David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Paul Auster’s “Leviathan”

LeviathanThis book review was originally published in The Baltimore Evening Sun on December 14, 1992.

Despite Paul Auster’s preoccupation with detectives in his popular New York Trilogy, it would be a serious misnomer to call him a mystery novelist. Auster’s new book Leviathan takes as its tacit hero someone who couldn’t be further away from the gumshoe profession: Henry David Thoreau.

Like the famous rural philosopher, Leviathan‘s protagonist Benjamin Sachs is a quester for the nature of identity. His story is conveyed through the eyes of his friend Peter Aaron, a novelist who discovers in the book’s opening pages that Sachs has died in a mysterious bomb explosion. Aaron sets out to write the definitive version of Sachs’s story before the FBI can formulate theirs.

It turns out that the man behind the bomb explosion was a brilliant yet eccentric writer who tried to probe the boundaries of his identity through a disquieting progression of self-tests. He vacillated between intellectual novelist and epicurean, family man and womanizer. Sachs finally became a master quick-change artist while on the run for seditious activities, adopting personalities until he literally burst.

Sachs’s problem parallels that of Thoreau a hundred years earlier: how can we define ourselves and come to terms with the environment that shapes us? In Auster’s world, the separation between the self and the outer world can be a tricky business. His characters are shaped largely by external circumstances and their identities seem to be commutable properties, able to be slurped up and digested at a moment’s notice like raw oysters.

Even Aaron, the narrator and most stable character in the novel, cannot escape from these problems. Aaron and Sachs’ relationship is an inherent contradiction where each continually strives to acquire the best characteristics of the other. In one telling passage, Aaron takes his spiritual twin’s place while he’s away, even going so far as to have sexual relations with his friend’s wife. Surprisingly, Sachs doesn’t mind.

Leviathan is harrowing reading, to be sure. With seven novels to his credit, there seems to be no limit to Auster’s uncanny ability to deconstruct human behavior.

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  1. Stefan on July 9, 2009 at 4:25 pm  Chain link

    I’m surprised you have no comments on this book. It was the first Auster novel I read, and I still find it captivating when I reread it.

  2. […] have appreciated it so much more – and I’m wondering what this guy saw and I […]

  3. Selvam, Sivagangai on January 12, 2011 at 1:18 am  Chain link

    I am presently reading ‘Leviathan’. It is going great.

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