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Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure.

Virginia Woolf, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Schuyler are among the cherished few writers who admit that failure is the foundation of their art. Paul Auster has now joined their company. Hand to Mouth - a three-dimensional palimpsest as uncanny as David Lynch's Lost Highway - is the most unusual autobiography I've ever read. That Auster, in his prime, should choose to publish "a chronicle of early failure" shows not that he takes his present success for granted, but that he superstitiously credits his early failure with the power to explain and ensure current success: prior failure enchants and enchains his literary destiny.

Hand to Mouth begins with a long and beautiful autobiographical essay, entitled "Hand to Mouth," chronicling Auster's early life in terms of one variable, money, which is notable mostly for its absence. (Readers might compare Auster's memoir of penury with his ex-wife Lydia Davis' parallel story, "St. Martin," in her recently published Almost No Memory.) Literature, to guarantee its legitimacy, usually represses talk of money: no self-respecting novel discusses the money it hopes to earn. Joan Didion is one contemporary writer unafraid to give voice to money's presence within her voice; now, Auster is another. He tells us about his parsimonious father and his extravagant mother; his first jobs (summer-camp waiter, hotel groundskeeper); his "little excursions into the backwaters and shit holes of the world"; his stint as a merchant seaman on the S.S. Esso Florence; his month in Mexico trying to ghostwrite a book for a movie mogul's wife. Most enthralling is his account of dropping out of Columbia. In Paris for a junior year abroad, Auster hoped to attend courses with Roland Barthes and instead was ordered by an "unbending" and "contemptuous" Columbia official to study French grammar. As Auster recounts the confrontation: "All right, I said, if that's the way it is, then I quit. I quit the program, I quit the college, I quit the whole damn thing. And then I got up from my chair, shook his hand, and walked out of the office." A few months later, Auster capitulated and re-enrolled, but how bracing, nonetheless, is his wild accelerando of refusals, his "I quit," "I quit," "I quit"! This willingness to fail - to quit - turned him into a successful writer: his novels never go flat - never fail - because he always remains in conscious combat with a failure almost embodied, almost his alter ego. The memoir ends at the moment his career as a novelist begins, with the publication of a pseudonymous piece of genre fiction.

Following the memoir are three appendices, three long footnotes. The first footnote contains three Beckett-like plays - Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven, Blackouts, and Hide and Seek - which Auster wrote in 1976 and 1977. The second footnote is a card game, "Action Baseball," which Auster invented as a get-rich-quick scheme (it failed to make a cent); he includes reproductions of the cards themselves, decorated with such resonant phrases as "Error" and "Foul Ball." The final footnote is his first novel, Squeeze Play, written in 1978, a detective potboiler he originally published under a pseudonym, "Paul Benjamin." Auster claims he wrote it merely to make money (it earned him less than a thousand dollars), but it is psychologically complex and deftly plotted, and it foreshadows, in technique and subject, his great New York Trilogy.

Auster's decision to publish early work in the context of a latter-day rumination is brilliant and brave: the gesture, a sort of literary hari-kari, an act of renunciation and self-sabotage performed in public, involves a successful author brandishing evidence that might easily be used against him by critics who wish to indict him as aesthetically worthless and fraudulent. Publishing early work that he acknowledges as inferior (though he must secretly know its merits) enables Auster to retain the gold standard of "success" while also dipping into the more nourishing mulch of "failure"; certainly, as Stein and Genet knew and now Auster knows, a writer with serious, visionary ambitions must embrace worthlessness, childishness, psychopathology, and shame.

The footnotes reverberate not merely because they court unsuccess. Framed by mature retrospect, they prove clairvoyant. The following paragraph, for example, comes from the 1978 novel, and yet it could easily have been lifted from the 1996 memoir: "Looking at a microfilm gives you an eerie feeling. Everything is reversed. Instead of black on white, the words are white on black, and it makes you think of an X ray, as if you were looking into the insides of time, as if somehow the past was a secret dimension of the world that couldn't be recovered unless you lured it out with tricks and mirrors. It's a little like discovering a fossil. The fern life has disintegrated millions of years ago, and yet its image is sitting in your hand. It's somehow both there and not there at the same time, lost forever and yet found." Which of the two Paul Austers, past or present, wrote this Ponge-like inquiry into a fossil? Earlier in the novel, the narrator says, of the baseball star George Chapman, "Following Chapman during his great season, I somehow thought of him as my alter ego, as an imaginary part of myself that had been innoculated against failure"; in Hand to Mouth, Auster wards off failure by innoculating himself with footnote-sized doses of it.

The abortive plays, too, come alive when juxtaposed with the later memoir. For example, when, in Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven, Hardy says, "Don't play games with me! ... You're going to work now!" and Laurel responds, "You can't make me do it! Go ahead and kill me. It doesn't matter. But I'm not going to do that work again. I'm finished," we know that the duo is rehearsing the plot of Auster's 1990 novel, The Music of Chance, as well as enacting the dialectic of "work" and "play" that informs both memoir and "Action Baseball."

This juggling of past and present, text and footnote, sounds, in my explication, more cerebral than it is: Auster writes in a voice so clear, so mesmerizing, and so profound, that a reader happily absorbs the ambiguities. In 1978, before Auster become the "Paul Auster" whose works I so admire, he wrote, in the voice of Max Klein, detective: "I was dreaming of a city with no one in it but me. Everyone had vanished because of a strange and devastating power that had taken hold of my voice. Whenever I spoke to anyone, he would disappear. All I had to do was open my mouth, and everyone around me would be gone." Elsewhere in the novel, the detective gives the name "Muffle Mouth" to a stranger who makes threatening, voice-disguised phone calls. Muffle Mouth is an emblem of the writer afraid of his own voice's power to decimate listeners, the writer who puts his hand over his mouth to hide the voice's size. Paul Auster, in propria persona, is the opposite of Muffle Mouth; he is unafraid of his own power, precisely because he has acknowledged humiliation's alchemy, its way of letting words vibrate at whatever weird, golden velocity they wish. Hand to Mouth vibrates; it is an extraordinary game.

Wayne Koestenbaum is the author of Jackie Under My Skin and The Queen's Throat.
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Author:Koestenbaum, Wayne
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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