Worth the time for this Magnum Opus
My verdict in short: Auster makes you work hard for it, but the writing and storytelling are outstanding – it feels like his magnum opus. His exploration of identity and what makes up a life is subtly yet powerfully done, and will leave you thinking long afterwards. Highly recommended for literary types.
Paul Auster is a literary heavyweight, best-known for his intelligent novels where he plays with absurdism and existentialism (for example, the New York Trilogy where a private New York investigator is hired to track down someone who may or may not be himself). This is quite different: a beast of a book, with 900 (large) pages of Dickensian-like detail, exploring the lives of one person, Ferguson, who tries to find love and purpose in 1950s and 1960s. This is almost a straight saga, but it’s ‘lives’, rather than ‘life’, as the twist is that, depending on the actions of his father on one crucial night, the protagonist’s life goes in four different directions. We never know which life is the ‘real’ one, and in some senses it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ story, as you find yourself rooting for different versions of his life. I especially loved the way Auster interweaves the political and cultural turbulence of 1950s and 60s America, so it feels well-earthed in time and place.
Having four versions of the same character also has the effect of distancing yourself from the main character, observing from above, rather than in the middle, but it is redeemed by the effect that it has on the reader, plus the Auster-ish twist at the end. I kept reading because of the vivid storytelling and incredible writing. At one point, the protagonist describes himself as a person equally passionate about the body as the mind. Paul Auster could be describing his writing: he writes powerful, erotic sex scenes (sometimes disturbingly so, in instances of power imbalance and abuse), and captures the physical sense of every environment – New York and Paris being particularly evocative – yet he also takes you deep into discussions about literature, art and philosophy. It talks of the fragility of life – how one absurd event you have no control of can alter everything. It also highlights the pros and cons of political involvement, the role of the writer, and the complexities of fighting for civil rights. It felt eerily timely for America (and much of the world) today.
*I received a review copy, and this is my honest review*