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Book Review: Mr Vertigo – Paul Auster

November 16th, 2008 · 3 Comments · Fiction

Scaling the dizzy heights ?


It’s impossible to write about Paul Auster’s ‘Mr Vertigo‘ and completely avoid the dreaded term ‘Magic Realism’ – even if it’s a genre the writer is not commonly associated with. The fact that the novel centres around a street urchin taught how to fly by a Hungarian showman named Master Yehudi should ensure all haters of that genre keep their distance. However, it’s all in the telling, and Auster infuses his novel with a page-turning, fairy-tale magic with none of the prissiness and pretention that often mars revisionistic approaches to the form. If, like Henry Perowne of Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday‘, you find the focus on “the supernatural” as “the recourse of an insufficient imagination … an evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real”, then you might not want to touch this novel. “When anything can happen, nothing much matters,” Perowne grumbles, and I can see his point – it’s a whinge I often direct at CGI-saturated modern cinema. Obviously we don’t read novels or watch films solely to see reality reflected back at us, but I agree that it is immensely disengaging to feel, when reading a novel, that anything at all can happen. The rules governing a novel or film’s imaginative universe – however fantastical – must be respected. Events should be at least believable within the logic of the make-beleive world in which they occur.

Clearly, to suggest that ‘Mr Vertigo”s author has “insufficient imagination” is patently ridiculous. If “learning to fly became a metaphor for bold aspiration” (Perowne again), then Auster doesn’t labour over the point. ‘Mr Vertigo”s beauty is that – while epic in scope and with all the vivid expansiveness of a Pinocchio or Gulliver’s Travels – he pulls it off with trademark lightness of touch, with humour and irony, but without sacrificing the emotional gravity that makes such yarns so affecting. Written in the hilarious vernacular of a wise-cracking street kid from St. Louis, Mr Vertigo finds its protagonist suffering (but by turns also rather enjoying) the slings and arrows of American fortune: from The Depression and The Klu Klux Klan, from Baseball to the Prohibition and the Chicago mob.

Labelling such a fable a journey into the heart the American Dream is a lazy critical cliche – but if the novel is really a fable about the “bold aspiration” of The Dream, then it’s a refreshingly, fittingly positive spin on that journey. Where many US novelists have endeavoured to reveal the dark side of American aspirationalism, ‘Mr Vertigo”s narrative evokes the dizzying, exhilirating sense of freedom that The Dream once represented. The novel toys with various rags to riches myths that have had resonance in American popular culture: a boy with superhuman powers, a lovable gangster, a baseball star. What is most impressive, though, is how Auster makes his cultural-historic connections without the reader really noticing: the story itself is so much fun we forget about the layers of allegory and parody beneath.

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