In search of self-definition

Monday Book Reviews

December 14, 1992|By Dave Edelman

LEVIATHAN. By Paul Auster. Viking. 275 pages. $21.

PAUL Auster is preoccupied with detectives in his popular "New York Trilogy," but it would be wrong to call him a mystery novelist. The hero in Mr. Auster's new book, "Leviathan," is modeled after someone who couldn't be more removed from the gumshoe profession: Henry David Thoreau.

Like the famous 19th century rural philosopher, "Leviathan's" protagonist Benjamin Sachs is an alienated intellectual who, we learn, once went to jail for protesting the Vietnam War. Sachs' story is conveyed through his friend Peter Aaron (note the initials), 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' story before the FBI invents one. "Leviathan," then, is a novel about a biography of a novelist.

It turns out that the man behind the explosion is a brilliant yet eccentric writer trying to determine the boundaries of his identity. Sachs vacillates between novelist and epicurean, family man and womanizer, testing whether all these categories are consistent with his concept of self. He finally becomes a master quick-change artist on the run for seditious activities, adopting personalities until he bursts -- literally.

Sachs' problem parallels that of Thoreau a century earlier: How can we define ourselves and come to terms with the environment that shapes us? Do we really become who we pretend to be? In the author's world, the definition of the "real self" is 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. In Aaron and Sachs' relationship, each strives to acquire the best characteristics of the other while maintaining his own identity. During one disturbing passage, Aaron actually takes Sachs' life over, going so far as to have sexual relations with his wife.

"Leviathan" has some of the liabilities of Mr. Auster's previous works. The author's themes are so unmitigatingly grim that they sometimes rebound directly off the reader who is looking for some levity amid the depression.

Yet this is an incredible page-turner; it's harrowing reading with ambitions as large as Thoreau's. With seven novels to Mr. Auster's credit, there seems to be no limit to his uncanny ability to deconstruct human behavior.

Dave Edelman is co-editor of the Johns Hopkins University News-Letter.

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