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April 28, 2010

Tell me it isn’t true

Shortly before he moved to Vail, Colo., with his wife Tracy, 14 or 15 years ago (or was it 10?), my friend Mark G. invited me over for dinner. Among the topics we discussed that night (in fact, the only one I still recall) was a mutual affection for the work of Paul Auster.

I had recently read “Leviathan” and was riding high on my enthusiasm for the story, a supposed memoir of the novelist’s friendship with a brilliant but troubled fellow novelist, Ben Sachs, who had retreated from society and become an eccentric urban terrorist, traveling around the country and blowing up large municipal replicas of the Statue of Liberty.

The casual, engagingly mundane narrative of that book comes across as a candid, true account of a friendship, but the friend’s violent activities (and, in fact, various references to the friend’s successful writing career) were clearly fabricated or embellished beyond recognition. Surely, his violent activities would have been reported in the national news, right?

Published in 1992, it seemed to have been a nod to nincompoops like Ted Kaczynski, for instance, but as we recognize certain elements of the story are invented, we suddenly are dealt the challenge of determining where the line exists between whatever might be true and what the author has invented. In this case, the distinction is particularly puzzling, because some of the elements are several steps beyond realistic; Auster could have very easily substituted other details that would have been more believable. As it is, the fictional elements tend to frame the whole story as fantasy, but so much of it seems real. It’s as if Auster is letting us into the machinations of his day-to-day life, but then we can’t take any of it as honestly revealing. It is an almost perfectly unresolvable puzzle.

Of course, no fiction can be completely divorced from reality or the experience of its author. Even the most bizarre science fiction and fantasy stories must feature honest emotion or attitudes toward the various adventures recounted; otherwise, readers would find it impossible to generate an interest in them.

As I recall, Mark recommended I read Auster’s next book, “Mr. Vertigo,” which he described as the story of a boy who is taught to levitate by an abusive carnival-style showman. I was fascinated by his brief description, but I didn’t read the book right away. While the magical premise was somewhat compelling, I simply wasn’t ready for it at the time, probably because I assumed it wouldn’t have the same puzzling balance of truth and untruth I enjoyed so completely in “Leviathan.”

Recently, I remembered “Mr. Vertigo” and went about trying to find a copy. I couldn’t find it at any local bookstore, and I came around to the idea that I might need to find a “special” copy, out of respect for the historical importance of my friend’s recommendation. A brief search netted a first edition hardback in good condition (but for a hardly noticeable black remainder mark on the bottom edge of the pages near the spine) for less than its original price.

Written from the perspective of an old man, looking back on a life changed by the influence and affection of a fascinating mentor, “Mr. Vertigo” tells the story of a brash child whose intensity is wrangled and manipulated until he, quite naturally, develops the ability to fly. Thereafter, he tours the country, performing his levitation tricks to the amused delight of ever-growing audiences at informal outdoor events and, later, in theaters.

The actual premise of the story is, of course, impossible, but the kernel of truth remains: By turning himself over to the control of a more experienced “Master,” the storyteller discovered extraordinary abilities, and by letting go of his ego and his limited understanding of the physical world, he found a life of unimagined wonder.

For further consideration: The graphic novel, “It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken,” by the Canadian writer/artist Seth, tells the bittersweet story of the author’s effort to research the life and career of another Canadian cartoonist, Kalo, whose single panel gags appeared in various magazines in the ’50s. It’s an excellent example of perfectly pitched fiction disguised as autobiographical, investigative journalism.

Bonus tip: Go see “How to Train Your Dragon.” The 3-D cinematography is spectacular, and the story points toward the possibility that old problems can be solved by looking at them in new ways.