Austerity: A Story

John Haber
in New York City

New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized that he had no intention of ever leaving it again.
      — Paul Auster, City of Glass

Paul Auster and the Chain of Life

Others get lost in city streets or in a book. I had bookstores. They were my invisible cities, only with a visible map that must be retraced every single day. Or maybe it began to retrace itself and didn't know where to stop.

I know when the story really started—when the superstores opened. Smaller bookstores cried in horror as they closed, one by one, along with their stubborn faith in scholarly presses and postmodern theory. Still, no one had seen so many people drawn to books. It was obvious. The stores were only imitating on a larger scale what books had offered all along, that precious mix of anonymity and welcome. New York had its first reliable public toilets, and I had found a routine.


Whiteread's Holocaust Memorial (Judenplatz, Vienna, 2000)

Other shelves, other selves, other alphabets, other artifacts, other worlds

I took great pride in that, riding first the up and then the down escalators, back and forth at each end of every floor. I'd start methodically with the latest hardcovers and then the paperbacks, but I hated the whole thought of change, and I'd hurry past to see everything in its place. I knew: a chain store is a literal chain, in which everything connects. Like books, they serve as the chain of life.

Each store had its own chain, too, the categories and subcategories, and I needed to see them all. Each had its own priorities, among tables and topics, maybe less to attract customers than to organize that mess of the human imagination. I knew that order. Once you have learned the neatness of the alphabet, it is no longer a step toward finishing entire stories: it is exactly where each belongs. I looked forward to mistakes on the shelves, so that I could make things right again. I took special comfort in the unbroken alphabets of dictionaries and Zagat guides, the dozens of rows for "Fiction and Literature," with no one to say where one left off and the other began.

Besides, it had begun to rain, and it was coming down hard. If I had to drown, it would be in my own way, somewhere indoors.

It was early summer, and terror was out of doors. The endless months of gray afternoons had given way to rolling thunder, like a military salute. I thought of the harbor not so very far away, where the storm, too, would drift out to sea. I tried to calculate whether I could make it home, but it was impossible. It was too early yet anyway, too soon for a drink, and I had had enough of the visible city.

II remembered something, too: I had meant to check for Paul Auster. I had promised it. I had recommended him only the day before, not even knowing for sure what I had read. Maybe nothing. Maybe it was just something I'd heard. Or maybe something would feel familiar once I held the book as it should be, in my hands. Of course, it meant my going all the way—to "Fiction and Literature," back on the fourth and final floor.

Only it didn't. There, instead of his books, was a sign telling you to ask at the information desk on the main floor. It was a moment out of Auster's stories, I thought, and now I couldn't name which one.

I could, I thought, have been a character, a final permutation in his recycling of his own plots. I'd be taking the escalator down, all the way down, to information and the exit. Common sense had plenty of time for its thin, never-ending comforts. Sure, the books had to have been taken down for a floor display. Anyone could tell me that. The superstore nurses that sorry table of urban fiction, and then, too, maybe there was a particular need coming up, an event, a reading.

I tried to remember if Auster had issued anything recently, but no, nothing, I felt sure of that. He did not belong with urban fiction anyhow. That's where single women struggle for men with money and closet space instead of sex and art. A store would not break up that display, and I would not have been directed to the information desk if it had.

Were his books, then, moved because they simply did not belong, not really fiction—or not wholly literature? He writes so cheesily, and he's proud of it. He writes so often, too, about long, pointless walks to real places. He could have moved downstairs, to the shelf of guidebooks to New York City. It didn't even matter if they were fiction. The inventory system probably just sees the title City of Glass and can't tell the difference.

Or maybe the books were moved to the information desk because they were reclassified as information itself. Maybe all fiction is going that way, as computerized purchasing take over. Or maybe it was just a first step in removing Paul Auster from existence. Readers would be the next thing to go, and the sign itself would be the last.

I imagined myself at the desk. No, they hadn't heard of Paul Austery. Austerlitz, yes, a wonderful novel and, did I know, Fred Astaire as well. But Auster, sorry. We'll check in our computer if you wish. We'd be happy to, for someone like you.

They'd have greeted me already, in familiar terms. Well, there you are! We were expecting you. They'd address me by name, only it would be another name, a character's name in one of Auster's books. They'd need me, so that I could sign copies of his latest, or was it my own? They would know, a novel set in a bookstore, about a character who goes only by his initials, P.A. No doubt Auster was a pen name to begin with, or else the label on one more Jew, truncated at immigration long ago, artfully or in error, perhaps from austere.

That was enough to think about. I left without asking at the desk. Or I think I did. It gets scrambled now. I know where I am, almost all of the time, but I am no longer certain how I got there.

I think instead I did ask, and that is what they said to me. I walked away from the information desk without firmly quite off the conversation, first slowly, with a silent nod, then more quickly. I tried not to let it appear that I was running away. I tried not to let on a trace of confusion. I could, after all, have been eager not to disappoint the people lined up all afternoon for a signature without so much as a pretence of intimacy.

I looked toward the exit one last time, but I found myself turning instead toward the escalators and their peculiar fascination. Heading up and down, they crossed neatly in the letter X. Yes, just one more unknown.

I could not explain why I chose to go back up, not even to myself. I doubted I'd see what the real author looked like. Perhaps I had to see for myself who buys those books. Perhaps I didn't want to let anyone down after all. Perhaps I was just in haste to turn my back on the man at the desk, who seemed intent never to lower his gaze.

Or perhaps I could not refuse a moment of fame. I could thank each person with all my heart, all the more easily since I hadn't worked for it. I could sign the books, slip off, and never return. There were plenty of other superstores in New York left for me.

Maybe that's why I felt a sudden disappointment when I made it to the second floor and saw no hint of an event. Or I did, but only at first. Some people sat on the chairs left out for readings. Was it really all for me—or for P. A.? Good initials for a store reading, I thought, perfect to spread the word to all floors. No wonder it brought so expectant an audience.

Then I realized: it was just a wet weekend at a superstore, much the same crowd filling the folding chairs as on any Saturday, trying their best to look uncomfortable, transient, not really the kind who'd avoid paying for the goods. They could not tear themselves away from the page in their hand, or they were simply pretending, the way I did myself. They were dedicated readers, or they were casual browsers worried over Father's Day. They were writers looking anywhere and everywhere for inspiration or students with time on their hand. They were the homeless. They had taken advantage of the empty seats, hoping for someone attractive to catch their eye, killing time without facing the sidewalk with nowhere to go.

The chain, I thought, knew all that. That's why it removed Auster from its memory—and with good reason. In his novels, too many pass their existence as students or writers. They live on the cheap. They lose touch with reality until they shift, imperceptibly, to a desperate life on the street. The homeless should not be encouraged by his examples. No visitors should. Too many no doubt were, driving out paying customers. They could be all around and in front of me now.

A clerk was already approaching some readers quietly, to clear the area. The lights had become a little darker. Whatever events were in store for the day had come and gone, and the room had outlived its usefulness.

I took a risk. I went up to him. I asked about the reading, without identifying myself one way or another. He seemed grateful for the question. They'd big hopes for the day, but they had had to cancel it. The writer, I thought to myself, must have called. I felt relief at being free of the role I had never quite taken on and never quite refused.

But no, the clerk continued: they had to cancel. Too few people had shown up. It was better not to disrupt other readers for a non-event. If ever I intended to reveal myself, it was out of the question.

Had he heard, I ventured to ask, of another writer, Paul Auster? Oh, yes, he murmured, Jane Austen's half brother, wasn't it? The books had been selling extremely well. The manager had put in an out-of-stock notice. An order was due yesterday, in fact, but surely at any moment now. I thanked him and drifted off again, but this time back up to fiction. Maybe they had come after all.

The books were not there, and the sign had vanished as well, and yet someone had created a broad gap on the shelf, as if to prepare. Or had there been only a sudden run on Austen and Jean Auel? Yes, it must be Auel. Real writing takes so much time. Auster says it himself: "an act of survival."

I decided to wait and see if the books indeed were coming. It wouldn't take long. The clerk had promised, and the evidence was there. I wanted to hold one, to know for certain they existed and what they contain. Other customers were sitting on the floor as usual, against poles and radiators, reading. I circled for a moment before deciding I stood out. I grabbed a book at random and found a place myself. I was determined to wait now, as long as it took, even the whole day. I looked down at the pages I had opened, an edition of Hunger, as it turned out—with a new foreword, by Paul Auster.

I flipped it over. No photograph. I decided he most look more or less like the drawing of Knut Hamsun on the back cover. Or maybe the artist imagined Hamsun's protagonist. I could not be sure.

The store was closing and the announcements made, on P.A. My resolve to wait grew, for I knew that once I, too, left the store, I would never return. I shuffled with others toward the down escalator but then ducked into the men's room, feigning urgency when a clerk looked up. As I came out, the lights had dimmed all over now, and I looked for a way to blend into the shadows. Something over in fiction looked like a place to hide. Enough books were off the shelf that I could actually squeeze into the spot. If I waited only a few moments, I'd be safe. I was in the P's, my head jammed against a copy of Poe's selected poetry and prose. From my angle, it was all I could do to read any of the back cover. "William Wilson." "The Cask of Amontillado." Yes, Poe had written there: no one will ever know.

By morning, it had already become a habit, a way of living. I could find muffin leftovers or half-finished coffee, slipped out of the café section against the rules. The muffins weren't enough, but the caffeine helped slow my appetite, and it kept me from falling asleep. I wanted to nap as little as I could. How else would I know if a book of Auster's had actually come and already been sold? Before a full week, the blank spot at the end of the A's did fill, but with Nicholson Baker. I picked one up, a book about a library.

I was losing weight, but I told myself it made me look younger. I could blend in better with the downtown crowd. I could wait. Time passes easily amid books. I could grab one from whatever shelf I wished, but I had lost the desire to choose, and I refused to undo the alphabet even more. At first I'd take only what others had left behind, so that I could return it all to order. Then the people themselves and what they read became the challenge.

I'd watch only young women, but that was too easy. I'd match men and women with the same color eyes, but they never read the same thing. I sought out just the letters A and P, as if these alone sufficed to make a connection. Art and American history—it described the world right under my nose, where anything could be given a new image. Poetry and politics—the line breaks were like discontinuities in thought and action.

I tried to imagine the people who'd left it all behind. I had no idea what they thought about what they'd read. I couldn't approach them without losing my watch over "fiction and literature," over the letter A. I read less. I had become too anxious. I was adding to the disorder after all, each time I collected according to the patterns I had discovered.

Besides, I became concerned not to move more than absolutely necessary, so that I could conserve energy on little food. Miraculously, the same resting place opened itself to me every night. Poe hated the man who had given him name Allen, but he had become stuck with the two last names. Allan Poe. A.P. I fell asleep easily to the back cover that never changed. "The Purloined Letter"—yes, like the letter A or P.

I no longer even dreamed of approaching others. Not only was I looking stranger and stranger, even to myself, but I had grown too light-headed.

I started to take outrage whenever someone approached. Finally I just grabbed at a clerk. I must have ranted for ten minutes straight. I demanded they replace their books properly. I told them of the connections between authors they were missing and had to preserve, because it was what literature means. He seemed too stunned to interrupt as I went from the birth of the novel to the birth of America, at almost exactly the same time and in the same spirit of inquiry. Without these two, there would be no city and no downtown. There would be no chain stores. The gap for Paul Auster would continue to fill itself, but all this was now the old world, and soon, very soon, a whole other alphabet will begin anew.

I finished, and there was silence. "Who," he said at last, "is Paul Auster?"

It was, for that moment, all he could say, and I had no answer to give myself. The silence seemed as if it could not be broken any longer, but he tried once more, as if out of kindness, asking my name. I could only stammer. It didn't matter, he reassured me. No, it didn't matter.

Without speaking again, he saw me to an escalator and held my arm tightly until I left the store. The square looked unfamiliar. When I had come in, it was the green-market day. Now I had no idea what day it was, much less the time. There was a billboard with an ad for a movie or maybe a book, but I could not focus enough to read it. Not a word. No, not a word. I looked up at the sky and the traces of a new moon and tried to remember what to call home.

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I finished this memorial to a lost weekend and bookstore docent tour the day before I began Leviathan. Given that Auster blurs the line between control and coincidence, I delighted to find that "someone had been impersonating me . . . walking into bookstores and autographing my books." In the same novel's dedication, "the author extends special thanks to Sophie Calle for permission to mingle fact with fiction." I may deal with Calle elsewhere, but I claim no permission.

The inset shows a corner of "Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust," by Rachel Whiteread (Judenplatz, Vienna, 2000). Photo from the Florida Center for Instructional Technology. And yes, I did see a sign like that in June 2003, like critical terms gone astray. No, I left without asking why and will probably never know.


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