On page 130 of Paul Auster’s latest novel, we’re suddenly presented with a diagram representing a construction made out of thin air. Over a lake is a staircase, which the novel’s hero ascends, leading to a platform, which he walks along only to come down the stairs at the other side, presumably at the risk of plunging straight into the water. Anyone familiar with Auster’s fictional strategies will immediately twig to this being a map of the novel’s structure, but it’s also beginning to resemble the author’s own rise and fall, more or less. Auster, in fact, began from the quite remarkable peak of his elliptical, infinitely suggestive essay in metaphysical noir, The New York Trilogy, before descending slightly to a more or less even plateau; but he now seems to be nosediving alarmingly. Mr Vertigo, admittedly, is an improvement on the rambling contrivance of his last novel, Leviathan, but the signs are not good.
Mr Vertigo is a would-be hard-boiled, in fact rather twee Bildungsroman beginning in 1924, and narrated by a streetwise St Louis urchin, Walter Claireborne Rawley. One day he’s whisked away by a sinister, apparently omnipotent magus figure, Master Yehudi, who acts as his jailer and sometime tormentor on a distant Kansas farm while training him to levitate. Earthbound Walt does indeed find his wings, and slowly unlocks the powers that will one day make him Walt the Wonder Boy, or Mr Vertigo. He reaches heaven, and near-divinity seems his permanent reward, but of course the inevitable dip awaits.
None of this is strictly unexpected, since Auster has always favoured narrative lines that obstinately head straight into the void, or circle round to swallow their tail. Like all the great quest narratives, Mr Vertigo ultimately proves to be an essay in futility. Unfortunately, it is simply not as assured