Have you ever had a particularly bad bout of food poisoning, such that – in the days and weeks after you have recovered – you didn’t quite feel right, didn’t quite feel hungry, hadn’t quite regained your appetite? Reading Paul Auster’s latest memoir, Report from the Interior, is a little like that – in that the experience of reading comes to feel like food poisoning and, in this reader’s experience, for weeks after nothing seemed quite right. All of which (unless you’re the kind of person who thinks ‘food poisoning – yay!’) hopefully gives you a clear idea as to what we think of Report from the Interior.
Readers of Winter Journal and Here & Now will have no doubt gathered that Auster is enduring a particularly reflective period. There hasn’t been a novel since Sunset Park in 2010. Where Winter Journal dealt with Auster’s feelings, largely, about his body and its location in the universe, and Here & Now cut us in to the correspondence between Auster and fellow novelist and thinker JM Coetzee, Report from the Interior is made up of four pieces of varying length – the eponymous opening section which concerns Auster’s remembrances on his youth up to the age of 12, a 75 page section in which Auster largely recounts the plots of The Incredible Shrinking Man and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a 100 page section in which Auster shares with us excerpts from the letters he wrote to his first wife when he was in his early twenties (it says 100 pages on the contents but in reality it feels like about five copies of War & Peace laid back to back) and a fourth (inexplicable) section containing photographs of some of the things he has mentioned in the earlier sections.
Now, to be fair, the opening section is okay. Childhood is another country they say and I can appreciate the challenge for a writer in wanting to return to that world and excavate. What can I really remember? The first section is an answer to that. Section two – entitled ‘Two Blows to the Head’ – is also not without interest. We know that films have always been important to Auster and so an essay about the first two films to mean something to him should be worthwhile – but you read with a growing sense of uneasiness – is he really just going to describe the plots of these films to us? Yes. Yes, he is. Even so, though, the films are good, the stories are good, Auster’s recounting of them is good. The book isn’t in too much trouble yet. And then we arrive at the third section.
‘About two months after you started writing this book, you received a telephone call from your first wife, your ex-wife of the past thirty years, fiction writer and translator Lydia Davis. As so often happens to literary folk when they approach a certain age, she was preparing to have her papers transferred to a research library…’
Among Lydia’s papers were ‘all the letters you had written to her’ (and already, the ‘you’ gets in the way, it isn’t you after all is it? – it’s him, his, it’s ‘I’ not ‘you’) – and that is what we then get, for the most part unmediated (there are odd linking paragraphs her and there but for the most part it’s excerpts from the letters). And what a pretentious, indulgent, annoying young man Auster is. As, arguably, probably, most bookish twenty somethings are. You read on and it becomes a grind. Why are you showing us this? Earlier in the book Auster says that his desire to share this with us isn’t because he thinks he is special but rather the opposite – and you say, what?!? You’re showing us letters you wrote to a girlfriend in your twenties because – you are us? because we all wrote letters in our twenties? A lot of the problems of this third section are compounded by the fact that Auster has taken us through a lot of this before (in Hand to Mouth). Auster admits that he was shocked by a lot of what he read, by how different ‘he’ (the young Auster) sounds to the older Auster (by how differently the written record differs from the record recounted in Hand to Mouth and elsewhere) – but you know what? Potatoes / potahtoes. It’s a tiresome read. It’s boring. It’s painful – and not painful because it’s intimate or personal. Painful because (I’m going to say it again) it’s boring.
Auster has now written over a half dozen collections of nonfiction, a great many of which are memoirs of one sort or another. Report from the Interior feels like the final straw. Enough Mr Auster. No more. Write us a story. Like you used to. Please. We know enough about you. More than we’d like to. Yes, you’re a fascinating everyman. Well done. But no more. We beg you.
Any Cop?: Our least favourite Auster book by some stretch.