Boogie-toed prankster: Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo

Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo. Faber and Faber, 2006. First published 1994

I took this novel with me on a long journey recently. I nearly gave up after 30 pages, because the style and subject-matter were so implausible and grating. I had no other reading matter to hand, so persevered. Although the later parts of the novel showed sporadic signs of improvement, I was still left unimpressed by the end.

Paul Auster Mr Vertigo cover The central character is the whimsically named orphan Walter Rawley, just nine years old at the start of the narrative, and a wise-cracking street-smart hustler in St Louis in the 1920s. He’s taken under the wing of Master Yehudi, a theatrically flamboyant Brooklyn-Hungarian Jewish showman, and another unrealistic figure in a novel in which none of the characters bears any resemblance to a flesh-and-blood human.

Yehudi sees potential in this scruffy kid – he says he’ll teach him to fly. So the first third or so of the novel describes the gruelling ‘training’ process to which he subjects Walt. Not surprisingly, he does learn to levitate, and then to perform aerial acrobatics, developing his skills under his enigmatic master’s tutelage. Yehudi himself seems to possess preternatural powers, either satanic or shamanic (is that a word?)

Their plan is to take Walt’s act on the road. He’s to perform in country fairs in backwoods mid-America. Disaster strikes early on, and their plans change. As Walt becomes famous, playing ever larger venues, another catastrophe alters the direction of his life, and the plot veers off in even more implausible directions.

I’ve nothing against magic in fiction. Barbara Comyns employs levitation as a central feature in The Vet’s Daughter (link to my post HERE), but her idiosyncratic approach creates her own kind of surreal suburban gothic that works more successfully than Paul Auster’s novel because it has an air of almost childlike naivety that counterpoints the weirder stuff.

The tangy vernacular style Auster deploys in Walt’s dialogue is intended I think to endear him to the reader; he’s a sort of potty-mouthed Huck Finn, wiser than his years in one sense, but childlike and vulnerable in others. But this doesn’t convince me. He is often callous and cruel (although much of this behaviour, like his casual racism, is a product of his background and era). Unlike my response to Comyns’ heroine, I didn’t really care what happened to him, because he never truly became a fully rounded character.

Here’s a fairly typical random sample of Walt’s narrative voice (for we learn near the end that it is indeed supposed to be Walt himself who’s writing this book), just after he’d arrived at Yehudi’s remote country shack early in the novel:

I was a city boy who had grown up with jazz in his blood, a street kid with his eye on the main chance, and I loved the hurly-burly of crowds, the screech of trolley cars and the throb of neon, the stink of bootleg whiskey trickling in the gutters. I was a boogie-toed prankster, a midget scatman with a quick tongue and a hundred angles, and there I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, living under a sky that brought only weather – nearly all of it bad.

Walt is just too sassy and cynical to ring true. He’s only nine at this point, remember, yet he comes across like a Raymond Chandler PI. I concede that the convention is that this is the voice of Walt 68 years later, writing his own life story, so he’s projecting his mature sensibility into that of himself as a kid. Auster has always been fond of this kind of postmodern playfulness, but did it so much more interestingly in, say, the excellent New York Trilogy (1987).

I read most of his novels pre-blog, and have to say that the quality was decidedly patchy. He never again matched the quality of that trilogy. I enjoyed the first two films based on or scripted by him, however: ‘Smoke’ and ‘Blue in the Face’ (both 1995).

I daresay the Artful Dodger could be described as a cockney forerunner of Walt, but to my mind Dickens is far more skilful in conveying the faults, motivation, inner vulnerability and charm of his character than Auster is with Walt.

Another more successful literary depiction of magic and the supernatural is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. In my post about it I cited Robert McCrum’s description of it in his ‘Hundred Best Novels’ series of articles. He emphasised how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution. (Link to my post HERE).

 

 

 

 

 

Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition

This is not a review of Barbara Comyns’ fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, published in 1959 (she died in 1992). I’ve written about two of her others in previous posts (links at the end), so have I think already established the nature of her highly idiosyncratic approach to narrative voice, plot and character dynamics. All tend to be at the same time naive, deceptively simple, yet also dark, tending towards a kind of surreal gothic,  and skewed in their world view. Odd things are narrated as if they were everyday; the banal is often rendered extraordinary.

All I need to do to give an idea of The Vet’s Daughter, then, is to quote from its opening page.

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would most likely have worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me,’ and left this poor man among the privet hedges.

This man possibly reappears in the penultimate page for no explicable reason, just as the encounter with the teenage vet’s daughter here simply serves to show the apparent randomness and lack of agency in her life.

Why bother to tell us about those privet hedges? Or that the ‘poor man’ is to be pitied because of his wife’s religious persuasion? How bizarre that she should liken his condition to that of a horse with kneecaps (do they wear such things?) If so, why does he resemble one thus attired, rather than just a regular, naked-legged horse? Is it because they live a life of toil and drudgery? Maybe she’s projecting on to him something of her own miserable existence with her tyrannical, sadistic father. Maybe, like Stephen King, she’s establishing a suburban setting of ordered tranquillity and banality – the hedges, the railway bridge, the lamp – in order that the domestic horrors to come are all the more upsetting.

That ‘heavy rainbow’ simile is good. There is no magical crock of gold at its end, of course. Quite the opposite, as the next paragraph begins to show.

That her life is oppressive begins to become clearer there:

I entered the house. It was my home and smelt of animals, although there was no lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

Although this narrating voice seems like that of a naive child, then, there’s a highly sophisticated literary sensibility at work here. That use of ‘although’, seemingly irrelevant, implies that either there is carpet – which would absorb and retain animal smells – or bare floorboards – which suggests parsimony in the head of the house. Or else the disconnectedness of the clause reflects that in her consciousness, all sense of normality and rational connection had been shattered or diminished by her father’s despotic control.

The hall’s brownness connotes a dismal, squalid colourlessness and lack of joy and love – a state that rapidly becomes frighteningly evident. The sadness of her mother’s eyes, her speechlessness, slight build, the slope of her shoulders: all demonstrate heartbreaking vulnerability in this hall of misery.

We soon learn, too, that her teeth have been knocked askew by her abusive, violent husband. He’s a monster of fairytale-ogre proportions. This is also hinted at in that closing sentence: he’s a vivisectionist’s supplier, quick to have sickly animals ‘destroyed’ – a category in which he includes his long-suffering wife and daughter.

I’m not  sure I can say I enjoyed this novel. Its bleak picture of a psychopathic husband and father, portrayed by a voice so gentle and unassuming, makes for almost unbearable reading at times.

I wrote about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths HERE last year

Sisters by a River HERE