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Paul Auster has written a listless book, full of lists

One unremarkable thought after another

Winter Journal
Paul Auster
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £17.99

Paul Auster’s first prose book, The Invention of Solitude (1982), remains one of his best – an evocative, haunting memoir about grief, father - hood and identity, written as Auster struggled to come to terms with the sudden death of a father he felt he had never known. Its two parts, “Portrait of an Invisible Man” and “The Book of Memory”, seem now to have prefigured nearly all of Auster’s work to come, with its stylised approach to questions of memory and consciousness, illusions and invisibility, coincidence and chance. The Invention of Solitude opens with an epigraph from Heraclitus – “In searching out the truth be ready for the unexpected, for it is difficult to find and puzzling when you find it” – that aptly characterises the book it heralds.

Readers hoping to find a similarly inventive and intelligent exploration of grief will be disappointed by Winter Journal, Auster’s account of his reaction to his mother’s death and his sense of impending mortality. In fact, readers expecting much of anything will be disappointed. Auster is too fluent and skilled a writer to produce a book that is irredeemably bad but Winter Journal is eye-wateringly pointless, drifting inertly from one unremarkable thought to the next. Early on, Auster tells us of a car crash he caused in a moment of sudden recklessness, a crash that could have killed his family. He was so horrified by his capacity for imprudence that he hasn’t driven again. That sense of caution pervades the book, curbing it into near immobility: it takes no risks at all, coasting along on cruise control. To borrow a phrase from F Scott Fitzgerald, this is a book that herds us along a shortcut from nothing to nothing.

On the book’s first page, Auster explains its central conceit: “Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.” One might – but why on earth would one?

Soon he is writing of a scar on his chin: “This permanent line was engraved on your chin by what can only be called an invisible hand.” One can call the forgotten source of a scar many things other than “an invisible hand” and one can certainly avoid italicising the phrase in what can only be called a self-important way. These locutions are there to lend the prose a spurious gravitas, in order to distract our attention from the banality of the observation. There are italics that are simply bewildering: “Getting home will allow you to run upstairs to the bathroom and relieve yourself” – as if this were an astonishing turn of events and ordinarily he would be running to the bathroom to relieve someone else. Relying on typography is the writer’s laziest dodge: at one point Auster writes “(!?)” instead of summoning a word that might convey puzzlement, incredulity or stupefaction. And one can only blink at a sentence so trite as this from a writer of Auster’s calibre: “You count the reasons why you have held her close to you for so many years, and surely this is one of them, one of the bright stars in the vast constellation of enduring love.” At least he didn’t italicise it.

Never a writer to eschew a mannerism when he can find one, Auster has decided to address himself in this book entirely in the second person. There is a reason why writers avoid the second person: the paradoxical effect is not to create intimacy but to estrange the reader. There is something coercive in his use of “you” that provokes a reflexive resistance, a constant mental chorus asserting the reader’s difference from him. The effect is deconstructive, in the proper Derridean sense in which that word is almost never used any more: the more Auster writes “you”, the more we hear the thrum of the repetitive, solipsistic “I” that it seeks to camouflage:

Because you know nothing about where you come from, you long ago decided to presume that you are a composite of all the races of the Eastern Hemisphere, part African, part Arab, part Chinese, part Indian, part Caucasian, the melting pot of numerous warring civilizations inside a single body. As much as anything else, it is a moral position, a way of eliminating the question of race, which is a bogus question in your opinion, a question that can only bring dishonour to the person who asks it, and therefore you have consciously decided to be everyone, to embrace everyone inside you in order to be most fully and freely yourself, since who you are is a mystery and you have no hope that it will be ever be solved.

The effect of this passage is not the humility it professes but a universalising claim to be everyone only in order that he may return to the endlessly fascinating mystery of himself.

As for the book’s subject matter, it offers little more than a series of lists. There is a long catalogue of the places where Auster has lived, stepping stones to form a path through his recollections. He might as well offer the memories his favourite songs invoke: this is the aesthetic of the top-ten list. We get three pages of excerpts from the minutes kept by his wife when she acted as secretary to the housing association for their building for five years. There is a ten-page description of the classic 1950 film DOA. There is a stultifying, threepage inventory of the American foods he has eaten: “Cold cereal (Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Shredded Wheat, Puffed Wheat, Puffed Rice, Cheerios – whatever happened to be in the kitchen cupboard), which you would pour into a bowl, douse with milk, and then coat with a tablespoon (or two tablespoons) of white refined sugar.” Other breakfasts on offer lead to lunches he has eaten (“ham or salami, corned beef or bologna, sometimes ham and American cheese together”) and then dinners: “Fried chicken, roast chicken, beef stew, pot roast, spaghetti and meatballs, sautéed liver, and fried fish fillets.”

Nor does he neglect biscuits and sweets: “From Fig Newtons to Mallomars, from Oreos to Social Tea Biscuits, not to mention the hundreds if not thousands of candy bars you consumed before the age of 12: Milky Ways, Three Musketeers, Chunkys, Charleston Chews, York Mints, Junior Mints, Mars bars, Snickers bars, Baby Ruths, Milk Duds . . .” Not to mention candy bars, indeed: using whatever happens to be in the kitchen cupboard may be how many people eat but it is no way to write a book.

Even at his slackest – and this is by far the most dégagé of the many of his books I’ve read – Auster can be counted on to provide the occasional oblique perspective, as when he resists American nostalgia by pointing out what life was like when he was a boy during the country’s “golden age of postwar prosperity: Jim Crow laws in full force throughout the South, anti-Semitic quota restrictions, back-alley abortions . . . the cold war, the Red Scare, the Bomb”. Yet, although it is a more meaningful one, ultimately this is just another list. The real lesson of Winter Journal is that the more lists a book compiles, the more helplessly listless the book becomes. In the end, one can only close with what one might call Auster’s phenomenology of bemusement: “(!?)”

Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby” Dazed and bemused: Paul Auster will be published by Virago next year.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis