Paul Auster's Winter Journal
If I was able to transform my writing to that of another author, few names would be placed higher than that of Paul Auster. I was first introduced to Auster’s works by chance when I spotted The Brooklyn Follies on a library shelf, and have since devoured an additional dozen or so books of his, each as unconventional as the last, and each entirely compelling.
Auster’s most recent book, Winter Journal, is a memoir, but not in the traditional sense (nothing Auster writes can be considered traditional), and the result is a great read, if for no other reason that it twists a tired genre into something odd and thought-provoking.
First and foremost, he makes the unusual choice to chronicle his life in second person. The book begins:
You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.
And it continues. Throughout the book, the word “I” doesn’t appear except in direct quotations. Using the second person is an interesting technique for an autobiography, but I was surprised at how natural it felt. Auster’s wife is, in fact, not my wife, but when he writes “Your wife was calm, you remember...and even your little daughter was calm” it works somehow, maybe even better than if he’d used the first person, for it breaks down the the normal barriers between author and reader. Just as Auster inserted himself as a character in his novel, City of Glass, in Winter Journal, he’s inserted the reader.
The book forgoes the chronological expectation of a memoir, and instead describes a nonlinear history of Auster’s physical body: the injuries it sustained, the physical pleasures, the scars – both mental and physical – it endured. At various points, Auster describes the different sensations and actions that his body (and all of our bodies) have experienced:
Your body in small rooms and large rooms, your body walking up and down stairs, your body swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans, your body traipsing across muddy fields...
He spends 52 pages identifying the twenty-one permanent addresses his body has lived in, ten pages describing the plot of a movie he identifies with (and he does it so well that I feel I’ve already seen the 1950 film, D.O.A.), and a page and a half listing the countless activities of his hands (“brushing your teeth, drying your hair, folding towels, taking money out of your wallet, carrying bags of groceries...”).
Unconventional? You bet. But so much more interesting than a play-by-play of his life.
As the title suggests, Winter Journal is from the viewpoint of a man who’s entered a new phase of his life, a man who recognizes the ever-nearing finish line and who devotes time to reflection. We follow him along a car ride home when he takes a careless left hand turn that nearly kills him, his wife and his child. We witness the aftermath of the deaths of his father and mother. The prostitutes he patronized. The failed first marriage. The boy who dies from a lightning strike before his very eyes. None of this is done linearly. Auster writes in a stream of consciousness that has the potential to bewilder, but instead engrosses.
The most compelling pages occur midway through the memoir, when Auster describes the aftermath of his mother’s passing. On page 124, he writes of a phone call from a cousin:
It is as if she has trained herself not to breathe while she talks, to spew forth entire paragraphs in a single, uninterrupted exhale, long outrushes of verbiage with no punctuation and no need to stop for an occasional intake of air. Her lungs must be enormous, you think, the largest lungs in the world, and such stamina, such a burning compulsion to have the last word on every subject.
What follows is a heart-wrenching conversation, as his cousin trashes the memory of Auster’s mother, who died just two days earlier. The episode highlights a good rule to those who are related to gifted writers: be careful what you say, because your Last Word on a subject is sure to be trumped in a more lasting (and more public) way.
If Auster’s techniques are unconventional, the language he uses is entirely accessible, writing very much as he speaks (check out this interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air" - he's got a terrific voice). The result is an interesting read from a man whose gifts are so far-reaching, it’s enough to lead an aspiring author to call it a day.