My friend Clare gave me an endurance test with the gift of this 866 page novel by Paul Auster, about growing up in New York mid twentieth century. I did falter half way through but got a second wind and sailed on to the end of this blockbuster (obligatory cliche).
Auster’s long sentences create a beguiling rhythm of thought and dialogue about growing up possibilities, as the lives (yes, plural) of young Archie Ferguson play out against the backdrop of post-war American society and events that shook the nation in the 60s, notably the war in Vietnam. The characters in his extended part-Jewish family clan and society are well drawn, and the portrayal of Archie’s childhood and intimate life convincing. The underlying goodness of the heroic Archie characters is less so.
However the device of parallel Archie lives is too contrived. The omniscient author tries to explain it all in the final pages by a what-if rationale about the fateful turns that Archie’s life could have taken and conflates him as author of this book. Too cute by far and unconvincing. Yeah, of course all lives are prone to random shocks and surprises, aka the fickle finger of fate. The title refers to disappearing Archies as Auster takes them out, but it’s actually just confusing.
A more traditional solo Archie narrative would have worked fine, and saved four hundred pages. Maybe Auster had too many storyline ideas and, with an indulgent editor, decided to chuck ‘em all in the one story. Pre-eminent novelists are often indulged (see my reviews of Winton and Flanagan).
Putting that major whinge aside, I enjoyed the ride and was both entertained and enchanted, which are two of three hallmarks of good writing identified by Nabokov. Auster’s insight into young minds and their struggles with post-war life ring true – forming childhood identities, the threat of the draft for young men, the mood of radical resistance in universities to conservative society at large and the war in Vietnam, their burgeoning sex lives, writing urges, and longing for legal tender.
If you can gird your loins, so to speak, you might enjoy the marathon ride too.