“Portrait of an Extremist” by Matthew Duffus

Portrait of an Extremist

by Matthew Duffus


Has any significant American writer of the post-45 era received as many negative assessments as Paul Auster? Each novel, beginning with 1985’s City of Glass and stretching forward to 4321, in 2017, has engendered harsh criticism. Take the famed and feared Michiko Kakutani, longtime critic for the New York Times. Among her reviews of Auster’s work, “How Ben Sachs Came to Blow Himself Up” stands out. After taking apart the novel at length, Kakutani concludes by declaring it “A disappointing novel by a dexterous and prolific writer.” In 2009, James Wood, the esteemed critic for The New Yorker, placed Auster’s work in general, and Invisible in particular, under his microscope. It did not go well. Wood opens with a pastiche of Auster’s work, a “l’eau d’Auster in a sardonic sac,” before critiquing the novelist’s career-long preoccupations with chance, loss, and coincidence; his blend of realism and postmodernism; and his prose style. Like Kakutani, Wood saves the worst for last:

The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue. Peter Aaron, the narrator of “Leviathan,” whose prose is so pressureless, claims that “I have always been a plodder, a person who anguishes and struggles over each sentence, and even on my best days I do no more than inch along, crawling on my belly like a man lost in the desert. The smallest word is surrounded by acres of silence for me.” Not enough silence, alas.

Finally, consider the lengthy headline to the Daily Telegraph’s review of Auster’s most recent novel, 4321: “Beaten by his own shtick; Paul Auster has chosen to mark his 70th birthday with a novel that’s as big as his ego. Tim Martin wishes he hadn’t.” 

Readers of contemporary fiction who pay attention to Auster’s career can recite these and other criticisms by heart: too much realism and not enough experimentation, or vice versa; flat, dull prose; the same basic ideas rehashed in book after book, and too often. While each of Auster’s books has also garnered its share of positive, often glowing reviews, the question remains: is he truly a major American writer or is he a hack who benefits from a network of dedicated Auster-philes, from Brooklyn and beyond?

In order to address this question, it would be easiest to feature the New York Trilogy, Auster’s thematically-linked collection of short novels that ignited interest in his writing, or The Book of Illusions, which even James Wood acknowledges is his best work. The poetry and nonfiction are another matter. Auster hasn’t published a collection of new poems in decades. While The Invention of Solitude, his first prose work, is often listed among the best of his oeuvre, his legacy will be bound up in his novels, if only due to their sheer abundance and our literary culture’s focus on long-form fiction. For this reason, I want to highlight Leviathan, which, Kakutani and Wood’s criticisms notwithstanding, is an under-appreciated, prescient take on contemporary America. The first time I read Leviathan, I was naïve enough to find the idea of someone blowing up replicas of The Statue of Liberty far-fetched. Since then, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, and the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol have changed my mind. Auster’s work, with its origin story for a domestic terrorist, feels as current as any thirty-year-old novel. However, the book is worth reading on its own merits as well as for its commentary on contemporary America.

Auster presents Leviathan as author stand-in Peter Aaron’s attempt to come to terms with his friend Benjamin Sachs’s death as a result of a malfunctioning bomb he was presumably in the process of arming. Presumptions are a big part of the story, as Aaron blends what he knows firsthand from Sachs, what he gleans from Sachs’s ex-wife and friends, and his imagination in order to confront this mystery. In this way, it is an empathetic recovery project. Who was Sachs? What happened to radicalize him in the name of “The Phantom of Liberty”? What can be learned from his demise? Throughout, Aaron reminds his audience of the ticking clock urging him on: the FBI has already questioned him once about his connection to the as-yet-unidentified body, owing to having found his phone number in the victim’s wallet, and he expects them to piece together the facts soon. Aaron’s haste helps explain both the novel’s pace and the oft-remarked-upon weaknesses in the prose. Yes, it reads awkwardly in places and contains more than its share of clichés. But like Auster’s use of hard-boiled conventions in his meta-detective New York Trilogy, this shortcoming is a feature rather than a bug in the system.

Another link between Leviathan and Auster’s other work can be found in the thematic and plot-related emphasis on chance. This isn’t a surprise when dealing with a writer who titled a novel The Music of Chance. Peter Aaron’s “manuscript” is second only to this earlier book in its emphasis on this concept. I count at least thirteen direct references to chance, luck, coincidence, and confluence. Though we could debate the differences between these terms, they all get at the same thing: life is full of mystery and randomness. According to Auster and his narrator, these qualities are necessary in order to represent life in fiction as well. Aaron argues that “Books are born out of ignorance, and if they go on living after they are written, it’s only to the degree that they cannot be understood” (40). Much of the “ignorance” within this book comes out of this sense of chance. What are we to make of the series of coincidences and surprises that occasion nearly every major event in Aaron’s life and in the pages of his current project? Writing workshops often sneer at coincidence, viewing it as a lazy alternative to causation. But Auster uses this technique, and the adjacent terms enumerated above, to show that the well-oiled machinery of an MFA-approved novel is not the only way to build such a work.

Though Sachs’s death is announced at the beginning of the novel, his life is the book’s subject. Aaron recounts their first meeting, at a literary reading they’d both trudged through a snowstorm to participate in. As “Lady Luck” would have it, the weather would cancel the event, though no one thought to contact the two authors. Instead, they sit at the bar discussing their writing. Aaron’s career is just beginning, while Sachs’s only novel, The New Colossus, has received some positive attention. Sachs began the book during a prison term for objecting to his Vietnam-era draft orders. Later, readers learn of his formative experience at the Statue of Liberty with his mother and another family. Climbing inside the torch, his mother becomes so frightened  by the height she insists they all descend on their backsides, one step at time. These two events, his incarceration and the Statue of Liberty trip, form the seeds for what is to come, both for his novel, named for Emma Lazarus’s poem, and his burgeoning extremism. Years after befriending Aaron, dissatisfied with a career in journalism and influenced by the work of a virtual stranger named Reed Dimaggio, Sachs begins blowing up replicas of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of “the unifying principle” that he believes will allow his life to make sense to him (256).

As is fitting of Auster’s work, Sachs meets Dimaggio through a “nightmare coincidence” (187). Deep in the woods of Vermont, he sees Dimaggio shoot another man. Out of fear and a sense of justice, Sachs clubs Dimaggio to death with a baseball bat, only to find that his act has come too late. The other man has died from the gunshot wounds. In a panic, Sachs flees in Dimaggio’s car, driving for hours before stopping to look around the vehicle. In the trunk, he finds three bags: one with ordinary traveling items, including the man’s passport, which allows Sachs to identify him; another one that he must break open with a tire iron, containing a variety of implements that he soon realizes are designed for making bombs; and, finally, a bowling bag filled with more than $150,000. Sachs surprises even himself in “how quickly he digested the whole improbable occurrence. By the time he counted the money again, he had already begun to think of it as his own” (177).

While he originally feels no remorse at his lethal action, viewing it as both justice and self-defense, knowing Dimaggio’s identity, and going through his possessions, brings down the heavy weight of specificity and reality. Upon hearing this story from Sachs, Aaron thinks, “No matter how wild we think our inventions might be, they can never match the unpredictability of what the real world continually spews forth […] Anything can happen. And one way or another, it always does” (180, emphasis in the original). Ultimately, Sachs decides that this “nightmare coincidence was in fact a solution, an opportunity in the shape of a miracle.” (187). He must go to California, to Dimaggio’s home, and present the money to his widow as an “alchemy of retribution” (187).

The more he learns about Dimaggio, however, the more he realizes the man had been less a criminal, at least in Sach’s mind, and more “a crazed idealist, a believer in a cause, a person who had dreamed of changing the world” (191). While Sachs doesn’t absolve either of them for their actions, he realizes that he and Dimaggio are simpatico. In California, with a bowling bag full of money, he begins wearing down the stout defenses of Lillian Stern, Dimaggio’s widow. The longer he is there, sleeping on Lillian’s couch, getting to know her daughter, Maria, the more he falls under the sway of the woman’s beauty and the daughter’s sweetness. When Lillian finally lets her guard down, they become even more entwined, a kind of post-nuclear family, until Sachs breaks free again, as he had from his own wife. He follows Lillian to her place of work, where she’s never wanted him before, and later interjects in a dispute between the mother and daughter. These actions lead to their eventual break-up. 

As Aaron will learn during his final encounter with Sachs, his friend remained busy while Lillian was at work and Maria at school. He went through the objects in Dimaggio’s study in search of an explanation for why the man had gone from would-be academic to bombmaker. There, he finds a 450-page dissertation on Alexander Berkman, the man who shot Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead Steel Strike. Frick had unleashed the Pinkertons on the striking workers, so Berkman, a Russian émigré and anarchist, exacted his revenge on Frick. Like Sachs, Berkman was incarcerated, in his case for fourteen years, after which time he released Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. In the end, Sachs realizes that Dimaggio “believed there was a moral justification for certain forms of political violence. Terrorism had its place in the struggle, so to speak. If used correctly, it could be an effective tool for dramatizing the issues at stake, for enlightening the public about the nature of institutional power” (252). Instead of absolving himself for killing Dimaggio, reading this document spurs Sachs’s interest in the dead man to that point that he sees Dimaggio as a sort of role model. As a result, he finds himself inching toward an irreversible decision. 

Back in New York after his break-up with Lillian, Sachs comes across his lone novel, The New Colossus, in a used bookstore. Studying the cover, with its drawing of the Statue of Liberty, he becomes transfixed, obsessed. In his telling, this is the moment when his “life seemed to make sense” (256). He has “found the unifying principle, and this one idea would bring all the broken pieces of [himself] together” (256). If Sachs’s rationale seems vague or misguided, it is consistent with the behavior of many political extremists. To a lesser degree, I am reminded of those right-wing individuals who oppose Critical Race Theory without having the least notion of what that theory entails. All they know is that it’s bad, so they’re against it. Sachs, who is “ready to march out into the wilderness and spread the word” (256), thinks he has a grand political vision, but in reality, he is as solipsistic as any other person in his position. He believes he has found a worthy cause to channel his life-long frustrations into, but he has actually done nothing more than thought about what will make him feel better about himself. He is the cause, plain and simple.

As I was working on this, I came across Michael Gorra’s review of Auster’s new biography of Stephen Crane in the New York Review of Books. In it, Gorra cannot resist taking a swipe at Auster’s fiction: “He’s always readable, but his labyrinthine plots often lead to what seem like small conclusions, self-reflexive lessons about the book we’ve just finished” (21). Beyond quibbling with Gorra’s assessment of City of Glass as a “parodic detective novel”—Auster takes the genre too seriously to produce a mere parody—I wonder about this assessment in light of Leviathan. Yes, the book ends with a “self-reflexive” consideration of the manuscript we have just finished, which Peter Aaron turns over to the FBI in the last paragraph, but the portrait of an extremist that he has provided should not be taken lightly. Benjamin Sachs begins his journey as an idealist, both as a political protestor and as a novelist. His Vietnam resistance notwithstanding, he strikes me as a character in search of a purpose to fulfill, though in the end, it is solely himself that he is focused on. ♦

Matthew Duffus is the author of the novel Swapping Purples for Yellows, the collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories, and the poetry chapbook Problems of the Soul and Otherwise. He has written about books for publications including EcoTheo ReviewRain TaxiThe Smart Set, and The Quarterly Conversation (RIP), among others. He lives in rural North Carolina and online at matthewduffus.com and on twitter at @DuffusMatthew.

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