Timbuktu , by Paul Auster. Henry Holt, 181 pages, $22.
A large dog stares at us from the cover of Paul Auster’s new novel, Timbuktu . Does that mean the book is about a dog? Mr. Auster has never written on that subject before. Or could the book jacket be some kind of clue to the novelist’s corpus? That is: Haven’t someofMr.Auster’s books,intheiranatomy and temperament, been rather canine themselves? Leviathan , a strong American epic that races swiftly across the continent, is surely Mr. Auster’s greyhound. His memoir of failure and futility, Hand to Mouth , is more like a basenji, a poor barkless creature. Mr. Vertigo , about a boy who learns to levitate, is airborne like a springer spaniel–but as odd as a shar-pei. Then there’s The New York Trilogy , that compact troika: Mr. Auster’s three toy poodles, perfectly crafted and esteemed enough to be the front-runners at a literary version of the Westminster dog show.
The dog on the cover of Timbuktu is not the thoroughbred its predecessors are. Timbuktu is indeed a novel about a dog, a mutt named Mr. Bones; it’s from his perspective that the story is told. Unfortunately, the dog is not the only mongrel thing about this novel. Timbuktu is a mutt not because its protagonist is a mutt, but because it is a narrative of indeterminate ancestry, the offspring of a too-hasty coupling of literary genres, a story too schizophrenic to know what kind of novel it wants to be.
Timbuktu takes place, like many of Mr. Auster’s narratives, on the road. We join Mr. Bones and his master, the demented street-poet vagabond Willy G. Christmas, in Baltimore, where they have traveled in the final journey of Willy’s life. The middle-aged Willy has been deranged and mostly homeless since a terrible drug phase during college drove him batty and into an institution. Shortly after he was released, he had a vision of Santa Claus speaking to him from a television set. He was born again: William Gurevitch transformed into Willy Christmas, his distinct mission “to embody the message of Christmas every day of the year, to ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.”
When Mr. Bones entered the scene, he became Willy’s sole companion. At the time Timbuktu begins, with Willy approaching death, dog and man have come to Baltimore to deliver two things to Willy’s high school English teacher, who now lives there: a long manuscript and Mr. Bones himself. Only then can Willy die in peace. But the vagrant dies before he can locate the teacher, and Mr. Bones is left to roam through Maryland, and the rest of the novel, without his beloved master.
Plot is hardly the point of this novel. Mr. Auster is up to something other than weaving together the complex fibers of intrigue, a concern more typical of earlier works like The New York Trilogy . But since Timbuktu is a short and somewhat mystical novel, lacking the epic scale of a book like Leviathan , it invites comparison to those first novellas.
The New York Trilogy , especially its first installment, City of Glass , was a taut collection of brainy, obscurely allegorical detective tales–and at the same time an anxious, elegantly drawn vision of urban anomie. Since then, however, a different strain has dominated Mr. Auster’s writing: the picaresque, which has helped define his already pulsating obsession with wandering souls and the relentless, chance-driven movement of his characters. Though some readers believe Mr. Auster’s central obsession to be coincidence, or solitude, or sleuthing, he is in fact more infatuated with vagabondage and restlessness than with anything else. Take one of the most brilliant passages in Mr. Auster’s writing (from City of Glass ), where one character reads another’s meanderings through Manhattan as a gigantic calligraphic message. Walking, for Mr. Auster, is simply a form of writing.
The picaresque mode, the inevitable idiom for such an obsession, became an Auster signature: Most evident in Moon Palace and Mr. Vertigo , it also informs TheMusicofChance and even Leviathan . The central problem with Timbuktu is that it can’t decide to what genre it belongs. Its compass is too smalltoaccommodate thepicaresqueoflater Auster; its story is too goofy to fit the arch-serious, metaphysical mold of his early works.
This kind of hesitation pokes through the surface everywhere in Timbuktu , especially in the language. Willy Christmas tends to speak in cliché–a strange hybrid of platitudes and Americana twang–and his speech infects the diction of the narrative as well. He says things like “I’m warning you, kemo sabe,” “just look around this dreary burg,” “take a seat beside me while I rest my pins,” and “Pack up your bags, amigo. We’re on the road to Splitsville.” Now Willy is talking to his dog; he can be forgiven. But the voice of the narrative–corresponding more or less to Mr. Bones’ canine mind–begins to suffer from the same malady. Thus: “there were no more than a few ticks left in the clock,” “Mr. Bones had heard enough stories to make his fur tingle,” “Willy was one in a million,” and “life in that apartment would have been no picnic.”
To make matters worse, Mr. Auster hesitates. Instead of sticking to this tone (flawed as it is), he falls into a mannered argot. Soon the wise fool Willy Christmas is sounding like a graduate student: “Dog as metaphor, if you catch my drift, dog as emblem of the downtrodden, and you’re no trope, my boy.” Mr. Bones becomes a ” chien à tout faire “; he can even untangle “the knots of [a] spoonerism.” Timbuktu wavers: It tries to make us either nostalgic for the Kind Bum and his Canine Sidekick or interested in two savants meditating on semiotics and rhetoric.
Such inconsistencies of diction give way to a larger problem. Who is talking here? Mr. Bones? Mr. Auster? Mr. Vertigo? And is this dog really a dog? For most of the novel, you get the sense that Mr. Bones is no different from a human, only wiser. Mr. Auster is right to gamble that a dog can be a good narrator, picking up our idle speech, the detritus of our conversations. And when this dog is in fact a dog, the writing is very strong. Here’s Mr. Bones preparing to attack a flock of pigeons: “He paused, not wanting to stir up any suspicions, trying to blend into the surroundings.… He was scarcely breathing by then, scarcely moving a muscle, and yet off to his right, at the outer edge of the flock, half a dozen pigeons suddenly flapped their wings and took off into the air … and Mr. Bones, who until then had exercised the strictest, most admirable self-control, could think of nothing better to do than leap to his feet and rush after his victim.”
But when Mr. Bones stops being a dog–and becomes a philosopher of the highest order– Timbuktu falters. Why is it that Mr. Bones fully understands English–including the complex immigrant history of Willy’s grandparents from Warsaw through France and across the Atlantic–but doesn’t realize he’s about to get neutered? If, according to the book, all a dog can care about is “food, sex, and information about other dogs,” why does Mr. Bones’ philosophy of suicide make Schopenhauer’s look simplistic by comparison? And how does a dog untangle the knots of a spoonerism?
To answer such questions, we would require a novel as cunning and loyal–in short, as canine–as Paul Auster’s prior works. Alas, Timbuktu is a formal experiment that cannot meet its demands. The house of fiction, as Henry James designed it, may indeed have a million windows, but this dog has been left out in the yard.