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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's always a depressing day when you discover that your favorite contemporary writer has just published a book that you think you hate. Of course you feel obligated to tough the book out, even fate a gloomy 50 pages or so, but it's hard to escape the feeling as you're reading that you're becoming a little annoyed and impatient with the writer you've always loved. You hope it's just a one-off deal but it's depressing to be let down like this; you start to wonder if maybe you over-valued your favorite writer from the start.
I know it sounds like hyperbole for anyone to feel so crazily invested in a writer's output, but deep readers know that reading for pleasure can be a profoundly intimate experience. It's solitary; unlike other art forms, which are communal by nature, reading is a direct, one-on-one relationship between the author and reader. There's no outside stimuli, no other people looking at what you're looking at. Readers establish a relationship with an author that can become surprisingly complex. It's not too shocking to discover that notorious loner assailants — Mark David Chapman, for example — acknowledge that the book they were reading at the time had a profound influence on their subsequent actions.
As a lifelong reader I've established numerous "relationships" with writers over the years, and it was with a profound sense of loss that I had to "end" three of those relationships in the last year. These were writers that I had discovered in my late 20s and had felt an immediate affinity for but suddenly, all at once, it became clear: we're done here. And it's particularly disappointing now, because it's Summer and I always like to have a Big Summer Book to drag around with me wherever I go. I had sort of earmarked Paul Auster's 4321 as 2017's summer diversion, but after an hour into the book I sighed and knew it was time to break it off with Paul.
And this was dispiriting, for I had read "The New York Trilogy" in 1987 and it had absolutely floored me. It sort of opened my eyes to new ways of telling stories; critics called it a "metaphysical detective novel" and that seemed both accurate and beguiling to me. I then bought the next five Auster novels in hard cover, and I even had one of them, Leviathan, mailed to his publisher for an author's autograph. (Which Auster did, and yes, I know how stalker/crazy I sound here as a fan.) My fervor abated a bit after the first novels, but I still kept up, picking up the novels at the library at my leisure. Of course by this time I was "seeing" other writers as well, so my devotion to him wasn't as intense. But I still liked him well enough, or so I thought.
But you know, like anybody in a long-term relationship, I started to notice little things . . . his female characters, for instance. They were either Earth Mothers or enigmatic intellectuals that would seduce him, enigmatically, and then leave him, enigmatically. Sometimes they were Enigmatic Earth Mothers. A couple of these characters, okay, I guess, but every novel seemed to have at least one. And it bothered me that the main character of each novel always responded in the same way. It reminded me of something Pauline Kael once said about Woody Allen: in every romantic Woody Allen movie, the main character learns all these lessons about love and romance and has apparently attained some wisdom by the end, but in the next movie, he's Woody Allen again. (And by the way, is it okay for me to mention "Woody Allen" in a critical argument? Or am I still supposed to just sneer at his name and pretend he never made movies?)
And I guess Auster's use of coincidence, and freak accidents — which had once seemed so charming to me — well, that started to feel a little predictable, too. And it started to depress me that most of this protagonist had such agonizing battles with poverty — though these were usually solved by some freak accident or coincidence. And often with the involvement of an enigmatic intellectual. Or an enigmatic Earth Mother. Sigh. I knew it was time to move on.
And of course I'm painfully aware of the obvious here — Paul Auster hasn't changed at all, but I sure have — and I'm certainly not gonna argue that Paul Auster can't write the same book every time if he wants to. (The late Thomas Berger, still my favorite American writer, wrote the same book 30 times and I enjoyed each one.) But I know I can't read him the same way now. I didn't "outgrow" him, say, in the way I "outgrew" Stephen King's books when I was young, or the way young readers will "outgrow" J.K. Rowling as they age and gain maturity. But sometimes, a reader/author relationship just has to stop.
I find it interesting that the other two writers that I've "broken it off with" this year — Haruki Murakami and Richard Ford — are about the same age as Paul Auster, all in their late 60s and early 70s. Maybe, when I was young, I was all too willing to defer to these older writers, to recognize their wisdom and readily accept their superiority. And look, they are all accomplished writers whose work has been celebrated on an international scale — Murakami is always on the short list for the Nobel Prize; Auster's work has been translated into 40 languages; and Ford has won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, among various other awards. I can't argue with their accomplishments or their fans, and I know it's churlish in the extreme for me to think that Murakami's dreamscapes are kind of boring and Ford's main character in his most celebrated novels, Frank Bascombe, is kind of a dick. I used to love these writers, but now I think I'm looking around for something new.