Set exactly 30 years ago in Brooklyn, New York, Auster’s eleventh novel concerns a seismic nine days in the life of novelist Sidney Orr. Newly rehabilitated into ‘the land of the living’ after a prolonged spell skirting with death in hospital, Sidney is our first-person guide through a series of misadventures in his life, his relationships and his writing.
Re-energised after procuring an elegant blue Portugese notebook, Sidney sets to work on first a novel then a screenplay. Through his abortive attempts at both and a series of encounters with his best friend – the celebrated writer John Trause – his increasingly troubled wife Grace and the mysterious stationer, M.R. Chang, we get to know Sidney’s innermost neuroses.
Auster’s writing is beautiful throughout. His description of the seemingly mundane (buying a notebook for instance) lifts it to poetic, allegorical levels. In fact, the page-turning quality of his prose is so light of touch that the reader would keep on reading even if he included a page from a Polish phonebook – [NB: he does exactly that.] What is most impressive, however, is the range of ideas that he fills his novel with. Enormously inventive and clever, it is almost too much to squeeze into one novel.
There lies the rub. The episodic nature of the novel means you just wish Auster would stop being so damn clever and settle on one idea and pursue it to its conclusion or, at least, further than he does. Perhaps that would be less representative of the chaotic nature of most people’s lives but it does leave you wondering why he includes so many threads to his story only to drop them once he has waved them tantalisingly in the reader’s face. This is especially trying when the central ‘mystery’ of his wife’s troubles are so heavily signposted.
Then there is his reliance on footnotes. Virtually every other page in the novel includes them; little asides with background information that can sometimes go on for four pages in of themselves. Consequently, you read the footnotes then backtrack four pages to get back to the main thread of the story. Once or twice is forgivable but when it is throughout the novel it becomes a chore that you either accept or reject after a while. It is the writing equivalent of someone trying to tell a funny story at a party and always inserting little digressions that they think the listener needs to know to enjoy the story but which instead ruin the pace and enjoyment of the original anecdote. It is the written equivalent of me telling a joke in fact.
That being said, if you are already a fan of Auster then this is another beautiful ride. If you’re not then this is a great starting point: full of the worst but also the very best elements of his particular brand of novel-writing.
IN SHORT: RECOMMENDED – JUST GRIT YOUR TEETH THROUGH THE FOOTNOTES.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Could be more.