Friday, June 22, 2007

Paul Auster: some practical lessons in composerly legerdemain

Paul Auster writes like a composer. I've long been an avid reader of his novels (The Book of Illusions and Leviathan are particular favorites; Moon Palace and The Music of Chance are good books to start with) but have never been able to nail down exactly what he does that captures my reading attention so well. But there are two things I've noticed in his most recent novel, The Brooklyn Follies*, that I now recognize from work as a composer.

The first involves a bit of misdirection, like a stage magician, but also very much something done by the best composers. As in most of his books, there are a lot of coincidences bubbling at the surface, and the coarsest of coincidences often get direct acknowledgment from the narrator. This is Auster's misdirection: he's encouraging the reader to pay attention to sets of over obvious chance encounters, associations and resemblances while simultaneously, and under cover of protests of insignificance or innocence, he is composing ever more subtle and dense association fields or networks of relationships.

In The Brooklyn Follies, the narrator's nephew falls for a woman seen from a distance. Not knowing her name, he calls her "the B.P.M." for "Beautiful Perfect Mother" as he has observed the way in which she cares for and delights in her children as he watches her send them off to school each morning. The B.P.M. title is an immediate riff on the Blessed Virgin Mother, but B.P.M. is also beats per minute, and if B.PM. can riff into the B.V.M., it can also riff into R.P.M., opening an association field for anyone old enough to have played records on a phonograph. And, indeed, although the paragraph has nothing to do with a phonograph, Auster doesn't shy from that field of associations, locating the woman in "an enchanted circle of hugging, singing, and laughter", framed by a series of periodicities: "every morning", "as slowly as I can", "twenty times a day", and even suggestions of the phonograph's arm and stylus: "an arm wrapped", "dropped something". None of these devices -- as avant garde in their way as anything by Walter Abish or members of the Oulipo -- creates material that is essential to the narrative, but all of them are essential additions to the language, its economy, continuity, and internal coherence. As a composer I can only envy Auster's ability to play with themes and motives in such an economic manner while also being able to accommodate such extravagant misdirection.

The second technique Auster uses is one of dramatic changes of texture. He uses these changes to break continuity in a cinematic manner (he is also a fine screenwriter and director). The Brooklyn Follies is mostly in first person narrative (and self-referential at that, as the narrator happens to be writing a book with the title The Book of Human Folly), but suddenly, a third of the way in, a third person narrator steps in and introduces a chapter in scripted dialogue. But this scene is not really a break in the narrative, Auster lets us know, by explicitly giving the chapter that immediately follows the title of "Cigarette Break" (Auster is unafraid of featuring cigarettes in his work). The break switches back, however, to the original first person narrative. Again, a bit of misdirection, leading the reader to some jarring uncertainty, and using some of the most familiar mechanics of the novel form -- in this case, the chapter titles** -- to make the experience a bit less familiar. Again, a marvelous lesson in composition.

* Wise beyond his years, PWS of Tears of a Clownsilly has been reading this as well. Another one of those Austerian coincidences that may mean everything, or nothing at all...
** I should say something about these chapter titles and silent film intertitles -- silent film features in Auster's The Book of Illusions -- but that would be heavy-handed, wouldn't it?

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