Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Report from the Interior

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The book was a present from my in-laws, who clearly did not give it to me in exchange for a review.)

Report from the Interior, Paul Auster
Read: 12 to 16 March 2014   
4 / 5 stars  

I've not read anything by Paul Auster before, including his Winter Journal that's both a companion piece of sorts and predecessor to Report from the Interior. While the earlier work is an account of Auster's physical state, the title of this unconventional memoir is absolutely indicative of its inward focus, with the author examining himself through memories of childhood (the lens of recollection is, thankfully, not slathered with Vaseline), the movies of his adolescence that have left the deepest impressions, letters to the woman who would become his first wife written during their college years, and a photo album highlighting points of interest from the book's first quarter. While I imagine Auster's fans would derive the most enjoyment from observing this particular author's inner formation, Report from the Interior made for a warm (if not charmingly self-indulgent) introduction to the writer's style and personality.

One of the things that makes a memoir compelling enough to read about someone's else's life is the universality it brings to each memory, how a writer translates a personal experience into the language of ubiquitous milestones. Using the weirdly compelling second-person as his narrative vehicle for most of the book, Auster leads his readers through the awe of one's early years, winding his way from idyllic youth to adulthood's harsh realities, each childlike expectation derailed by adult-sized disappointment becoming a foothold in the uphill battle of dawning awareness. But as he learns that not all people are as trusting as he is or that even heroes are imperfect men, young Paul also inches closer to the person he'll become as the world of literature reveals its secrets with an ever-increasing generosity and as life itself becomes a richer place as he discovers things like dancing with girls, unsupervised days at the cinema and the nonstop rush of New York City.

While each mile marker between youth and maturity is Auster's alone, he zeroes in on the heart of the memory, locating the reason why that particular moment sticks out more vividly than others and addresses the relatable humanity of the moment. He recalls his boyhood idolization of Thomas Edison, the heady rush as degrees of separation dwindle between the two when he finds out his barber also cut Edison's hair and how his own father once worked in Edison's lab, and the acute despair of discovering that Edison himself fired his father for being Jewish: The players and details comprise Auster's own drama but the slap of cold realization that comes with a hero's irrevocable fall is familiar to all who've passed through that checkpoint on their ways to becoming jaded adults.

Auster shares a number of life lessons gleaned through firsthand experience, particularly those that impinge on his developing sense of justice, and the movies that have left the most striking impact on his formative years' memories were his first tastes of life being unfair on a grander scale. Two films (The Incredible Shrinking Man and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) receive special attention for how viscerally Auster's younger self responded to them: Both forced their young viewer to accept that sometimes the hits just keep coming, especially if, like the films' protagonists, one just happens to be an unfortunate victim of circumstance. In a book that relies largely on firsthand experiences, examining the effects movies can have on their audience and hinting at how entertainment like books and film can be an excellent supplement to one's emotional education, as illustrated by the palpable horror Auster felt on behalf of the characters he observed. Letting an observer live vicariously through a fictitiously upended life without suffering through actual consequences cultivates the kind of empathy that comes with living vicariously through a tormented character for the duration of their story.

The letters Auster wrote to his college sweetheart and first wife, writer and translator Lydia Davis, offered a glimpse of the writer as a young man in the cusp between collegiate freedom and adult responsibility, even if they are awash in a young writer's inability to resist the showiness of burgeoning talent and a wordsmith's experimentation with a medium he is on the brink of mastering, even mentioning how his parents won't address a pressing issue in letters because Auster has the advantage over them. But they're an honest time capsule that screams of uncertainty and potential colliding in that desire to experience everything with the exuberance only a university student can sustain.

I've found that one of the biggest appeals that memoirs hold for me is the assurance that other people--successful, decidedly functional people, no less--have experienced and felt things I always wondered if other people went through. Far beyond the general coming-of-age embarrassments and skin-thickening hurdles are those little moments that could either be personal quirks or things no one talks about for one reason or another. This is where writing in the second person best serves the readability of Auster's autobiographical tale, as it's almost comforting to realize that statements like "you would walk around in a state of stunned disassociation" (and a page later, "you have never completely outgrown this tendency to vanish from your own consciousness") and "once you were old enough to compare your situation to that of the other children you knew, you understood that your family was a broken family, that your parents had no idea what they were doing" offer a sense of comfort and belonging, knowing that this is a categorization of things that happened to someone else but feeling like that someone else is acknowledging that they happened to you, too.

Report from the Interior is a quite beautifully written attempt at reclaiming youth's lost relics through vivid recollections, a tribute to the fact that you can't predict what memories will stick around decades later or what details will define them, but that you can make sense of what they say about the individual by wrangling them into a written work.

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