photo & text by nacrowe
it is difficult to not read PAUL AUSTER's fantastically ABSURDIST novel MR. VERTIGO (VIKING, 1994) and not come away with understanding that it is a complicated ALLEGORY for the AMERICAN DREAM set in the milieu of the MIDWEST (complete with references to baseball, gangsterism, the KKK, roadside attractions and circus life) in the first half of the twentieth century. narrated in first person through the eyes of WALTER CLAIBORNE RAWLEY, we see his journey from a discarded juvenile delinquent from the wrong side of the tracks in ST. LOUIS through a most UNUSUAL life journey that sees him transition from a levitating act as WALT THE WONDER BOY through turns as a gangster, night club owner, factory worker and ultimately a small business owner.
what i found interesting is that the constant throughout this ATYPICAL narrative is the consistency of PERSPECTIVE with WALT. he remains PRACTICAL throughout. he does not become fazed by the work needed to gain flight as a child as taught by his trainer, caretaker and surrogate father MASTER YEHUDI, nor does he become particularly overwhelmed by being kidnapped or the DEATH of loved ones. when he transitions into the CHICAGO underworld and works his way up, that as well seems to be more about SURVIVAL than any MORAL IMPERATIVE on his part.
i wonder if AUSTER was attempting to say something about the MATURITY of the UNITED STATES during this same period in which we pretty much transcended our EUROPEAN forefathers and took hold of the century ECONOMICALLY, POLITICALLY and CULTURALLY on a global scale beginning in earnest after WORLD WAR II. unlike the nations that played a part in our birth, we have no deep history or entrenched set of ideals that have been past down for centuries. our ETHOS is mainly one of UTILITARIANISM, of finding whatever works and suits our needs. at the end of the narrative, WALT doesnt attempt to justify his choices. he merely just states that such are what they are. and maybe that is what the AMERICAN DREAM was all along, an excuse to just succeed on your own terms, choose your own adventure. by whatever means necessary and damn the consequences or externalities on anyone around you.
i found this book to be quite BLEAK and NIHILISTIC in its implications despite its setting and trappings of classic AMERICANA. if anything, the seeming lack of moral guardrails works both ways but that wreaking aftertaste of moral DEBASEMENT doesnt seem to subside. WALT as an old man isnt diminished or uplifted by his former glories, he merely just survived them.
maybe as a nation that is the best we can hope for.