BOOK REVIEW / Trying on terrorist chic for size: 'Leviathan' - Paul Auster: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE Dadaists blew up an unsuspecting donkey on a beach in the Twenties, Surrealists, Situationists, even novelists, courtesy of Don DeLillo's recent Mao II, have tried on a little terrorist chic for size. It is a get-up which gets yet another dust-down in Paul Auster's new novel, Leviathan, which is dedicated to DeLillo. It begins with a bungled bang: a newspaper reports that a writer called Ben Sachs has accidentally managed to mince himself in northern Wisconsin while attempting to blow up a model of the Statue of Liberty. 'It was as if Sachs had become a hole in the universe,' muses a friend. 'He was no longer just my missing friend, he was a symptom of my ignorance about all things, an emblem of the unknowable itself.'

Conrad tried this on in The Secret Agent (1907), whose central explosion is as curiously bloodless as those which repeatedly blacken Elmer Fudd's face in Bugs Bunny cartoons. It signifies less the end of a retarded child's life than it does 'a hole in space and time', since it occurs at Greenwich observatory, the point from which these things are measured. We sense not so much the blackened face as the darkened world view, with 19th-century empiricism the only real casualty.

Conrad pulled it off, and DeLillo just about, but you wonder how well this is going to work third time around. In the event, Auster's novel is neither a modernist bang, nor a post-modernist whimper. It takes the form of a memoir of Sachs by his friend and fellow writer Peter Aaron, another of Auster's personalised proxies. Aaron served his writing apprenticeship in France, smokes cigarillos, is married to Iris (Auster's wife's name, Siri, reversed) and publishes selfabsorbed books with titles like Luna (cf Auster's Moon Palace).

Sachs, on the other hand, man of action to Aaron's worrisome introvert, sees himself as part of a grand tradition of American dissidents stretching back to Thoreau. He was sent to prison for Vietnam draft-dodging and, at the novel's climax, finds himself on the run from the authorities once again.

Auster propels him toward his final act of self-destructive nihilism by processing him through a Brownian motion experiment of a plot - chock-a-block with identity- swaps, sideways sweeps and lateral leaps. But if this game of narrative snakes and ladders is a trick familiar from Auster's past novels, Leviathan also evinces a desire to turn over a new leaf.

At one point Aaron criticises one of Sachs's novels for 'manipulating his characters to underscore his ideas rather than letting them create the action themselves', and while most of the dialogue in Leviathan is as dismal as this disguised selfdiagnosis is sporting enough to admit, the novel has a softer centre than Auster's past work.

By far the best thing in the book is a section in which Aaron navigates a rocky affair with Sachs's wife, Fanny. Occasional spots of acute observation alternate, however, with great dollops of mawkishness. Seeing Fanny for the first time after the affair has been broken off, Aaron confides, hand on the reader's shoulder: 'I managed to survive it. Old wounds opened, I bled a little, but when I returned home . . . I discovered that I was still more or less in one piece.' New York post-modernist turns thirtysomething therapist.

Examined closely, the emotions which get Auster going are curiously gooey - male bonding, a father's devotion to his son, love at first sight. When Aaron meets his future wife, 'it was as though we were the first people who had ever kissed, as though we invented the art of kissing that night'.

Nobody is asking Auster to read some Barbara Cartland but, anatomical implausibilities such as 'I fell in love . . . with the way she would close her eyes whenever I stole up behind her and kissed the back of her neck' are hardly the work of someone at home on concupiscent ground. If anything, these stabs at exploring the human heart only serve to show up the faults of the rest of the book, in which psychological pin-pointing takes a back seat to mere symbolic dot-joining.

Auster illuminates his main theme - the connection between freedom and chaos - by means of a chain of Christmas light links. When he is a child, we are told, Sachs's mother had a screaming fit of vertigo in the Statue of Liberty ('It was my first lesson in political theory,' says Sachs, in the helpful manner so beloved of readers fumbling for the point of an Auster novel, 'I learned that freedom can be dangerous').

He later experiences a similarly vertiginous freefall when he slips off his Manhattan balcony, while both images coalesce in his first novel, The New Colossus. 'Although it isn't said in so many words, the message couldn't be clearer,' Aaron concludes of his friend's masterwork. 'America has lost its way.' That may have been the virtue of Sachs's book, but not Auster's, which does say it, in many words, again and again.

For Leviathan detonates once and for all two myths about Auster's work which have gained inexplicable ascendancy: first, that Auster's ideas are complex, and second, that his writing is an exercise in tightly etched minimalism. In fact, Auster's worldview is a doddle, and his fondness for spelling it out inexhaustible.

The treacherous nature of subjectivity and the lack of an external truth? You can find it on pages 29, 31, 62; 69 (three times), 98, 105, 106, 126, 129, 146, 165, 203 and 238. The idea that in the absence of objective truth all viewpoints are equally valid? See pages 70, 93, 121, 193, 195 and 203. And hence the interconnectedness of everything? Pages 51 (twice), 65, 117, 121, 165 and 206.

Perhaps, like those Japanese soldiers in the jungle who still thought the Second World War was going on, there might still be readers out there who, reading apercus like 'nothing can ever be understood about anything' respond with a foreheadslapping cry of: 'At last] Somebody has said it]' I sincerely hope not.

It is also a curious paradox of Auster's writing that although he makes such a song and dance about chaos, he himself has precious little feel for it. Ask him to whip up a storm and he hands in a neatly ordered list: in Aaron's flat 'all manner of junk and debris was stashed . . . broken bicycles, abandoned paintings, an old washing machine . . .' Or when Sachs takes that fall over his balcony Auster tells us 'there was so much confusion (shrieking guests, sirens, ambulances, scurrying paramedics)'. This is a control freak's idea of chaos, every bit as unconvincing as Peter Greenaway's attempts to mess up the sets of Prospero's Books.

The blurb makes a brave attempt to distinguish this from previous Paul Auster novels. But ultimately, no matter how random and unpredictable the universe gets, one thing stands out from the chaos with rock-like certainty, and that is that the theme of Auster's new novel will be about how random and unpredictable the universe is getting nowadays. It may start with a bang, but Leviathan finishes with the sound of someone simply banging on.

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