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The existential thrillers of Paul Auster remain seductive, but his is a “voodoo enterprise”: a ficti

The words "That'll be enough" have never occurred to the novelist Paul Auster. His prose, rarely more than glumly proficient, is delivered in cascades; Auster is a specialist in the 50-page chapter, the 20-page monologue, the ten-page summary of the text-within-the-text. But there comes a point at which the slow-witted have been dealt with and the tolerant are tired.

Auster likes to be clear about things, and his chief clarifying tool is repetition. In The Music of Chance (1990), one of his better books, he employs the clausal double-punch, a device founded on redundant rephrasing. "The car became a sanctum of invulnerability, a refuge in which nothing could hurt him any more."

“It was as though Nashe had let him down, as though he had reneged on some tacit understanding between them." "He wished that Pozzi could have left behind a couple of jokes for him to use then, a few wisecracks to lighten up the atmosphere." Auster's use of repetition either clarifies excessively, or else obscures. On page 87, "Nashe no longer knew what to think." On page 182, "Nashe didn't know what to think any more." Was there an intervening period during which Nashe did know what to think, or are we simply being offered a refresher?

But repetition is not just one of Paul Auster's vices; it has been the principle of his authorship. In his first serious published work of fiction, the novellas collected as The New York Trilogy (1987), he established the existential thriller as his genre of choice. His work is generally set in America between the 1940s and the present day, but he looks over his shoulder both to 19th-century New England and postwar Paris. Thoreau is repositioned as an ancestor of Roquentin, Meursault, Vladimir and Estragon in a tradition of loner-exiles.

For all the obsession with money in Auster's work - money inherited, won, or found, never earned - his characters take pride in acts of
divestiture and renunciation; for all the obsession with sex and male bonding, they are succoured by solitude. A large body of work has been conducted in these terms. Experiments in a different direction - the canine protagonist of Timbuktu, for instance - have swiftly revealed themselves as novel routes to the same old end.

Repetition across books, as opposed to within them, is not in itself a deplorable habit - it would be unwise to set down a rule for novelistic practice that required the censure of both Jane Austen and J G Ballard. But Auster's tricks are particularly vulnerable to exposure. Reading his 13th novel, Invisible, one wearies of mental box-ticking. Dead child? Check. A book-within-a-book? Check. Dying or widowed narrator? Double-check. The example of Auster's previous work brings a sense of predictability, even inevitability, to a narrative reliant on surprise. It emerges, around page 70, that despite initial appearances, we are not reading a novel in which Adam Walker is the narrator-hero, but a collection of memoirs and reminiscences assembled by a famous novelist; Adam's memoir of spring 1967 is merely the first. But this will scarcely rank as a revelation to readers of "City of Glass" in The New York Trilogy or Leviathan (1992) or The Book of Illusions (2002) - all of which transpire to be framed accounts. Apparently, writing the words "this book" in a fictional narrative retains a pleasurable frisson for Paul Auster.

Invisible offers a succession of such thwarted revelations. The long opening section is in fact "a still-not-finished draft of the first chapter of a book". Later we are informed that parts of this memoir may in fact be fabricated and that even the celebrated novelist's contextual narration is something of a sham. We learn the name of this narrator on page 252 and on page 260 we are told it has been made up, along with all of the other names and settings, in order to protect the identities of those involved. The writer known for eight pages as James Freeman explains that, of all the details in the foregoing narrative, "Paris alone is real": "I managed to keep it in because the Hotel du Sud vanished long ago, and all recorded evidence of not-Walker's stay there in 1967 has long vanished as well."

The putative justification for many of Auster's tendencies - his long-windedness in particular - is the idea of the story burning to be told. In the unfinished opening chapter of his memoir-in-progress, Adam Walker introduces the reader to an older man, Rudolf Born, and tells the tale of their relationship.

An atmosphere of fascination is insisted upon from the start: "I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967." Auster is a great believer in the teaser opening sentence, with its unidentified pronoun and air of noir-ish intrigue. The Book of Illusions begins: "Everyone thought he was dead." Such sentences aim to prod the reader into asking "Who?", ideally while shivering with thrilled curiosity. But there is likely to be a chasm between aim and accomplishment among Auster's more demanding readers.

Walker offers a heavily adjectival account of Born - "this dishevelled political scientist", "this peculiar, unreadable person". But this kind of rhetorical mood-mongering sets a high bar; it primes us for a let-down. As a narrative method, "the tale that must be told" has an honourable history. What distinguishes Auster's execution from that of Coleridge in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights or Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter or Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness is that - as in the work of Stephen Poliakoff - the necessity of the telling is accorded far greater significance than the telling itself. This priority misses the reliance of the former on the latter.

Over a long acquaintance with Paul Auster's work, the reader develops not only a ruinous familiarity with the tricks of this American novelist, but also a resistance to their initially seductive power. There are particular things to which he ascribes an unaccountable and unaccounted-for allure - certain names and objects (particularly notebooks), nouns such as "scriptorium" and "sensorium" and "palimpsest" and "pandemonium" and "world". Auster is at once a credulous mystic and an anxious sceptic, a pedlar of the irrational who also displays a cold resistance to the reality of fictional narrative and limited faith in the potential of language to explain, express and describe. These two impulses ought to clash, but instead he combines them in a kind of pincer movement - his mystic side is always concocting scenarios that are offered by the narrator as "improbable" or "odd", while his sceptic side blithely rejects the necessity of either conveying the oddness of these scenarios or rendering them believable.

In Auster's work, scepticism about the capacities of language provides a route to mysticism. The narrator of Moon Palace (1989) disclaims: "I can write down the things that happened to me, but no matter how precisely or fully I do that, those things will never amount to more than part of the story I am trying to tell." Elsewhere, he concedes: "The synchronicity of these events seemed fraught with significance, but it was difficult for me to grasp exactly how." At one point, this narrator follows a recounted episode with the bewildering announcement: "I understood then that Effing wanted to die." The romance of the inexplicable has obvious appeal for the writer with limited explanatory powers.

Scepticism towards the reality of fictional narrative frees Auster from the cumbersome duties of inspiring belief and drumming up suspense. Hindsight narration is frequently treated as a licence to jump the narrative gun. The second sentence of "City of Glass" runs: "Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance." In Timbuktu (1999), the reader is given an unwelcome tip-off: "What he didn't know at the time, however, was that the worst was still to come." But now we do. In Moon Palace, we learn on page 231 of a revelation that does not occur in the narrative for another 50 pages. Elsewhere in that book, the sentence "For the first eight days, everything went smoothly" is followed by an account of those days. (They go smoothly.)

Auster's work is an essentially voodoo enterprise. A rhetoric of mysteriousness is rarely realised in dramatic interest. Emotions are named without being properly evoked. The reader's response is presupposed by Auster's adjectives, accorded to a reader-proxy, but never actually elicited. Auster favours a vocabulary of vagueness, with an obfuscatory pronoun as its most-deployed weapon; Invisible shows repeatedly that nothing will come of "something". In the new book, he repeatedly employs a familiar formulation of expressive defeat: "There was something vaguely erotic about it"; "there was something off about him, something vaguely repellent"; "there was something different about her from the first time we had met". "I see something in you," Rudolf tells Adam when he offers him funding for a literary magazine.

And Adam proves himself a typical Auster hero in his bewilderment at the idea of inner states taking readable outward form. He senses that a mugger is diffident about the crime he is committing. "How could I have known this? Perhaps it was something in his eyes." At the end of the book's first section, he concludes that Born "had shown me something about myself that filled me with revulsion, and for the first time in my life I understood what it was to hate someone". From this, he makes a grandly spurious Austerian leap, helped along by a voodoo dash: "I could never forgive him - and I could never forgive myself."

If Invisible occasionally manages to escape this narrow circuitry, it is because Auster's previous work has not accustomed the reader to formal variety or genre play. Adam's memoir is written in three narrative voices - first person for spring 1967, second for summer, third for autumn. It also inverts the conventional purpose of the kind of memoir it appears to be.

An aspirant poet arrives at Columbia University in 1965; 42 years later, he writes an account of his coming of age. We are in the territory of the Künstlerroman (the "artist's-novel"), a subset of the Bildungsroman (or "learning-novel"). But in fact, the events of 1967 derail Adam's aspirations. The book portrays the unmaking of a writer - the experiences that led "not-Walker" to be a non-poet.

This genre is ripe for ribbing. It charts an inexorable, end-oriented journey, as many writers and critics have been eager to acknowledge. Joyce called his autobiographical tale A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Gérard Genette reduced the 3,000-page "narrative" of In Search of Lost Time to a four-word "plot" - "Marcel becomes a writer". Reviewing Gillian Armstrong's adaptation of Henry Handel Richardson's novel The Getting of Wisdom (1910), Pauline Kael issued an incisive complaint: "We all know what happens in the end: they go off and write the book."

Auster mitigates these problems by diverting the journey. He cancels the formula of the Künstlerroman. It is a crafty move. But elsewhere in this book, his own formula is more rigorously adhered to and more stiffly ineffective than ever before.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.

Paul Auster
Faber & Faber, 308pp, £16.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro