Paul Auster should not exist


Paul Auster should not exist. I say this not to mimic a sentence that might easily have been plucked from one of his own hall-of-mirrors fictions, but simply to note his singular position in contemporary American letters. He has enjoyed unlikely success by writing reflexive novels that take up notions of chance and fate, memory and oblivion, luck and the uncanny; given his self-referential leanings and taste for highbrow allusion, it might seem that he would at best have found a coterie of admirers and a university appointment to subsidize his writing. Instead, he has settled comfortably into a career as one of the most glamorous novelists in America. Abroad, he has even higher visibility, a genuine rock-star aura. Magazine profiles cite his movie-idol looks and general air of suave elegance, and although Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lives, may now be home to more writers than any other urban enclave on the planet, he stands out in his affiliation with the place as one of its presiding celebrities. He has branched out into subsidiary projects as a radio personality (having headed up a few years back NPR’s National Story Project, which solicited anecdotal tales from listeners nationwide, later collected in the anthology I Thought My Father Was God [2001]) and a screenwriter and film director: Best known in this regard for his screenplay for 1995’s Smoke (directed by Wayne Wang), Auster has written and directed the rather stilted Lulu on the Bridge (1998) and the just-completed The Inner Life of Martin Frost, based on material from his novel The Book of Illusions (2002). His work has also proliferated into media of unimpeachable hipness: Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli adapted City of Glass (1985), the first book in Auster’s New York Trilogy, into a graphic novel in 1994, and the beguiling, mischievous French artist Sophie Calle has realized conceptual pieces based on his writings. These extraliterary manifestations contribute to a highly resilient cultural persona, gracing him, if you will, with a street credibility among chic young bookish types that has sustained Auster through an uneven career.

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