Saturday, May 19, 2018

Alternate Lives: Books by Paul Auster and Jim Murdoch


A picture of two books.... Okay, so in their physical presence these two novels are completely different. So what?

4321 by Paul Auster is a 6.5 x 9.5-inch hardcover with dust jacket, 866 pages (a brick!). Published by Henry Holt and Company, a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck/Macmillan, one of the Big Five.

The More Things Change by Jim Murdoch is a 5 x 7.75-inch paperback, 329 pages. Published by Fandango Virtual, a homegrown effort.

The point of this little essay is not to compare them, but rather to explore them and to honor them, with an eye toward their shared meanings. And part of the context here is an invisible (so far) third book: my own novel, currently undergoing final edits. My book (working title: Ponckhockie Union) is perhaps more different from these than they are from each other. But I mention it here because of the topic of alternate lives. A key character in my novel is "Paul Auster," an unpublished novelist working as a local journalist in the Hudson Valley, married to a successful writer named Siri. He is almost, but not quite, the world-famous Brooklynite, husband of Siri Hustvedt and author of The New York Trilogy and so much morejust as the world in which my book takes place is almost, but not quite, the one we live in and think we know.

4321 is Auster's latest, and longest, novel. It has already been much praised andlike all Auster's workmuch criticized. It tells four stories in one: four of the perhaps infinite number of possible lives of one young man, Archie Ferguson. Starting from the same point (birth in New Jersey, 1947), each Archie takes a different path as a result of apparently random occurrences in his life and the lives of his parents, family, and friends. Part of Auster's impressive achievement is the depth of well-observed and well-imagined detail with which he describes the hopes, fears, interests, challenges, and loves of each Archieall seem equally authentic. Which one is Archie's "real life?" They all are. For me, this gets into the territory of the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics, which suggests that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual world or universe. On a less scientific plane, it evokes the Mandela Effect, in which memories don't seem to match realitypossibly explained by the suggestion that some of us occasionally slip between parallel, very similar, realities, or "timestreams."

Jim Murdoch is a Scottish author living near Glasgow. I've reviewed past books of his on this blog: a story collection, a poetry book, and an earlier novelThe More Things Change is his latest, and longest, novel. It tells the story of Jim Valentine, a teacher-turned-author, an ordinary guy whose journey is anything but. He is living a life without distinction, job and marriage in a state of torpor, dreaming of being a writer but never actually writing. As Murdoch says, "Jim was forty and had been since he was thirty." Then one day in the park he meets an old codger who claims to be God. They have a long philosophical conversation over the following days, and the next thing Jim knows, he is standing in front of an apartment door, key in hand, with no memory whatsoever.

A fresh start, a re-birth. Thus begins Act 2 of his life, in which he writes a major bestseller and a less successful follow-up. This part of the story is told from 20 and then 40 years later, after he's fallen again into isolated obscurity, been divorced by his wife, and come to the end of his ability to write. Or has he? Could there be a third book in progress, one that circles us back to the beginning? Once again he meets the old man in the park and their dialogue (or is it repartee?) brings into focus the alternate life Jim has just lived, and the next (or is it simultaneous?) life he may be embarking on. He is, after all, a character in a book, subject to the metafictional whims of the Author. As, perhaps, are you and mesee this article about the "simulation hypothesis."

Murdoch is a master of a particular kind of narrative voice: a very subjective, internal flight of fancy, a torrent of ideas large and small, busily skewering cliches and deconstructing conventional thought, a careening monologue in which the events of a storyline seem almost incidentalall delivered with wry wit and good humor. His narration is funny, but never at the expense of his characters, for whom he always has affection.

Auster's book is also full of affection for his characters, perhaps more heartfelt than any of his past novels. I was surprised to find myself moved almost to tears more than once. But he is a storyteller first. Even when his story is twisted and strange, he moves straight ahead to address the question "What happened next?" I see Murdoch, on the other hand, as a philosopher first, entwining his plot in a complex tapestry of playful ideas and big, unanswerable questions. And he's funnier than Auster could ever be.

Both of these books are dense, presenting pages of text rarely broken by paragraphs and more rarely by dialogue. These authors ignore the tired writing-school trope of "Show, don't tell." To their credit, this indicates the courage to be true to one's own unique expression, rather than courting the biggest possible audience. Also, both use unusual structures. I've already mentioned Murdoch's jumping through time, but he also spices the book with short enigmatic snatches of dialogue in playwriting format, a way of embodying another layer of reality. Auster's four parallel lives are tracked in interleaved segments numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, then 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, and so on. It's very organized but the reading experience can blur the framework. I soon surrendered to the experience of never being sure, when I began a section, which story I was following. I found this a sort of delicious disorientation that served to blend the four lives into one, a perfect way of making a concrete reality out of a mental concept: how thin the boundaries are between one life path and another.

A final note about Auster's book: I only wish he hadn't dealt me a final twinge of disappointment with a too-easy, reality-bound ending, which I won't spoil by revealing. Perhaps there are many readers, those who like mysteries to always be solved, who will be glad for that ending. I appreciate the fact that Murdoch chose, with a smile and a wink, to keep the questions alive beyond his last page.

Bottom line: I enjoyed both of these books very much. Both are smart, brimming with verbal and cultural intelligence. Both are impressive achievements in the craft of writing fiction. So the question arises: what makes some people famous and others not? Could it be that each of us plays a scripted role, as I explored in my story "Wild Roses"? (Hear the story in audio form here.) Maybe, in some alternate life in a parallel universe (or simulation), Auster is the obscure one (as in my novel), and Murdoch, like his character Valentine, enjoys (or endures), a brief, brilliant moment in the well-deserved limelight.

###

Relating Writings: Follow this link for more of my thoughts about underlying meanings in Auster's work, and go even further with this link to a long-ago post. Follow this link and this link for other book reviews that explore thoughts about the connection of memory to "self," as well as my opinions about the "mystery" genre.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Five Audio Stories...plus more

© tsugi.de
A blogger I am not. An entire year has passed since my last post here, the one about my father.

It's been a busy year, as all years are. Like kintsugi gold, the cracks between the priorities of family, job, and home have been filled with two things: finishing a novel (celebrate!) and continuing my collaboration with Tom Newton on our twice-monthly fiction podcast, The Strange Recital ("a podcast about fiction that questions the nature of reality").

Among the 40 episodes we've released are several of my own stories. Some are new, some are old. Some are read by me, some are not. Each episode is roughly 20 minutes long and includes a bit of good music plus an "author interview" that may be a little twisted (in a good way 😉). I'd love it if you would listen and let me know your thoughts.

In reverse chronological order, here are the stories of mine that have come out in the past year. Just click the player arrow below the picture:

Barney Rudolph

"Barney Rudolph was a solitary man. This is what he silently said in his private story of self. Alienated, a loner, lone wolf, outsider. Always an outsider."

Can a movie be made that is not a movie? Can a man be not a man? Maybe each of us is just something happening in a sea of happenings.




Ferret Love

"It was last spring, early, when I fell in love with the ferret woman. The first beautiful day, exquisite whirlybird of a sunny blue day, and I’m in the park, lying on the lawn."

Where does obsession come from? Why do people have pet ferrets? And shouldn't somebody warn the boyfriend?





Wild Roses

"On the border between Millbrook and Pleasant Valley, just off Route 44, there’s a little patch of woods where my boyfriend hanged himself."

A visitor from the other side... real or hallucination? Should you heed their message? Yes or no, it's already written in the script.





Messenger

"In the final year before the onset of Destruction, on the blessed anniversary of my birth, there will occur in the heavens an astrological Grand Cross. Yea, verily, He hath spoken!"

There are many kinds of messengers in this world. Hmm... should we heed the messages, or not?





Dewey and Fern

"When Dewey Bustle found the shriveled monkey finger, he just didn’t know what to think. He asked his buddy Fern...."

Can love persist in the face of harsh circumstance? Maybe we are all like these, the small and the lost.







Many thanks to Tom for his audio wizardry and good ideas.
Thank you for listening, and stay tuned for glimpses into my forthcoming novel (title TBD)!