I’ve just finished reading Brooklyn Follies, the most recent novel by Paul Auster, and whilst it’s an enjoyable read, it’s not really comparable to Auster at his best. With his last three books, Auster seems to be heading away from the mystical and mind-bending themes he is so justly renowned for, and which find perhaps their purest form in the The New York Trilogy and Mr Vertigo.
Auster seems to have decided at some point since writing these two books that the autobiographical reality of contemporary American lives is more meaningful, and that the strange quirks of fate and coincidences that real life can throw up are arresting enough without recourse to plots and stylistic flourishes that have supernatural or metaphysical elements.
I personally think that his earlier work is much more interesting, and The New York Trilogy, in particular, is a book that defines a genre all its own. It achieves in the reader a kind of fugue state, where all is symbolic and loaded with meaning, even an empty room, and one’s identity as a reader becomes profoundly confused.
A few years ago I went to an exhibition of work by the American painter Edward Hopper at the Tate Modern in London, and was struck by the similarity between the feelings that some of his paintings evoke and those engendered by reading Auster’s earlier work. Many of Hopper’s paintings show people with ambiguous identities in a solitary situation, often looking out of a window; they are very mysterious but they evoke strong feelings of yearning and absence and many are just plain eerie – the eerieness comes not from what is represented in the painting, but from what is not represented.
The most astonishing example of this is ‘Sun in an Empty Room‘. Seeing this painting for real in the exhibition made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up; it is to my mind a visual representation of the central image of The City of Glass, and pulls off the startling feat of managing to be menacing and unsettling whilst showing something that seems utterly mundane. I cannot fathom how Hopper manages this with his paint and composition. To show even more clearly that he is a genius one only has to look at the work of Jack Vettriano; here are paintings that share similar subject matter (eccentrically-styled people sitting or posing in groups in a timeless setting), but which have no meaning or emotion and convey nothing more than their literal appearances. Wheareas Vettriano cannot go beyond this, Hopper finds something much more deep and emotional.
The fact that Auster’s words on a page and Hopper’s paint on a canvas can both address these themes of alienation and emptiness in contemporary America in a quasi-mystical way is perhaps a testament to their genius. The thematic connection between Auster and Hopper is also one I’ve not seen written about anywhere – perhaps there is a Phd thesis in this for a graduate literature student somewhere…