Stillman's Maze

    Revisiting Timbuktu




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This was an article sent to me by James Murphy. It has some interesting ideas in it, and it certainly made me rethink my original views of "Timbuktu", which was not one of my favorite Auster reads.

There is a curious contemporary parlance that when something is very good it’s called “the dog’s bollocks”. No such accolade was afforded Paul Auster’s latest novel Timbuktu on its release last year. After the jazzy dazzle of The New York Trilogy and subsequent sophisticated fables, what was Auster doing delivering a bare-bone account of a dumb dog called Mr. Bones? Isn’t this the sort of thing five-year-olds read?

The paperback publication of Timbuktu allows us to reassess whether its initial detractors have been barking up the wrong tree. On the surface, Auster’s novel is less rhapsodic than its predecessors, lacking his habitual host of kaleidoscopic conundrums. We’re introduced to Willy G. Christmas, a vagrant whose life of sleeping under the stars is fast approaching its twilight. He wanders the streets of Baltimore searching for a former teacher who he hopes will take charge of his dog before his days are done. The twist is the dog knows the score; Mr. Bones understands every word Willy says, and although he cannot speak for himself, he has ample feelings on every issue. You suddenly think of Toto queuing up with the others to see the Wizard of Oz, only wishing he had the means to ask for a voice. Mr. Bones is a charmingly neurotic character, terrified that his security may be endangered if Willy dies too soon. When this inevitable moment occurs, Bones is catapulted into a series of encounters with the Willy-less world, wherein he desperately scrambles to perpetuate his master’s wisdom in order to survive. So far it’s just another anthropomorphic adventure, the kind that Disney does very well, but coming as it does from the pen of Paul Auster, the spirited reader should sense the resonance of much more. Since the auspicious New York Trilogy (1987), Auster has exhibited a consistent interest in the interface between readers and writers. Back then he spun three dazzling detective stories in which the investigator was analogous with the reader, entering a maze of language in search of illumination. Likewise, Mr. Bones is presented with a world of words - his entire conscience is constructed upon the junky erudition of his master - and when the master is removed from the picture, the subject is left to make sense of these teachings in his own sphere. What more apt reflection of the reader-writer relationship is there? Too much lately our literary diet has been crammed with contrived narratives which seek no further than to placate the reader’s ego. Auster has always rallied against passive reading. His prose purposefully lacks certain closure so that the reader - if he is to reap coherence from his investment - is obliged to continue the thinking, to unravel the ball of wool Auster has wound. The plight of Mr. Bones is a parable for the plight of the reader. Bones must establish how to interpret the information given him by Willy (who by no coincidence is a writer). He cannot contest it verbally, so he must mentally assess where to trust and where to reject it; so, when we engage in literature, must we actively discern what matters amongst the millions of words streaming toward us. From the very start where Auster describes Mr. Bones as “part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle”, he’s calling upon our minds to complete the picture. In previous books he’s achieved this through pyrotechnic games designed to beguile and inspire the reader. Critics have therefore dismissed Timbuktu for being too sparse, too much like a children’s bedtime story, but they should be reminded of Auster’s remark (in an interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, 1989-90-) that “Fairy tales prove its the reader who actually tells the story to himself. The text is no more than a springboard for the imagination”. Timbuktu is actually an exercise in deconstructing authorial tyranny - the fact it doesn’t feel or smell like classic Auster is significant. He has sought to erase himself from the equation so that the reader is consequently compelled to inject more of themselves into it. It’s telling that Auster’s perennial joke of appearing himself somewhere in the fictional proceedings is here manifested in the very smallest character in the book - an old college chum of Willy’s whose name, fittingly, Mr. Bones can hardly even remember.

So we are faced with a situation wherein the book is as rich as we allow it to be. If we want it to work, we have to do some work ourselves - an alarming prospect for readers so used to being led. It’s suddenly no wonder that certain critics chose to bite the hand that feeds. Prevailing trends in literature have effectively turned readers into neutered, domesticated creatures, and like Mr. Bones, it’s a fate we must strive against. Willy treats Bones as an equal, but the dog finds himself progressively subordinated by the characters he later meets. Toward the end of his travels, he is seduced by the deceptive comfort and prosperity of a suburban American household. The allure of meals on tap and a patch of perfect lawn abruptly evaporates when Bones finds himself chained to them. In The New York Trilogy Auster addressed the captivity of civilisation through the captivity of its language, and here Mr. Bones presents an equally eloquent metaphor for the way civilisation tends to enslave nature and the apathy which ensues when everything is provided for us. What we do to pets is really no different from what we do to ourselves. It is remarkably apt that Mr. Bone’s life of random, spontaneous flight is arrested in the household of a man who works as an airline pilot, a profession in which the entire notion of flight is clinically organised and robbed of its sense of development - and more importantly where a sense of true spiritual flight is superseded by tangible geographic flight.

After all his wanderings, Willy tells Mr. Bones his final destination will be the realm of Timbuktu. Bones is at once petrified by the prospect of reaching such a place: “It struck [him] as a most difficult and unpleasant journey, but Willy assured him it took no more than a blink of an eye to cover the whole distance”. What is Timbuktu exactly? Auster is not the first writer to address this question. In 1829, the precocious nineteen-year-old Alfred Tennyson wrote a sprawling poem entitled Timbuctoo, taking its name from an uncharted Saharan territory around which great curiosity had grown as Europe embarked upon its colonisation of Africa. Tennyson’s poem places him atop the Rock of Gibraltar, essaying the north African shore, imagining the incarnation of Atlantis or El Dorado lying beyond. A seraph descends and instructs him - in startlingly similar terms to those Willy issues Mr. Bones - that he should not perceive its location in physical terms: “Thy sense is clogg’d with dull mortality, thy spirit fetter’d…Open thine eyes and see.” The enlightened Tennyson then witnesses a vista so spectacular and unworldly that he is forced to confess “I know not if I shape these things with accurate similitude from visible objects”. The notion of Timbuktu eluding definition is reflected in Auster’s novel by the fact the narrative never actually arrives there, as if Auster regards it as a state which refutes the explanation, through language, which civilisation imposes on everything else. Although such a state can seemingly be attained through death - and certainly our fears of dying stem from a reluctance to surrender the security of artificial regimes we’ve known all our lives - Timbuktu distinguishes itself from our conception of death by being synonymous also with the state from which we first came, before we were born, before any semblance of order emerged. Tennyson refers to it as “Man’s first, last home”. Therefore it is without morbidity that Mr. Bones ultimately bids to escape the terminal incarceration of being and project himself toward this promised land. His fate is allied to that of Ben Sachs, the protagonist of Auster’s Leviathan (1992), who finally annihilates himself in the pursuit of true liberty. We find ourselves more drawn to the dog’s plight than that of Sachs, a fellow man, not merely because of the inherent sentimentality we possess for small furry animals. Unlike Sachs, whose death is reported on the first page of Leviathan, Mr. Bones is only driven to the edge of the precipice by Auster, whereupon the author abandons him, leaving the reader to exact an outcome. By forcing us to determine what becomes of Bones, Auster awakens in us a vital sense of responsibility, not just for the dog but for ourselves, to question how much of the world we live in is truly a cage and by what means we should aspire to emancipate ourselves. Only the most desensitised of souls could dismiss Timbuktu as being just a shaggy dog story.

James Murphy


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