Novel of the week


Paul Auster <em>Faber, 186pp, £12.99</em>

Talking animals have lately been roaming in increased numbers on the fiercely contested shelves of book-shops. Alongside the venerable pigs, horses, cows and rabbits of Animal Farm and Watership Down, we meet a garrulous monkey in Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain, a man who awoke one morning to find that he had been transformed into a chimpanzee in Will Self's Great Apes, and pachyderm tribulations in The White Bone, the latest work by the Canadian novelist Barbara Gowdy. Now Paul Auster, in his first novel for five years, has awarded stewardship of the narrative of Timbuktu to a dog.

For nine years Mr Bones has been the trusty companion to Willy Christmas, a drunken vagabond-poet born William Gurevitch, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants to New York. Willy's literary promise is torpedoed by his insatiable appetite for psychedelic drugs. After Willy dies, Mr Bones embarks on a sentimental journey of which Lassie would have been proud. He evades dog-catchers, is kicked by boys, then befriended by a lonely Chinese child (only to be driven away by the kid's father), before running through the night to land in the bosom of a loving WASP household. Dad, a pilot, is steely and cruel, but only in the way that villains in Disney movies are, while Mom is pretty and the kids are loveable.

True to the Auster style, Timbuktu contains plenty of glances at his previous books. Fans may be pleased to note that Willy bears more than a passing resemblance to Doc, the burnt-out writer who shared Auster's college rooms in his chronicle of early failure, Hand to Mouth. Willy's speech, like Doc's, is a rolling bricolage of cliche, literary quotation, epigram, advertising slogan and salvage from the past.

To some extent, the presence in the book of a drunken logomaniac such as Willy gives Auster's prose a new exuberance. Willy's speeches are by some way the most readable and energised parts of what is otherwise a flat and rather uninteresting work. Unfortunately the literary wino's outbursts are all too rare, not least because he croaks from something bronchial halfway through the novel. Mr Bones speaks with one of Auster's more familiar voices. Crisp, fast-flowing and undigressive, it's a slightly unnerving blend of Dashiell Hammett and Hans Christian Andersen.

So why give the book an animal narrator? Well, it affords an opportunity to parenthesise the human perspective, to find a new type of detachment that might enable the writer to make a familiar world strange to us again. But this cannot be Auster's intention, for the place evoked by Mr Bones has the saccharine predictability of a Hollywood movie. One could use a canine narrator to explore different existential conditions, as Franz Kafka did in his short story Investigations of a Dog (to which Auster's novel is indebted). But apart from Willy's singular and drug-induced psychosis, all the other characters lead strangely untortured lives. There's almost no discernible satire in this book either, no ironic exploitation of the Darwinian continuities between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom.

As one proceeds through Timbuktu, the realisation dawns that Auster is using a dog to tell his story simply because Mr Bones is not cynical or self-serving, and his loyalty to, and love for, Willy is unconditional. The dog is a prelapsarian figure unsullied by the exploitative forces with which we humans must grapple. The result is a novel that in many ways exemplifies the cloying romanticism of our age. It's mystical, naive, solipsistic, populist and geared to feelings, rather than ideas. It is almost impossible to believe that it is by the same author as, say, The New York Trilogy or Leviathan. In retrospect, Auster's attempt to domesticate the supernatural in his last novel, Mr Vertigo, about a boy who could fly, was a warning that he had renounced ideas and that such gush might be on its way. The German historian Saul Friedlander has written that the two religions of our time are kitsch and death. In this syrupy novel, Paul Auster has effected a deeply unsatisfying union of the two.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote