Sunday, December 23, 2012
Winter Journal Book Review
Winter Journal Book Review
By: Pat LaFleur
“You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the whole 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.”
With these lines, and now breathing in the steam from your freshly brewed cup of tea, you begin reading Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal (2012). You brought this one home to your chair because you’ve always enjoyed Auster’s work, and memoir is one of your favorite genres.
But these opening lines halt your first sip and raise your brow. Not because they’re poorly written: they’re actually quite smooth, as his tend to be. And not because you disagree with what they say. They’re sharp in their commentary, if anyone were to ask. Instead, Auster’s opening sentence strikes you because, based on your understanding of memoir, Auster... well, he just doesn’t seem to get it.
And then, over the course of the next 230 pages, your tea disappears, night turns to morning, and you find yourself standing corrected.
Typically, memoir is the product of its author’s attempt to answer the question: WHO AM I? Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project (2011), describes this process as a marking of territory, “staking out what’s yours, defining it and walking its perimeter.” In doing this, you will discover the boundaries of the truth of who “you” are, plotting a coherent outline of what makes you “unique.” And, hopefully, if you succeed, your reader will follow along.
So, why on earth - you ask yourself - would Auster begin his memoir by describing his growing suspicion that he is, in fact, just like everyone else? The answer lies - as it usually does with Auster - in his way of writing it.
Auster’s form, which has become critics’ chief complaint about Winter Journal, consists of loosely related thought-fragments. Some recollect places (a 50-page, chronological catalogue of the dwellings he has inhabited in his lifetime), some feelings (like the way his six-year-old bare feet feel on the cold morning floor) and other definitive episodes in his life (his mother’s death, to name the most vivid). And because Auster makes no obvious effort to link these sketches, it’s easy for you to think that this open weave of memory flies in the face of everything memoir promises. You wonder if they will ever merge into anything recognizable. Will they ever tell a story? Will they ever shape and define the truth of who he is?
And then it hits you, the reason you hesitated with that first line: Auster’s memoir refuses to tell you this truth. There is, in fact, no single “truth” to tell. When describing his struggle to commemorate his mother, he explains that there are “too many gaps, too many silences and evasions, too many threads lost over the years for (him) to stitch together a coherent story” (132). Auster’s fragmentary style, you realize, works to make the same point about his attempts to reflect on his own life. The telling of his story must be as scattered and flighty as his own memory. This, for Auster, is no doubt the closest he or anyone else can get to authentic “truth.”
Auster refuses to tell you a coherent story not because he disagrees with Smith’s description of memoir, but because he favors the mapping over the map it creates. The 50-page list of places he’s lived, dripping with tedious detail, might seem self-indulgent, but only if you read them as Auster’s attempt to squeeze them into “the truth of who he is.” Instead, you choose to read these pages as a demonstration of the often difficult road one must undertake when outlining this truth. Lest we forget Auster’s demonstrated skill spinning a good yarn (The New York Trilogy, The Music of Chance, anyone?), if Auster wanted Winter Journal to deliver a moving, fluid narrative, he could and would have. Instead, while Auster’s works of fiction plainly pursue their characters’ search for identity, Winter Journal gives a first-hand look at that process.
This is because, for Auster, memoir - a word no doubt sharing ancestry with memory - happens underneath the level of straightforward story and clear understanding - or, as he puts it, before “the domain of conscious selfhood” (136). His life has no “arc,” in the literary sense of the word. Instead, it adds up to a heap of parts as crude, as ordinary and as (non)related as “sneezing and laughing, yawning and crying, burping and coughing, scratching your ears, rubbing your eyes, blowing your nose, clearing your throat...” (229). How many times, Auster wonders, has he done these things? Collecting these memories, holding an extended conversation with yourself (with no shame, he structures the memoir in 2nd person), these are where memoir lies, and in this way, it not only marks out what makes you you, but it also shows you how we all ask these questions of ourselves.
In Winter Journal, Auster takes you on a journey through his mind, his body and everything in between. And if you’re left with any sort of grip on the author by the end, it’s an understanding not so much of who he is but of how he works. And you set the book down, having sipped its final drops, wondering if there’s any better way to understand someone.
You set the book down, suspecting that maybe you’ve enjoyed thinking about Winter Journal more than actually reading it.
 From National Association of Memoir Writers Teleseminar, posted 27 Apr 2012.