‘America is stuck in a horror story; we’re killing one another at a stupefying rate’
Why New York novelist Paul Auster is turning his back on fiction to join the fight for stricter gun laws
By Jake KERRIDGE
Long before mass shootings became commonplace in the United States, Paul Auster had a sense that it was not a good idea for Americans to have easy access to guns. Serving on an oil tanker as a merchant marine in 1970, he discovered that the favourite hobby of one of his comrades was to park on an overpass and shoot at cars.
In the same year he learnt that in 1919 his paternal grandmother had shot his grandfather dead in the family home in Wisconsin; she was acquitted of murder on the grounds of temporary insanity. Auster’s father, who was six at the time, grew up “a subdued, fractured man”.
Now Auster has written Bloodbath Nation, a 160-page essay examining his homeland’s muddled, toxic relationship with guns, that combines a forensic skill in marshalling statistics with all the eloquence you might expect from one of America’s most revered novelists.
The book is a collaboration with his son-in-law, the photographer Spencer Ostrander, who over the past few years has been travelling around the States taking pictures of the ordinary-looking places where, some time in the past, a mass shooting had occurred.
“These pictures being neutral as they are, they force the viewer to try to imagine the havoc and the violence that took place in these places,” Auster tells me down the line from New York. “And if you have the patience and the will to do this, you’re going to get deeply engaged in this story we’re trying to present, of America living stuck in a kind of horror that we’ve created ourselves. We’re killing one another at a rate that is just stupefying.”
While he doesn’t advocate an outright ban on handguns – “we’ve tried prohibition here before, it didn’t work” – he is speaking up for “the substantial majority of Americans” who want tighter control of gun licensing. “Unfortunately we have a government ruled by a minority. But I fervently pray we can do this.”
Bloodbath Nation is certainly a compelling polemic, dismaying and often moving. Auster says he could have “easily written 400 pages” but wanted “to boil down my text to be as compact as possible, to have the impact of a political pamphlet”. Its brevity makes for quite a contrast with his most recent novel – the 900-page 4-3-2-1, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017.
4-3-2-1 details four possible alternative courses taken by the life of a character called Archie Ferguson who, like Auster, was born in 1947 into a middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey (where Auster’s grandmother had moved the family after her acquittal, to escape scandal). The divergent paths Ferguson’s life takes often hinge on sudden chance happenings – a familiar theme in Auster’s work, perhaps unsurprisingly so for a writer who, as a 14-year-old at summer camp, saw a boy inches away from him killed by a lightning strike.
“I felt as I was doing 4-3-2-1, it was the most important thing I’ve done. But who knows? I worked so hard on it for three and a half years – I remember writing the last sentence, and I stood up from my desk and I was so tired, I had to grab hold of the wall to stop myself falling. I think I’ve retired from big, monumental books. I’ve just finished a little novel. Small, that’s the future.”
It was another chance event – two phone calls to his apartment from someone asking for the Pinkerton detective agency – that first launched Auster on the path to literary stardom in 1987. He conceived the idea of a crime writer who keeps receiving wrong-number calls from somebody looking for a detective called Paul Auster before eventually deciding to pose as Auster and take on the case. This was the starting point for his first substantial work of fiction: The New York Trilogy, a collection of cerebral, shape-shifting novellas.
At a time when it was hip for a writer to give a character his own name – as Martin Amis had done with Money in 1984 – Auster’s fondness for post-modern games earned him the soubriquet “America’s foremost French novelist” and made him fashionable. His athletic, saturnine good looks added to his appeal (he was asked to model for Gap, but declined). His novels became so popular among trendy-but-poor New Yorkers that they were stolen in huge numbers from bookshops. “They had to lock them away, you had to ask for them. I was sort of flattered.”
He later became known as one half of a golden literary couple with his second wife
Siri Hustvedt, also an acclaimed novelist, about whom he speaks with something approaching awe. “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever known, I feel like a plodder next to her. And her approach is the one that I’ve endorsed since I was very young – one that embraces ambiguity, uncertainty, non-dualism.”
But he is keen to point out that his taste for ambiguity does not mean that he is apolitical. While Joe Biden was, he says, “not my first choice at all”, Auster now thinks the US President has “done a remarkable job. I know he seems like a bumbling old man, but he saved the economy when he came in with the pandemic relief ”. And Auster gratefully takes the view that Trump – “a true idiot with a rhetorical brilliance that is unmatched in American politics” – will not have enough support to win another presidency.
Last year, Auster was hit by an appalling double tragedy, when his son Daniel (by his first wife, the revered short-story writer Lydia Davis) died of a drug overdose, aged 44; he was on bail for manslaughter charges after his 10-month-old daughter, Ruby, had died from heroin and fentanyl exposure while in his care. Auster has not spoken publicly about Daniel for years, amid reports that they were estranged, and he refuses to talk about their relationship now, saying only that “there has been so much distortion about this, and really it’s simply nobody’s business”. These awful events bring a terrible new poignancy to Auster’s 1982 memoir The Invention of Solitude, in which he writes tenderly about the baby Daniel, while reflecting on his difficult relationship with his own wounded father.
I ask Auster if he worries about the decline in popularity of his brand of challenging fiction. “Yes, people seem to be less and less interested in what we call literature, but if you go to other countries it’s not true at all. Siri and I both agree that the best literary journalists are from – fasten your seat belt! – Mexico and Poland.
“And let’s not glorify the old days. My first novel was rejected by 17 publishers – doors weren’t opening and people saying, ‘welcome in, we love your crazy books’. No, I wound up having a very, very small publisher. And if I was starting now, I’d do exactly what I’ve done. I’ve spent my life caring about really good books, and let people write their bestsellers and their entertainments and all the ephemeral things that keep people amused, but within a few years they’re totally forgotten.”
Does his mind dwell on his posthumous reputation, then? He likens caring about posterity to a Mormon friend of his mother’s who married a widower then spent her life fretting that she would be lonely in Heaven when her husband returned to his first wife. “It’s wasted energy worrying about it.”
I ask Auster how his friend Salman Rushdie – with whom he and Don DeLillo would attend baseball games – is faring since he was stabbed in New York last year. “The one thing I’ll tell you about his conversations with me is that not once has he expressed the slightest self-pity, the slightest complaint about anything,” says Auster. “He’s going to be all-right-sort-of – he’s been damaged, but he’s undaunted.”
Will this kind of attack contribute to a climate in which writers are more prone to selfcensorship? “No, no, no,” says Auster. “We have to keep pushing. We can’t give in.”
‘Not once has Salman Rushdie expressed self-pity. He’s damaged but he’s undaunted’