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Why James Wood is so Good…

NY Observer.

The poetic use of words in unusual, appealing ways:

an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading

The entertaining animation of simile and metaphor

A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book

At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist.

This is the kind of balsa-wood backstory that is knocked into Hollywood plots every day.

          as tidy and punctual as postage stamps

The entertaining animation of simile and metaphor combined with specific comparative, contextual background and observation about technique:

Charles Bovary’s conversation is likened to a pavement, over which many people have walked; twentieth-century literature, violently conscious of mass culture, extends this idea of the self as a kind of borrowed tissue, full of other people’s germs. Among modern and postmodern writers, Beckett, Nabokov, Richard Yates, Thomas Bernhard, Muriel Spark, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, and David Foster Wallace have all employed and impaled cliché in their work. Paul Auster is probably America’s best-known postmodern novelist; his “New York Trilogy” must have been read by thousands who do not usually read avant-garde fiction. Auster clearly shares this engagement with mediation and borrowedness—hence, his cinematic plots and rather bogus…

…capped with the crisp, well-turned critical phrase:

…dialogue—and yet he does nothing with cliché except use it.

Bold Postulation:

he wants both the emotional credibility of conventional realism and a frisson of postmodern wordplay (a single vowel separates the names, and Tod is German for “death”).

Followed by rational argument and unalloyed judgment:

What Auster often gets instead is the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism. The two weaknesses are related. Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched.

Clear statement of shortcomings, use of comparison, and explanation of what separates good from bad:

Presence fails to turn into significant absence, because presence was not present enough. This is the crevasse that divides Auster from novelists like José Saramago, or the Philip Roth of “The Ghost Writer.” Saramago’s realism is braced with skepticism, so his skepticism feels real. Roth’s narrative games emerge naturally from his consideration of ordinary human ironies and comedies; they do not start life as allegories about the relativity of mimesis, though they may become them. Saramago and Roth both assemble and disassemble their stories in ways that seem fundamentally grave. Auster, despite all the games, is the least ironic of contemporary writers.

Theoretical context, and concluding assessment: 

The classic formulations of postmodernism, by philosophers and theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Ihab Hassan, emphasize the way that contemporary language abuts silence. For Blanchot, as indeed for Beckett, language is always announcing its invalidity. Texts stutter and fragment, shred themselves around a void. Perhaps the strangest element of Auster’s reputation as an American postmodernist is that his language never registers this kind of absence at the level of the sentence. The void is all too speakable in Auster’s work. The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue.


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