The one in which I explain Postmodernist Art, Literature and Music. Or not.

Najat Aatabou – Just Tell Me The Truth

Just completed “Invisible“, the latest novel by Paul Auster. His “New York Trilogy” secures my vote for him as Greatest Living Author(tm) and so I was looking forward to this.

Auster was born in  New Jersey to middle class parents of Polish/Jewish descent. He graduated from New York’s Columbia University in 1970. He then lived for a while in Paris, where he earned his living as a translator of French literature.

Paul Auster is a postmodernist author.

Postmodern literature, says Wikipedia, is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature.

If a novel is a quest for meaning, then  a postmodern novel will play around with that. The narrator may or may not be part of the plot. The narrative may be a story, or it may be a story about a story. You may be the reader, or you may be part of the story. All very unclear, and very likely to mess with your head.

I explain postmodernism by reference to 17th century Dutch painting. Those artists were very fond of including in the background of their canvases one of these elements: a window, a painting or a mirror. Let’s go with one of these for our example. Imagine you are looking at a painting of a room which contains a scene of a landscape in a painting on the wall. Now the painting of the room isn’t real, it’s just an abstract representation of a room scene. Where does that leave the painting within the painting? Is it even more abstract? It is an imaginary scene contained within another imaginary scene. Or is it no more abstract than the painting in which it appears. There is only one level of abstraction. Maybe the painting of the room was ‘from life’ and is as faithful to the actual room as the painter could make it. But the painting of the landscape wasn’t. It was completely made up. Would that change your view on abstraction?

In Auster’s novel, the first narrator is called Adam Walker and he too is born to middle class tri-state parents. Like Auster, he is a student at Columba University in 1967 and then he moves to Paris to work as a translator. Is he then Paul Auster in disguise? The second narrator is Jim and he is sent a transcript of the biography that Adam has written. He edits it and in one part writes it from Adam’s sparse notes. Is he then Paul Auster the author in disguise? The third and final narrator is Cecile, a French woman who is a participant in Adam’s story. Hold that thought – both Adam and Cecile were there, part of the story, and so they have first hand knowledge of the “truth”. Their memory must be considered reliable. Jim is only a reader and editor – he wasn’t there. So in that sense he is like us – only a reader. We have to judge the truth from second-hand evidence.

But here’s the rub. The novel contains two great sins – murder and incest. We are told by one first hand witness that the incest didn’t happen and was invented. We are told by another that the story of the murder wasn’t believed. Where do we stand on the evidence? Is it an account of the truth or just a story?

Jim the editor gives advice to Adam the author: “By writing about myself in the first person, I had made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for.” Is this advice from Paul Auster to himself?

It could get silly. Did Paul Auster witness a murder in 1967 in New York and this is his way of telling us?

At that point I prefer to just back away and marvel at how many levels of meaning he has managed to weave into this book, and at the same time he moves it along at an easy-to-read level. It is far less obscure than this text, for example.

Or, is it that I write this blog to make myself invisible? It isn’t like I previously haven’t given you clues – who is the invisible boy and why are we alone yet together?

Maybe I never had cancer? Maybe it was someone else’s story.

Shit, now I’ve gone and confused myself 🙂

Even the song you are listening to now if you clicked the MP3 above – recognize it? Maybe you remember it instead as The Chemical Brothers’ song “Galvanize” from 2004’s Push The Button. Sampling in music as the ultimate postmodernism?

Le bouche à oreille, sans dire un mot.
(Word of mouth, without saying a word.)