It may seem ironic that Paul Auster, a novelist whose work is so entrenched in the side streets and back alleys of New York, was first published in Paris (he translated his debut novel, City of Glass, into French after failing to find an American publisher). But his early work has a definite Continental flavour – obsessive characters who not so much living people as the animated embodiments of ideas pass through scenarios so contrived they would seem ludicrous were they not so sinister. The situations Auster thus devised (in which, for example, his hero would, in the story, meet an author called Paul Auster) allowed him to pose questions about identity and what makes us human that are fundamental, but which, because of the shameless artifice of his storylines and automaton-like nature of his characters, he never seemed to engage with on any level other than the intellectual. Unlike, say, Saul Bellow, Auster never gave any impression of the gravity of these aspects of a man’s life. The books are wonderfully enjoyable and hugely challenging, but the sense of vertigo a reader can feel when an author suddenly, by presenting it in a new way, illuminates the profundity of an aspect of the human condition was entirely absent.
Given this, it is strange that Auster volunteered in 1999 to become the coordinator of the National Story Project, a scheme to collect true stories from the lives of ordinary Americans in their own words – ‘reports from the front lines of personal experience’, as he put it. If we