Signs taken for wonders

6 months ago 74

Paul Auster waits until halfway through his new novel before letting us in on its metafictional underpinnings: “In mid-April 1939, the twenty-year old Ruth Auster began working as a seamstress at Trocadero Fashions, and four years after that, in the middle of the Second World War, Baumgartner’s parents were married”. Grab a beret, put on a John Cage album and join me! Auster aficionados, well minded that the author’s mother was called Queenie, will quickly be led to wonder whether the title protagonist is a first cousin from a parallel world or a more distantly speculative relation. After all, as the narrator tells us, Baumgartner himself doesn’t know much about “the obscure Auster side” of his family. And now it makes sense that, as we learnt earlier, Baumgartner has been working on an essay about “phantom person syndrome”. It is all so very Austerean: the absence-presence paradox, the slippery self, the semi-fictional autobiography, complete with ghostly personas, roads not taken, alternative versions of Paul Auster.

Baumgartner is the story of a septuagenarian Jewish intellectual and Princeton professor who spends a lot of time “at his desk in the second-floor room he variously refers to as his study, his cogitorium, and his hole”. From the earliest age he has been pursuing “a life of making sentences”. By 2018 he has been widowed for ten years. He orders books he never reads to stage recurring, fantasy-encrusted visits from the “chunky woman in her mid-thirties” who delivers them. He has mourned his late wife by ritually folding and refolding her underwear and mailing “hot, smutty letters” to her dead self; he has also had, in widowerhood, several semi-satisfying affairs along the academic eastern seaboard, and suddenly wants to marry his latest lover, a younger fellow professor. Most of the time he putters around, working on a Casaubon-like final work of philosophy, contemplating retirement and reading through his wife’s old diaries, excerpts of which are included in the text, along with some of his own writings, as livelier interludes from the main inaction. Baumgartner’s private material primarily explores two areas; first, his early years with his disappointed and frustrated parents; second, his pursuit of, and eventual married life with, the perfect-sounding Anna, a caring, energetic and charismatic poet, memoirist, editor and award-winning translator who died, tragically, while swimming off Cape Cod. He also muses about Aristotle, complains about current American politics, reflects on modern European history-as-tragedy and questions the relationship between belief, truth and fact. Etc.

Meanwhile, Baumgartner burns himself while cooking eggs; Baumgartner is surprised by an unexpected visit from Ed, a technician from the utilities company; Baumgartner hurts his knee; Baumgartner picks up the receiver of a disconnected phone in Anna’s study and listens to her explain her limbo condition as the result of his thinking so much about her; and, later, Baumgartner becomes excited by a proposal from a young biracial graduate student who wants to research Anna’s private papers, and arranges for her to move into the spare room above his garage. Finally, Baumgartner goes for a drive in his Subaru hybrid and gets into a small accident.

In many Auster fictions, unexpected events, whether banal or strange, threatening or promising, serve as catalysts for whole other life stories. Indeed, his previous novel, 4 3 2 1 (2017), took this premiss to grand scale, setting out a quartet of trajectories for the protagonist across some 900 pages. Baumgartner is only 200 pages long, and it only feints at other life possibilities through a predictable Austerean array of unexpected happenings, while remaining resolutely committed, in assured prose, to detailing the daily doings, readings, writings and cogitations of a latter-day Gerontion, a well-heeled and well-published “dull head among windy spaces”.

Those windy spaces amount to little more than the author’s own body of work. He first gained critical and public standing decades ago, by coolly and self-referentially playing with our expectations of the detective fiction genre in his New York Trilogy (1985–6). “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about”, declares the stand-in narrator near the end of The Locked Room (1986), in a frequently quoted passage that increasingly reads like postmodern pabulum. Auster’s near-contemporaries Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and his long-time friend J. M. Coetzee all published, in old age, slim novels that were effectively self-conscious reflections and reframings of the primary subject matter of their key works. But for Auster playing with our expectations of Paul Auster novels has always been the primary subject matter.

In other words Baumgartner reads far too straightforwardly like ageing, male, literary-academic autobiographical fantasy fiction that at most might amount to a cloaked form of self-reflexive irony – as the author all but signals near the novel’s end: “Sadly, these are not the happiest times for satire, and it remains to be seen whether anyone will get the joke”. We get it.

Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and Professor of English at the University of Toronto

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