by Paul Auster
Adam Walker, a Jewish 20year old student and would-be poet meets Rudolf Born, 36, a visiting French professor of political science and his impassive French female companion Margot – black mini skirted and black booted – at a party near Columbia University, New York in 1967. Born, who contends, his father has left “war is the purest expression of the human soul” and he invites Adam to edit a literary magazine he will fund and Adam makes a Faustian pact. Born goes back to Paris for a brief visit and Margot invites Adam into her bed and when Born returns he gives Margot the boot but continues with his plan to fund Adam’s magazine. One evening while he and Adam are out walking they are stopped by a gun-wielding mugger whom Born disables with a knife and when Adam returns from phoning for an Ambulance Born and the mugger have disappeared. Next day the mugger’s body is found in Riverside Park and Born has left the country. Adam tears up the magazine funding cheque and is filled with impotent fury and guilt. So far interesting enough. Then we have Adam’s journal recounting what happened immediately following and it trawls back into Adam’s past and the effect the death of his brother Andy had on him and his sister Gwyn and their incestuous relationship; described in too much detail, though it is excused as being part of Adam’s journal and therefore may be a fantasy. We have come a long way since Holden watched Phoebe on the carrousel in “Catcher in the Rye.” Adam and Gwyn go to Carl Dryer’s 1955 film Ordet (The Word) at the end of which a woman comes back to life which seems to give Adam some hope for his brother Andy or Cedric Williams, the dead mugger. Adam goes to Paris to confront the assumed murderer Born who is now engaged to a woman named Helene with an 18year old student daughter named Cecile who falls for Adam. Adam decides to tell them that Born committed a murder in New York but Born turns the tables by planting a large bar of hash in Adam’s hotel room and Adam is deported. Adam re-emerges in Berkley, California where he does law and works in Legal Aid for 27 yearsand marries a social worker. Born has escaped to a small island near Trinidad and Cecile goes there in 2007 for a final confrontation. Auster is not, in this novel, a prose stylist in the vein of Updike, Banville or Aidan Higgins, so a lot depends on the story he is working with and perhaps his own doubts about its strength are reflected in the many literary devices – of letters, diaries and chapters of a character’s novel, different narratorsetc, he employs to keep the reader interested. But this reader wasn’t. It is turbid and going through it was like dredging through a sea of molasses. There is little litheness or grace in the telling. Though set against the backdrop of 1968 student unrest, grief and guilt are its principal themes. Perhaps this story might work as the basis for a film but it doesn’t work in its present form and Auster’s fans may well be left scratching their heads.