Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Names, part 2

I'm pretty sure Paul Auster's most famous moment comes in the first story (City of Glass) of his first novel, The New York Trilogy, five pages in.

He climbed out of bed, walked naked to the telephone, and picked up the receiver on the second ring.
There was a long pause on the other end, and for a moment Quinn thought the caller had hung up. Then, as if from a great distance, there came the sound of a voice unlike any he had ever heard. It was at once mechanical and filled with feeling, hardly more than a whisper and yet perfectly audible, and so even in tone that he was unable to tell if it belonged to a man or a woman.
"Hello?" said the voice.
"Who is this?" asked Quinn.
"Hello?" said the voice again.
"I'm listening," said Quinn. "Who is this?"
"Is this Paul Auster?" asked the voice. "I would like to speak to Mr Paul Auster."

Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy (London: Faber, 1992), p7

If there's one thing Auster (the writer) loves more than weird coincidences (we should probably call it "The Music of Chance"), it's weird coincidences involving names and identity mix-ups, and this sort of stuff crops up throughout his work. Though it's a theme that's intermittent, it somehow seems to be an aspect of his writing that gives it its unique, er, identity.

Some characters from the novels, all writers: Peter Aaron (initials), John Trause (anagram), Daniel Quinn (Auster's son's name is Daniel) and Benjamin Sachs (more about Benjamins in a minute). You see what I mean.

Auster has even plunged himself into this echoing world of identities in "real life". Take the film Smoke, which he wrote the screenplay for and which was released in 1995. The main character is a writer called Paul Benjamin. In the film, Benjamin is nearly knocked over by a car, but is saved by a teenager called Rashid. The writer takes the kid in and looks after him for a bit. Except it soon emerges that his name isn't Rashid, it's Thomas. Thomas Cole. The boy was raised by his aunt, and is on a quest to find his father Cyrus, who walked out before Thomas was born, and who he has never met. He manages to get a job working for his long-lost father at Cyrus's run-down gas station, but is too scared to let his father know who he really is, and so gives his name as… Paul Benjamin.

Anyway, to the point: before he'd written all this, back in 1984, Auster published a pulpy but rather good detective novel, Squeeze Play. Except you won't find it in the bookshops under "A"; he used the pseudonym "Paul Benjamin". Benjamin, it turns out, is his middle name. Ha. Even more intriguing is the following. In Smoke, a whole chain of events is set off after wandering son Rashid steals $6,000 from two small-time gangsters. In real life, Auster's son Daniel went to prison after he was found guilty of stealing $3,000 from a dead drug dealer. What's the big deal, you might think, the writer's just taken some stuff from his life, tweaked it and stuck it in the film. Er, except Auster Jr's crime took place after Smoke had been released - he was sentenced in 1998. The young Daniel Auster actually makes a cameo appearance in the film by the way, playing a kid who steals a couple of magazines from a cigar shop.

It really pays to plough through all Auster's work – easy, as he's very readable – because these kind of echoes multiply and multiply the more you read. It's fun. In The Invention of Solitude, a non-fiction memoir type work, he quotes Pascal: "Two faces are alike. Neither is funny by itself, but side by side their likeness makes us laugh." Auster, or "A." as he refers to himself for the whole second half of the book, goes on:

"A young man rents a room in Paris and then discovers that his father had hid out in this same room during the war. If these two events were to be considered separately, there would be little to say about either one of them. The rhyme they create when looked at together alters the reality of each."

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude (Kent: Faber, 1982), p161

This is why chance, coincidence, is surprising, and, I guess how repetition and echoes give rise to meaning. Life's happenings, rhyming – why is that such a comforting, cosy way of putting it? Probably because it leans away from meaninglessness.

I experienced one of these strange "rhymes" while reading The Invention of Solitude. Quoting Pascal for the first time earlier in the book (ibid. p76), Auster writes: "All the unhappiness of man stems from one thing only: that he is incapable of staying quietly in his room." Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, the book I finished just before embarking on Solitude, quotes the same lines. Spooky.*

Smoke is well worth watching, particularly for William Hurt's immaculate and endearing performance as Paul Benjamin. It's so convincing that I can't imagine the character not living out his life somewhere in New York as I sit writing this. And since I saw the film, whenever I try to picture Paul Auster, he eludes me; instead, I always think of William Hurt playing Paul Benjamin. I think Auster would like that.

* Third echo: on Saturday I had two glasses of champagne, two glasses of white wine, two shots of vodka and two pints of beer in succession; after consuming these dyadic drinks I quoted those lines of Pascal at someone. I think that's probably the most sensible pissed thing I've ever done. Yay me.

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