Sunday, 8 March 2009

The new Auster-ity

I've always been a huge fan of American author Paul Auster's work and, when you're waiting for his next novel, you can enjoy the latest book by his wife, Siri Hustvedt. She shares many of his fascinations, tics, even subjects.

The main topic they share is grief: The Book of Illusion, the best of Auster's recent output, is a wonderful, empathetic treatise on grief. In Hustvedt's latest, The Sorrows of an American, the narrator, Erik, is separated from his wife (she is noticeable throughout by her absence; only halfway through do we learn why she left: "I'm fucking Alan. It's time you knew"); his sister, Inga, and Inga's daughter, Sonia, are mourning Inga's husband, a writer and filmmaker, Max; and Erik, Inga and their mother all miss their father, Lars, whose presence is evoked throughout by Lars's memoirs (taken from Hustvedt's own father's text).

As with Auster's characters, these are New Yorkers, who meet at dinner parties, in the majority opposed the Gulf War and struggle with their memories of 9/11. As Auster did for filmmaker Hector Mann in The Book of Illusions, Hustvedt enjoys creating a back catalogue for Max (his film Into the Blue is so beautifully imagined, it's tempting to check its existence on IMDb).

Hustvedt, too, gives thought to the naming of her characters: a nebulous figure is named Schadow; an unpleasant journalist is named Fehlburger – "curious name, Fehl is fault or blemish in German," the book's comic detective figure notes. And there is playfulness: the narrator of What I Loved – the book that preceded The Sorrows… for Hustvedt – Leo Hertzberg, is invited to one of those dinner parties. ("My friend," says Inga, "yet another professor, but a retired one, from art history at Columbia, lives on Greene Street, sees poorly, but he's very interesting and extremely kind." In case you wanted an update.)

While Auster's leads tend to be writers – especially in his most recent, introspective, work – or detectives, Erik is a detective of the mind, a psychoanalyst, who works in decoding his patients' tellings of their troubles. (Another recent paperback, Hanif Kureishi's much looser, London set, Something to Tell You, also features a therapist at its heart, though he could just as well be a writer. On a side note, I wonder if UK book jacket designers struggle depicting therapy-centred novels, as both Something… and The Sorrows… have covers more appropriate to chick-lit, though this may be a more general trend in publishing currently.)

Of course, the strangest intersection of Auster and Hustvedt's worlds comes in What I Loved; Mark, the son of one of Leo's friends, threatens to rip his parents' world apart with his drug-taking and malicious behaviour. Mark becomes friends with a cool new painter and together they are involved in a murder that is more like something out of American Psycho. The scene owes much to reality: in 1998, Auster's son by his first wife, Daniel, pleaded guilty to stealing money from a drug dealer; Daniel is also said to have been present at the murder of the dealer, Andre "Angel" Melendez. (Michael Alig – later played by Macauley Culkin in the movie Party Monster – poured drain cleaner down Melendez' throat, chopped up the body and dumped it in the river. Mark's victim is called Rafael Hernandez and his body thrown in the Hudson River.)

Auster tackles the same territory in Oracle Night: a writer called Trause (hmm) has a junkie son who attacks the wife of the book's narrator, Sidney Orr. ("You're lucky you don't have any children," Trause tells Orr. "They're nice when they're small, but after that they break your heart and make you miserable.") The boy is a manipulative liar who wreaks disaster in both books.

Auster and Hustvedt rarely discuss their private lives but what is perhaps most wrenching in The Sorrows… is Inga's plight following the death of her husband: the journalist Fehlburger is determined to avenge herself on Inga for some imagined slight. The chance arises when it seems Inga's husband Max had an affair with an actress, and even a child by her.

While Hustvedt achieves her own revenge – Fehlburger is the only character not afforded some redemption – most disturbing is the image of people climbing over Inga's body (Max's biographer even begins a consensual affair with Inga) to get to her dead husband. It's an eerie foretelling of a potential reality.

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