man and Chain Gang are a lot to wade through for insights such as: Your take on life depends on your perspective. And the letters to Davis seem randomly organized, a brain dump rather than a cogent synthesis.
Despite this, there is much gorgeous writing here, as there always is in Auster’s work. He writes movingly about the Jewish experience in America immediately after World War II. His passages about early literary and sports influences, from Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle to Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham, are fun and engaging. If Auster’s intention was to write a book that mirrors the development stages of childhood and adolescence --- sometimes beautiful and magical yet sometimes confusing --- then he has succeeded.
- Michael Magras