Boy’s-eye view illuminates conscious beginnings
Report from the Interior By Paul Auster Faber, 352pp, $27.99 FROM the very beginning, Paul Auster has written with unsettling clarity, like a man looking through a mirror only he can perceive. “It was a wrong number that started it,” his 1985 debut City of Glass begins, and from there Auster invents a whole new genre: the existential detective story.
Even when not turning private-eye fiction inside out, Auster always works in an investigative mode. The questions of his books — what if coincidences were not merely such, what if the Iraq war didn’t happen? — assume a third dimension under the pressure of that boundless clarity. In Report from the Interior Auster puts
June 28-29, 2014 this style to one of its greatest tests. The events he recalls in this sort of memoir begin more than a half-century ago. They ought to be cloudy. And yet, on the earliest pages he sees this era with exquisite precision. In the beginning, everything was alive. The smallest objects were endowed with beating hearts, and even the clouds had names. Scissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers … The branches of trees were arms. Stones could think, and God was everywhere.
Written in the second person, Report from the Interior attempts to “explore your mind as you remember it from childhood”. It is a startling performance. By separating himself from that boy with his choice of pronoun, Auster signals that he is writing of someone so long ago he might as well be a different person. The only recent book to capture so vividly the magic of consciousness’s bloom is the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. The Norwegian has the benefit of time: he is nearly 25 years younger than Auster. Both follow Pound’s edict, though: no ideas but in things.
It’s a thingy world, Auster’s childhood, and he resurrects a boy’s-eye view in which the gap between him and it remains very small. His backyard feels like a jungle, he watches the squirrels in it like an amateur naturalist. The moon peers into his window, like a man looking down. Words and letters become his friends.
Piece by piece, Auster assembles his consciousness before us, so elegantly that Report from the Interior does not startle when it begins to torque with observation and critique. His parents are distant, looming figures, and even then Auster perceives a rift in their marriage. Mid-century US and all its post-war optimism shades from might to menace emerge in a single sentence about supersonic jets. You remember the planes, the supersonic jets roaring across the blue skies of summer, cutting through the firmament at such exalted speeds that they were scarcely visible, a flash of silver glinting briefly in the light, and then, not long after they had vanished over the horizon, the thunderous boom which would follow, resounding for miles in all directions, the great detonation of blasting air that signified the sound barrier had been broken yet again.
Auster learns he is different, a Jew, and begins at a young age “to exclude yourself from the story”. He loves baseball and cartoons, movies and inventors, but he will never stand at the centre. This posture becomes a strength; he learns to watch, to observe, to take notes of