Detective on a tightrope

THE RED NOTEBOOK by Paul Auster, Faber £14.99
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AT FIRST sight this is a lean excuse for a book: three short essays, three interviews with Auster, an anecdotal memoir and a preface, fattened up with white space to fill 150 pages. And Auster didn't get his reputation for icily smart prose by writing sentences like "our on-again off-again romance seemed to be on again". But then, reputations such as his usually prompt collections like this - and the kind of editing that allows one anecdote, relating how a strange midnight phone call to Auster laid the first bricks of the imaginative labyrinth of City of Glass, to appear three times in near-identical form.

The memoir ambles amiably through bits of Auster's life. Post-university years in France eking out translations among bare cupboards, chance meetings with old friends - just the kind of things you'd expect to happen to an American novelist. But before your patience thins, a theme emerges. All the anecdotes are about miracles and coincidences, from a friend's uncle surviving direct artillery hits as a Serb partisan to a benefactor pulling up in the driveway of Auster's isolated French farmhouse just as he has burnt his last food to a crisp. Since the elegant drape of Auster's fiction hangs on chance happenings, these accumulating stories lend weight to his view of the world as an unknowable web of connections.

This established, the collection then digresses - an inherent flaw - into an introduction Auster wrote for a book of 20th-century French poetry; its speed and flow reveals his smooth intellect, but little else. An essay about the "art" of the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit follows. It's as if Auster is trying to prove he can argue anything, although Petit's minute balancings and vast self-belief do prompt him into some characteristically precise-but-strange images of the "nonsensical arabesques of beauty" over Manhattan.

The interviews have a lot to explain: how did Auster emerge as a fully- formed prodigy in the mid-'80s? Where did The New York Trilogy's cubist detective stories spring from? Why do his narrators split and shift between viewpoints? And why doesn't he use adjectives? Auster is more straightforward than you'd expect. He says he starts and restarts his books again and again; thus the Trilogy's self-doubting detectives had been spying on each other in his head for decades before they leapt into critical favour. And he explains the dispassionate magic realism of his books - people recognising people they've never met, people running into their doubles - by stating bluntly, "realism is a complete sham".

This is hardly a new idea. Auster's acknowledged influences Kafka and Beckett got there first, and the premise of City of Glass (a story this book keeps coming back to) echoes Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. But Auster gives it force by personal experience. Odd things happen to him: a boy was struck by lightning in front of him in summer camp; his father died, leaving him a large inheritance, the very day he decided to be a writer. Far from being a cold stylistic innovator, Auster claims he writes out of autobiographical "necessity".

This claim of moral purpose looks more convincing after the book's final section, "A Prayer For Salman Rushdie". Here Auster's plain words are confessional and generous ("Is it possible for a man in his position to think of anyone but himself? Yes, apparently it is.") For once the arch postmodernist's sentiments are quite unambiguous, even political. And for once the book focuses on the world beyond Paul Auster.