Who should tell the story is the most important decision any storyteller ever makes. And the options are very limited: third person, first person or second person. When the author gets it right, even a poor tale works. But when the author gets it wrong...
Welcome to Winter Journal, Paul Auster's latest offering. This is a memoir, a reflection on life, ageing and mortality. Doubtless, a fitting topic for a man of a certain age.
The book meanders over Auster's life. The reader is offered memories, musings and minutiae, organised loosely around the themes of ageing and the body:
You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.
And there's the problem: Mr Auster is not using the word "you" to directly address the reader; he is talking to himself. The story is narrated in the second person. The "you" of the book is none other than Mr Auster himself. Writing such a book in the second person is a high risk strategy.
Unfortunately, it fails. This is a shame, for Mr Auster is clearly an accomplished writer. There a snippets in the text where his literary talent shines through, in spite of the stylistic flaw of the second person narration, such as when he says:
It is an incontestable fact that you are no longer young. One month from today, you will be turning sixty-four, and although that is not excessively old, not what anyone would consider to be an advanced old age, you cannot stop yourself from thinking about all the others who never managed to get as far as you have.
Such moments promise much, but Auster fails to deliver. Instead the reader is treated to aimless lists. We are given pages on the homes he has lived in, the schools his wife attended, his scars, and places he has travelled to. And none of this has a higher or deeper or larger purpose than to share with the reader Mr Auster's pleasure in his own perception of his life.
Winter Journal is a work of narcissism. Indeed, he describes himself as
a silent man cut off from the rest of the world, day after day sitting at his desk for no other purpose than to explore the interior of his own head.
He even explicitly compares his literary endeavours to Keats. Yet the memoir is full of pointless padding, such as a long discourse on the 1950s film noir, D.O.A., which is purportedly included to explain his feelings on his mother's death, but is so imprecise and ill-chosen as to denude the reflection of all meaning.
Winter Journal is a book overflowing with potential, written by a writer of undoubted talent, but the brief passages of brilliance never coalesce into something more than Auster's self regarding indulgence.