Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Brooklyn in the Making: Reading the Existential Utopian Vision in Paul Auster's Smoke through the Wizard of Oz

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Brooklyn in the Making: Reading the Existential Utopian Vision in Paul Auster's Smoke through the Wizard of Oz

Article excerpt

So Oz finally became home [in L. Frank Baum's sixth book of the series]; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that 'there's no place like home', but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began. (57)

--Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz

[I]n the midst of this world already provided with meaning I meet with a meaning which is mine and which I have not given to myself, which I discover that I "possess already." (83)

--Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

IN THE OPENING scene of Smoke, a minor character, Dennis, is wearing a T-shirt in the Brooklyn Cigar Co. which displays these words: "If life is a dream, what happens when I wake up?" Thus Paul Auster sets up an implicit contrast between reality and dreams, which he complicates through the unstable relationship between truth and fiction in the storytelling of his characters. On one level the characters' juggling of truth and lies is a matter of survival in what would seem to be a hostile environment, but on another level their stories reveal an essential generosity of spirit constituted as dreams for a more hopeful future. What matters even more than the individual storylines is the integration of their stories: the way in which this corner of Brooklyn functions as a microcosmic community, a common ground where these characters come together to establish points of connection in their lives. Auster sees Brooklyn as "one of the most democratic and tolerant places on the planet. Everyone lives there, every race and religion and economic class, and everyone pretty much gets along. . . . The rest of the country perceives New York as a hellhole, but that's only one part of the story" ("Making," 15). In Smoke Auster sets out to dispel preconceived notions about life in the city: the fear that people are helplessly trapped in their environment, powerless to choose their own destinies, in other words, confined to a Sartrean Hell. Auster places his characters in some situations that seem to have arisen wholly out of their individual control, yet through an unlikely web of interactions, Auster offers ample possibilities for these characters to improve their situations. What is important is that even though characters cannot always control what happens to them, they always have the freedom to choose (or not to choose) a particular course of action in any given situation. Auster's characters "make themselves," and in the process, their communities.

When I first began to consider why Auster blatantly alludes to The Wizard of Oz by naming characters in Smoke "Aunt Em" and "Uncle Henry," Salman Rushdie's analysis of the 1939 film classic came to mind. It is important to note that Auster is an admirer of Rushdie; he includes "A Prayer for Salman Rushdie" in his essay collection, Why Write? (not coincidentally the title of a chapter of Jean-Paul Sartre's What is Literature). Rushdie sees The Wizard of Oz as an immigrant story; Dorothy and the Wizard, both Kansas exiles, "have adopted opposite strategies of survival in a new and strange land. . . . It is hard for a migrant like myself not to see in these shifting destinies a parable of the migrant condition" (54). It is curious, however, that Rushdie does not also make a case for the migrant status of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, when clearly they are outsiders throughout their journey and, I would argue, quintessentially Other. The most obvious reading of these characters, even for a child viewer, is that they "already possess" those attributes that they most value. One way in which these characters might be compared with those in Smoke is in terms of their cooperative, and successful, effort to save each other from the barrage of perils that plague them throughout the film, just as the characters whose lives somehow connect in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Cigar Co. …

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