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 A key character in my novel is "Paul Auster," an unpublished novelist working as a local journalist in the Hudson Valley, married to a successful writer named Siri.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.


  1. I enjoyed this, Brent. Thank you. It was a clever way to introduce people to my novel. I’m a fan of Auster and Auster, as you probably know, is a fan of Beckett. We both channel him in our own ways and we both had to break free from him. This was my first Beckett-inspired novel—third written, fourth published—and I really thought I’d got him out of my system by the time I thought I’d “finished” it. It came as a great surprise to me when I found myself writing Milligan and Murphy and I have no idea where the radio play Vladimir and Estragon are Dead came from but that seems to be me now. There’s so much Beckett packed into the book it’s hard to know where to start but since you mentioned the structure let me just say this, the arc is meant to cover the major periods of Beckett’s writing. The early works were in the third person, he then moved into the long first person narratives before focusing on theatrical works, broadly speaking.

    The first draft of my novel was finished in 2003 but if you did want to compare my book to one of Auster’s the obvious choice would be Travels in the Scriptorium from 2007. I had, of course, seen The Matrix when it came out in 1999. In the following quote

    There are days when it simply refuses to happen. Nothing you can do save wait for it to come to you. No forcing it, no chasing after it—that’s fatal —and no little blue pills.

    we have nods to both Endgame and The Matrix: “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” My copy contains 1453 footnotes. I’d never remember all the various nods otherwise. The thing I always loved about Beckett is how much was going on under the surface. Even in his (seemingly) most straightforward of works. I wanted to write a book you could study even though I knew full well I’d be lucky to get anyone to read it even the once.

    Why’s Auster famous and I’m not? I’m more puzzled with how Beckett achieved success let alone fame because he actively avoided both especially in the early days. Had he been born in 2006 rather than 1906 I bet he’d have started self-publishing his work and no one would’ve heard of him. My parents waited twenty-one years for me and I’ve occasionally wondered what my life would’ve been like had I been born in 1948 rather than 1959. I would’ve been a peer of Paul Auster for starters.

    1. Well, I'm surprised to learn that The More Things Change was actually written before Milligan and Murphy. I'm not surprised to learn how deeply it's based on Beckett -- I assumed it probably had hidden nods to him (besides the overt one late in the book) but I knew I'd be getting in over my head if I started mentioning Beckett in the post, since I'm not a Beckett scholar. Wow, 1453 footnotes! It certainly is a study-able book, and maybe Beckett fans will make it a cult hit one day, if they somehow learn about it.

    2. Also, you just sent me to my shelf to refresh my memory about Travels in the Scriptorium. Yes, it shares some qualities with your novel -- the lives of characters in novels as parallel to our own, puppets of the god-like author etc. -- but it was not one of my Auster favorites. I enjoyed yours more!

  2. That is an interesting comparison between two books, both in content and execution. It is also an interesting question you ask as to why one of the authors is famous and the other is not.

    I think the answer concerns luck. It is pure chance. The next question would be why someone is lucky. Do certain personal attributes make someone more prone to be lucky? Napoleon thought so. But then why do some people have these attributes and others not? The questions continue exponentially in a rather recursive fashion which might say more about the human condition than any hidden reality. The human condition to me is the ability to think about thinking and to think about thinking about thinking. The whole issue suggests a randomness comprised of parts that do not appear at first to be random, but are probably completely arbitrary in the long run.

    Smaller pebbles wash further up the beach than larger ones. It looks as if they have been sorted, and they have - by gravity and the tide.

    This might mean that a famous author’s writing might be no better than that of an unknown. Or the other way round. Life is strange. Thank you know who.

    1. Many people espouse the idea that marketplace success and artistic merit actually have a direct relationship. "If it's good enough, it will be discovered." That's bogus logic, in my opinion. I sometimes think about all the Shakespeares or Becketts or PKDs who, for reasons unknown (chance or not), never became famous. Masterpieces lost! At least in this timestream. Thanks for reading and commenting!