Dear Time Capsule

Dear Time Capsule,

I remember putting my jump-rope inside you along with a list of the boys I wanted to kiss and then burying you beneath a dogwood tree. I remember digging you up years later with my best friend, and forgetting that his name was on the list of boys I wanted to kiss, and watching his face process the data you delivered to us on a summer afternoon. I remember wanting to die and valiantly denying the veracity of everything I’d ever written. It’s a habit now, this wanting to die while denying and remembering the scent of lemon on his palm as he tipped my chin up with his thumb and kissed me. 

For better or worse, with or without vowels, we are a character in one another’s lives. Sometimes the proximity of this character can feel exploitative, or too close for comfort, especially when we think about letters and posthumous archives. Isn’t the letter a picture of the self as it existed in time? What happens when we take the letter out of time as a portrait preserved for eternity? 

The third chapter of Paul Auster’s novel, Report from the Interior is titled “Time Capsule.” In it, the speaker tells us that his first wife, Lydia Davis, has over 500 pages of letters that he wrote to her between 1966 and the late 1970s. As part of her literary estate, Davis has decided to bequeath her papers (which include these letters) to a university. The speaker is perturbed by this— the letters threaten to expose a part of himself that he no longer believes or wants to acknowledge. The speaker wants to manage the self created by these letters, which will be available to posterity. 

So he cuts out the romantic parts of the correspondence. And he admits this: he tells us, while addressing himself, that the romantic drama is “what you will be extracting from the time capsule that has fallen into your hands.” 

He uses the word extract rather than excise. Extract is an odd word, since the subjectivity of the epistle has already loaded this into the erotic love distance. Paul’s chapter, time capsule, speaks of time, and into it. Contingency means that the postal mail cannot be trusted: Something happens, someone gets sick, time is too vast in order to be able to say that one has been, for example, ghosted, which is a very modern interpretation of correspondence. The space between the writing in the actual mailing. The other mailed. The last letter.

He tells the reader he went back to childhood notebooks for his novel, but, then, addressing himself: “When you returned to writing fiction in your early 30s, you went back to those old notebooks and plundered them.” 

But which part of Paul are we to believe? 

Obviously, Auster’s speaker is directing the autobiographical Paul; he is managing and revising him in a way that develops him as a character, so that one can compare him, for example, to Goethe’s Werther in a bildungsroman, a frame or form that carries us through the broken heart, depression, ranting against bourgeois lies, complaints about the writing life, references to his own works in progress, and critique of previous letters and writings. 

Coincidence is uncanny— it is strange and weird and inexplicably salient. Here is what Auster said about the role of coincidence in a 1989 interview:

Auster’s fiction plays with coincidence by drawing a circle around an uncanny event in time and altering it. Isn’t it a coincidence that archives are essentially time capsules and he is trying to steal back the kiss? Maybe I’m projecting (another tool for uncanny fun in fiction), but humor me anyway. 

In interviews and essays, Lydia Davis mentions her lifelong habit of keeping a diary and notebooks. Contrast this with the speaker of “Time Capsule,” who claims he couldn’t keep a journal because one “didn’t know what person you were supposed to be addressing, whether you were talking to yourself or someone else.” He pulls this quote from a letter he’d written to Lydia, and I find myself wondering to what extent the letter, itself, is a diary form for Auster, that writer based on a character who wrote so many letters to Davis. He realized parts of himself in those letters. 

In the time capsule, Auster’s speaker makes Davis a part of his younger self by collapsing her into that Paul which he now wishes to mature and edit (he cuts, for example, the quirky idioms in his French translations when replicating them). Auster’s report creates a character that opposes the Auster who will be archived in the correspondence his ex-wife donates to a library. All these Pauls are present on the page, in conflict, visually demarcated with footnotes, letters, quotations, or editorial  content located at the top of the page. If Auster’s novel is collage-like, it is only so in the sense that the reader gets to determine the relationship between these self-figurations.

“Time’s not your friend,” Tom Waits warns the beloved. 

Dear John, tell me who are you this time.