YOU ARE GOING to die. Barring some capricious catastrophe, you are going to see the inevitable coming from a long way off. People you know will die. Your body will begin to fail. As you settle into old age (assuming you get there), you'll have plenty of time to think about the things you did and did not do, ruminate on old losses and injuries, and dart from one memory to another.
Winter Journal, the new memoir from Paul Auster (best known for The Book of Illusions and The New York Trilogy) is all about death, specifically the author's own. Well into his 60s, Auster recounts in no particular order incidents from his life that stand out in his memory. Written in the second person, the whole thing has a kind of removed, oracular style to it, and Winter Journal often feels like memories, like a voice bubbling up from the back of the reader's own head.
Like an old man recalling disparate anecdotes, Auster jumps from topic to topic and time frame to time frame. Recollections of old injuries, former houses and apartments, travel, and especially memories of his mother and (still living) wife fill out a litany of memories that bleed into each other in a way that should be ramshackle but feels seamless. Strangely absent from Winter Journal, though, is very much about Auster's kids. With all of the attention that he gives to old movies and baseball, you'd think that he'd have a thing or two to say about spawning other life forms.
There's a certain inevitable narcissism to the book—Auster obviously sees his own private demise as something akin to a personal apocalypse—but Auster's a skilled enough stylist that he's able to make his own hand-wringing compelling. The book is self-obsessed, certainly, but Auster is also self-aware, and Winter Journal manages to be a personal meditation that never devolves into full-on navel gazing.
The book is plotless without being rambling, basically free of characters without feeling empty, and even though it lacks any kind of narrative it still feels substantive. Auster is very skilled at crafting impressionistic novels and memoirs, and Winter Journal is a fine example of that. After putting it down I was left with a picture of an old man who may or may not be at peace, staring at snow, knowing very well that he is going to die.