Auster and the Paths Not Taken

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Conversation /
September 04, 2015 /

Click here to view original /

I’d ran out lives on whichever extreme candy/maniac/heroes game I’d been playing. And, alas, the in-flight entertainment was the old-school variety where showtimes are fixed and waiting ten minutes feels prehistoric.

Fiddling with my phone I found Paul Auster’s Invisible among my music. Quite possibly on there, unlistened to, since its release in 2009.

More so than any other author, I have a lot of where-I-was-when-I-read Auster memories.

A favourite involves a ratty couch in suburban New Orleans. The guy I’d been sleeping with was passing the world’s biggest bong between three friends. Team America was on the TV and I was reading Moon Palace. The relationship wasn’t a keeper, the ethnographic charms were quickly wearing thin, but that book was bloody brilliant.

My entire collection of Auster’s books – including my favourite Leviathan – would be given to a different man a few years later. I rarely keep books so the gift wasn’t quite a grand gesture, but a good deed that got punished nevertheless. So he read them, he passed them onto the woman who would become my replacement, and he dared express complete surprise that I wasn’t interested in her reviews.

I’d put some space between Auster and I thereafter.

It took about four hours of listening to Invisible and of course, I was a blubbering mess. Not that crying on planes is altogether new to me; romantic entanglements had in one’s own backyard always pitifully lack in the drama/pain/debt of geographically-seperated ones.

As is Auster’s way, Invisible is about writing and New York and loss. And there’s plenty of pining for those of us predisposed. For the first few hours I’d actually toughed it out. Admirably, I think. It was only when the protagonist, Adam, described the 3-part conversation ritual that he and his sister go through annually on their dead brother’s birthday, that things started to fall apart.

Part 1 they would share all their anecdotes.

Part 2 they would speculate on where his life would be at had he lived.

Part 3 they would imagine his adventures for the coming year.

Good God no.

Yesterday I finished reading the supernatural/spiritual/suspense palaver The Golem of Hollywood. Of the 552 pages, one lone line I liked was “If… The biggest word in the English language.”

Forget the “big” of the word: do conversations exist more agonising or more terrifying than those what-would-have-happened-if ones?

What if you didn’t take call. Got on that plane. Read that book. Answered that email. Ate at that restaurant. Agreed to that interview. Pulled that girl back from the curb. Made that jibe. Didn’t make that jibe.

I can’t play this game with my own life; so I’ve no idea how one could manage it with people who are no longer around. Speculating on their life means imagining yours entirely overhauled.

Good God no. The pain of a thousand paper cuts!

People too often speak of Sliding Doors as the pop culture “gold standard” for thinking about a moment when things could have gone differently. Pfft! Forget Gwyneth – steam-your-own-vagina – Paltrow. Forget a film that was mediocre at best. A decade prior and Jim Belushi and Michael Caine on VHS gave me an enduring lesson about the dangers of thinking too much about the paths not taken.

Mr Destiny. A film I haven’t seen in – gulp! – a quarter of a century but which has forever ruined my ability to casually speculate.

In two separate conversations about Invisible, my brother and a friend mentioned enjoying Auster novels whilst reading them but later having them all blur into a beautiful haze. Reluctantly I agree. But while Invisible is fresh, I’ll happily dub it beautiful and completely gut-wrenching.

Exactly how I like my literature.

© Lauren Rosewarne