Leviathan
by Paul Auster
No, he is not the love child of Jacques
Lacan and Agatha Christie.  He merely
writes that way.  In a series of short novels
from the mid-1980s, later published as
The
New York Trilogy
, Paul
Auster blurred the lines
between textual inter-
pretation and crime
scene investigation with
such audacity that fans
were ready to conscript
him as guest host of
America’s Most Wanted
(The Semiotic Edition)
.  In
an age when most pedi-
gree authors were stepping back from
experimental postures, Auster has proven to
be something of a wild card.  Few novelists
are less predictable, and every new book of
his holds some unexpected surprise.   But
certain themes recur again and again in
Auster's work, notably a sense of existential
isolation mitigated by a love-hate
relationship with words, the empowered text
playing the role an elusive lover might fill in
a tale of romance.  Above all, Auster moves
from straight narrative to twisted meta-
narrative with such ease, that readers can
sometimes feel more than seven degrees of
separation from surface level of the plot.   
In truth, not all of his characters are guilty
of weighty crimes.  It’s just part of the
Austerian pose, a personality type that
doesn't necessarily come with a rap sheet.
ROGUES GALLERY:
PAUL AUSTER
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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The postmodern attitude is like a corrosive acid that
threatens to harm even its most careful user.   
Advocates delight in its overturning of hierarchies of
truth and validation, but this same stance also
undermines any claims made by
the post-modernist scribe.  If all
narratives are suspect, all authors
less than authoritative, then the
postmodern critique itself is
merely one more unsubstantiated
and dubious position mas-
querading as truth.   While it
deconstructs, it also lays itself
open to deconstruction.  

Paul Auster’s novel
Leviathan
captures an extreme example of
the resulting despair of the author
in an age in which texts have become empty husks, no
longer conveying power and meaning.   What better
way for a writer to deal with this dead-end by putting
down his pen…and turning to bomb-building instead?  
There’s some
serious deconstruction for you.  And no
one will deny the author’s efficacy in this instance or (in
Derridean fashion) dismiss the importance the
author's
intentions
—starting with those old school interpreters of
acts and texts, the local police and the FBI.

See also
The New York Trilogy  by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia
Invisible by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia

Auster’s novel begins as a topsy-turvy mystery, in which
the criminal is identified at the very outset—even
before the exact nature of the crime is made clear.    We
have seen this type of ploy used in other experimental
fictions—three years earlier Martin Amis also revealed
the criminal’s identity on the opening page of his
London Fields—and the effect on readers is anything but
anticlimactic. The enigma here is not "who done it?"
but "why?"   In the case of
Leviathan, Ben Sachs has
been killed in a blast, apparently while constructing an
explosive device.  The reader follows along as Sachs’s
friend Peter Aaron, the narrator of
Leviathan, tries to
come to grips with the path by which this once
promising writer went from books to bombs.

As we learn more about Sachs over the course of the
first hundred or so pages of this novel, the less the
pieces fit together.  Sachs is witty, convivial, easy-going.  
No, he is not perfect, but even Sach's faults—he often
comes across as impractical and clueless in the ways of
the world—seem to disqualify him for a career as a
urban terrorist.   Can this character actually coexist with
the CV and modus operandi assigned to him?   Auster
ultimately pulls it off, and the overall effect is akin to a
journey through a maze, with a surprising series of
twists and turns leading to a wildly unexpected
endpoint.  By the time we reach the final pages of
Leviathan, the character sketch coheres, and many small
details from earlier in the book coalesce—both in terms
of plotting and symbolic resonance—in validating this
portrait of man who found that the OED didn't pack
quite the same punch as an IED.   

This novel was published in the midst of the FBI’s
manhunt for the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who was
eventually responsible for 16 bombings, three deaths
and 23 injuries over a period of 17 years.  Auster
tellingly anticipated a number of aspects of the real life
criminal's past, including Kaczynski's connections to
Berkeley, where both character Ben Sachs and the
Unabomber had ties.  And, even more peculiar,
Kaczynski became a published author three years after
Leviathan came out, when his 35,000-word manifesto
Industrial Society and Its Future was published by The New
York Times
and the Washington Post, as part of a quid pro
quo
that gave the bomber a wide audience, and FBI a
chance to see if any reader could pick up clues in the
text that might identify a suspect.  

This novel, much like the case of the Unabomber, raises
troubling questions about sanity and terror, as well as
forces us to deal with distinctly modern stances on civil
disobedience that Thoreau never anticipated.  An
almost instinctive response among the general public is
to label serial criminals as lunatics.  Yet someone like
Kaczynski—who entered Harvard at 16, later earned a
Ph.D. in mathematics and eventually taught at
Berkeley—showed equally prominent signs of an
almost cold-blooded rationality.  Auster probes the
same contradiction in
Leviathan, and his protagonist
Sachs is a quintessentially modern man in the worst sort
of way.   If anything, this character study, with its
unflinching delving into the place where idealism turns
to violence, has become even more relevant in the years
since Auster's book was first published.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the
Cool
.

Further Clues:

Interview with Paul Auster by Michael Wood in The
Paris Review

"Shallow Graves: The Novels of Paul Auster" by James
Wood in The New Yorker

"Spellbound" by Michael Dirda in The New York Review
of Books

Stillman's Maze

The Leviathan Trivia Quiz
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