BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- The accidental novelist, as a critic once dubbed Paul Auster, sits in his garden on a spring day, insisting he is baffled.
He is baffled at the suggestion that identity is a common theme in his novels, even though his characters are always changing names and lives. He is baffled by people who write because they dream of money and glory, although he has ended up earning both. He is baffled that some readers and critics think his latest book, "Timbuktu," is written from a dog's point-of-view, when it's clearly a picaresque novel about love.
Most of all, he's baffled, completely stymied, by his latest writing assignment -- a commencement address at Williams College, where he is to receive an honorary degree. So far, everything he has written has been much too gloomy. Young people, itching inside their gowns, deserve a little more levity at such an occasion.
"It's very daunting," says Auster, who has written novels, poetry, plays, memoirs and screenplays, a total of 17 works over two decades, yet doesn't consider himself particularly prolific. "It's one of the worst tasks I've ever had to do."
To hear Auster tell it, every writing task is the worst thing he's ever had to do. When he finishes a novel -- or a film, for he has moved from writing screenplays to directing over the last five years -- he is always convinced the most recent work is his last. Where other writers seem incapable of experiencing anything without wondering how they might use it in their work, Auster runs from his own ideas.
"You see, you don't really choose what you do, it chooses you," he says. "You go with the things that are fascinating to you and compelling and mysterious, the things you don't precisely understand about the world, not the things you do understand.
"In my case the stories I write are not the stories I go out and look for, they're just there -- or a character is there, or a situation is there, and the day before it wasn't there. Most of the time, I do everything I can to destroy it and not write it."
But some of his ideas keep trotting after him. Witness "Timbuktu," a stubborn little stray of a story, which came into Auster's life six years ago and refused to leave, despite long periods of neglect as he worked on another book and three films.
The slender book, set partly in Baltimore -- albeit a Baltimore in which the writer has an almost cheeky disregard for the city's real geography -- is about a homeless man, Willie G. Christmas, and his dog, Mr. Bones. When Willie dies while on a mission here, Mr. Bones must forge a new life for himself, and suffer the indignities of such ill-fitting new names as "Cal Ripken Junior the Second" and "Sparky."
The story is quite unlike anything Auster has written to date. Then again, everything Auster writes is unlike anything he has written before. As a reader, he finds himself bored by much contemporary fiction. As a writer, he tries not to repeat himself.
"To say that Paul Auster's new novel is a departure from his previous work is true but inadequate; he is one of our most inventive and least predictable writers," critic Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post.
He has also been something of a cult figure in his own country and the announced first printing of 60,000 for "Timbuktu" probably won't do much to change this status. Yet Auster is a best-seller in France and, according to a New York Times magazine profile from 1992, recognized on the streets of Germany, where taxi drivers ask for his autograph. He sees in his royalty statements that the gap is narrowing, but there's still a gap. The United States is never going to be a country where serious writers are celebrities.
Is there, as one critic wrote, an Auster aesthetic? Does he read the criticism his work has inspired? He skims it, he says with a shrug. "Most of it I don't understand, but every once in a while I come to something that is quite interesting. [But] it's best just to lie low, put your head under the covers, and duck."
'Hand to Mouth'
The surfaces of Auster's life have always invited scrutiny. Journalists look for clues in his work, his words, his strikingly neat Brooklyn townhouse, his red-lacquered dining room table, even in his own dark good looks. Even his dog, Jack, is fair game, given the recent novel. But the novel was under way before Auster adopted Jack, a homeless stray.
At 52, Auster is the rare novelist who is actually better looking than his book jacket photo. In fact, he is almost pretty, with heavy-lidded eyes and starving-artist cheekbones.
In his early life, he came by such a look naturally. Upon graduating from Columbia University in 1969, Auster decided he wanted no part of the compromises that other writers made to pursue their craft.
"Most writers lead double lives," he wrote in "Hand to Mouth," published in 1997 and subtitled: "A Chronicle of Early Failure." Many writers teach. Others -- T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens -- worked 9-to-5 jobs in unrelated fields.