Timbuktu, Paul Auster’s heartbreaking novel, tells us more about the we live in and the way we treat “the least of these” than any other book I have read in recent memory and has moved me into action on more than one occasion. Paul Auster, with his literary genius, which has touched more so than any other author (excluding DFW of course), achieves these great feats through the eyes of the kindest, gentlest, most innocent of soul ever to grace the pages of a novel. No human being could ever make you melt with a metaphorical kiss on the hand like Auster’s protagonist, Mr. Bones, in this brilliant work of fiction. And no human being does. That is because Mr. Bones is a dog.
The relationship between Willy G. Christmas and Mr. Bones is as touching as any relationship can be. They share a bond as well as what they have—they deeply and unconditionally care for one another. In their symbiotic relationship, the two of them are innocent, caring, intimate, connected, etc. and in the end this is what we are to walk away from the novel having learned—to live a life that is all of those things, which is so foreign to the way many of us out there live, going through the motions throughout one’s life and never really and truly caring for anyone else. It is a moral fable in this way with the three “masters” he has representing three different ways of life with only, I shall argue, Willy and him coming to the ideal relationship that leads to happiness.
Opening the novel in media res, the reader finds Mr. Bones traveling along side his only friend, a man without any other friends himself, Willy, whose vagabond days are numbered, dying a slow and painful death on the streets of Baltimore. His master’s death is imminent, sadly, and Mr. Bones knows it; but good old Bonesy sticks to Willy’s side so he doesn’t have to spend his final days’ void of friendship. It goes without saying that is an extraordinarily sad thing for a dog to lose its master just as it is for a person to lose their dog but here it doesn’t end up being as bad as it could have been because the two were able to say goodbye in a way that cushions the horrible blow through a dream Mr. Bones has just before Willy goes forth into the great beyond.
In this dream, Mr. Bones runs to the end of the corner while his master, a poet, is taken from the doorstep of the tragic 19th century author Edgar Allen Poe’s Baltimore home. Mr. Bones then dissociates from his canine self and becomes a fly who witnesses the final day and pleasant death of Willy who originally traveled to this city to find a former teacher so his manuscripts may live on after he parishes. The manuscripts, tucked away in a bus station storage locker, are eventually recovered with the help of that former teacher whom the hospital was lucky enough to track down. It was a beautiful, peaceful, and dignified death in the dream and it would serve as the duo’s sweet good bye.
Once the dream has ended, the real thing begins to take place. At first Mr. Bones isn’t sure what to make of the “vision” he just had. In a scene reminiscent of King Lear, when Lear checks his daughter’s breath over and over again, convincing himself in his incredible state of grief, Mr. Bones looks upon his master’s breath hoping for signs of life. This scene, found on page 64, coupled with the hope that Willy will recover and someone will find his manuscripts that have long gone unread, is a sincerely ingenious literary strategy that puts the reader on the same plane as the dog, we are also holding on to hope just like Mr. Bones. But the entire time, we know this will not end well, Willy is going to die and his writing will be lost. It is tragic but it is also intensely good fiction.
After a nice little diatribe to remember Willy by, the awful part of the dream sequence begins to take place in real life, but Mr. Bones doesn’t stop at the corner to watch this time because he already knows what is going to happen and that ending is good enough for him. As explained in the book, marked as a “tragic figure,” disqualified from “the rat race of vain hopes and sentimental illusions,” Willy was one bestowed with “an aura of legitimate suffering” who “indelibly cast himself in his chosen role: as malcontent, as rebel, as outlaw poet prowling the gutters of a ruined world,” (15). But the thing that makes him truly odd, in that special way that only the wisest of holy men are odd in that their ascetic ways have led them closer “to the truth, to the gritty nub of existence,” is the militantly, anti-capitalist philosophy that takes as its most devastating critique on the whole consumeristic world the Christmas holiday.
According to Willy, “Christmas was a fraud, a season for quick bucks and ringing cash registers, and as the symbol of that season, as the very essence of the whole consumerist shebang, Santa was the biggest fake of them all,” (21). I tend to agree with Willy on this one, in my own anti-capitalist ways (I live off something like a couple of thousand dollars a year), but extreme asceticism isn’t the way to go either, (this I know from experience). Go that route and you more than likely end up like Willy, on the other extreme—finding meaning through earning money to buy things—and you end up unable to truly care for anyone but yourself, as can be seen by the end of the novel in the home that Mr. Bones eventually comes to live. There, a man named Dick reluctantly takes Mr. Bones in off the street after his wife and children had already seen the infinitely pure soul of the tough little guy. Dick financially provides a good home for his young family; however, he withholds his affection from everyone failing to see that in doing so, he makes all of those around him unhappy in imposing his misplaced values upon them. Thus even though he has purchased a home for his wife (Polly) that she loves, she never really loves her husband because to him it is enough to provide without any real connection (159). We learn that those things that make life comfortable really aren’t so bad, but putting absolute worth in them is exactly what Willy was trying to warn us not to do.
Dick is not nearly caring enough to recognize the greatness in a dog like Willy and thus treats him as a second class citizen. For example, Dick says of Mr. Bones to his daughter, “don’t feel sorry for him, Alice. He’s not a person, he’s a dog,” (144). Again, Dick shows that he is incapable of caring for others since this mindset also caries over into other relationships that he has and one doesn’t find it that much of a stretch to think that Dick would probably say something along the lines of “she’s not an adult, she’s a child,” in regards to Alice and “she’s not a provider, she’s a wife” in regards to Polly. Thus Mr. Bones “pitied him for not knowoing how to enjoy life,” (149) since his priorities are so out of whack. The first master he comes to after living with Willy also lacks the ability to truly connect and care for Bones in a significant way that elevates the relationship to that of the one he had just come from.
Immediately after Willy’s death, before he lives with Dick, Polly, and their kids, Mr. Bones comes to a most unlikely master in a young Chinese kid named Henry. Unlikely in two ways that oppose some of his former master’s most terrifying advice, (1) stay clear of children because they can be cruel and don’t make the call as to whether a dog stays or goes and (2) avoid Chinese restaurants like the plague because they will cook you up and eat you. But after being kicked and mistreated by some other boys, Bones finds himself and Henry developing a connection. Having lost much of his will and with the situation growing dire, Bones ends up following the kid home right into the “gates of hell.” On the one hand, “Henry proved that love was not a quantifiable substance,” (103) to Bones, but on the other, Henry’s lack of control disqualifies the two from being a real pair.
A deeply sad and lonely boy for which Mr. Bones, whom Henry renames Cal, can only do so much, and though all that he can do for Henry he does, the boy’s sadness goes beyond what any other being can help with. Not only this, but he also brings Bones down with him in his despair, as we see “dogs feel with their masters… [and] he had taken on the boy’s sadness as his own. Such is the way with dogs,” (113). Thus in taking on those feelings, the one’s unhappiness becomes a burden on both of them. You cannot totally rely on someone else for your own happiness just as you cannot rely on material goods either. Ultimately, the change must come from within him if Henry ever wishes to share a connection like the one enjoyed between Willy and his dog. But even with this understanding, it is no less heartbreaking when Henry’s controlling, anti-dog father discovers Bones and tears the pair apart while Henry pleads “Cal, don’t leave me! Don’t leave me Cal!” (115).
The final master of Bones is, as stated previously, a woman named Polly along with her kids and the already discussed Dick. While a very good master, one that is infinitely better than Dick in affection and able to provide in a mutual way that greatly exceeds Henry, she still makes the mistake of using Bones as a means of defiance over her husband, meaning their bond is ultimately not nearly as strong as the one shared with Willy. This leaves the only non-debased, truly whole relationship Bones has with Willy, who he clearly has the most love for of all his masters.
But what makes Mr. Bones so loveable and wise is his dogginess: “Mr. Bones was a dog, and the truth was that Willy took pleasure in that dogness, found no end of delight in watching the spectacle of his confrere’s canine habits,” (36-7). He is like a miniature Buddha, a dog with Buddha nature who has a rather Zen way of experiencing the world, “he was no more than a lame-brained pup, a nincompoop with floppy paws who ran after his own tail and chomped on his own shit, and if this was the only life he’d ever tasted, who was he to judge whether it was rich or poor in the stuff that makes life worth living?” (29) As a dog, he has simple desires that lead him to ask some of the ultimate questions about life and death and existence. For example, Auster writes that “Willy had judged him to be wholly and incorruptibly good. It wasn’t just that he knew that Mr. Bones had a soul. He knew that soul to be better than other souls, and the more he saw of it, the more refinement and nobility of spirit he found there,” (35). Mr. Bones in the end, not to give too much away, is a kind of John Donne of dogs.
Willy, convinced that Mr. Bones has a soul, asks “did it not stand to reason that a dog of such spiritual inclinations would aspire to loftier things – things not necessarily related to the needs and urgencies of his body, but spiritual things, artistic things, the immaterial hungers of the soul… Did that make him the first man in recorded history to believe that such a thing was possible?” (40). Of course not, I have, I think of my dog, Cap n’ Crunch, who I have definitively come to answer the age old question of whether a dog can have Buddha Nature, my personal favorite koan. Actually there are a lot of similarities between Mr. Bones and my Cap n’ but I won’t try and prove that to you here, suffice it to say there are just some dogs who absolutely love being dogs and doing the things that dogs do and God bless them for it.
And once the book begins to come to a close, we hope that Mr. Bones will end up with Willy in Timbuktu, where they will be “at one with the universe, a speck of anti-matter lodged in the brain of God,” (49). We realize, that the same “dreads and agonies” and “unthinkable horror” (50) that grips us when we think about our own finiteness too much also effect Mr. Bones.
I find it repellant and bullshitty that many mainstream Christian sects don’t think animals have souls or what have you. One the hardest pills to swallow about dogma (no pun intended, I assure you) when you think about it logically, I might add, in its ego centricity. All things, I contest, have that same special breath of life that make all things resemble God.[*] That is because “life wasn’t for sale, and once you found yourself at death’s door, all the noodles in China weren’t going to stop that door from opening,” (31). When we are all pieces on the board and once we are taken off, man or four-legged friend, we are all worth the same—zilch. As Willy so elliquently puts it, “in the vile game of Ego” one is participating in “the one game that everyone loses, that no one can ever win,” (67). This novel is an example of giving a voice to those who are voiceless, much like the Coetzee does with Friday in his book Foe. As we read, we realize that dogs aren’t just marginal characters but have the potential for being the main story. That is what Auster does and he does it well.
[*] I am such a firm believer in this that one of the most traumatic experiences of my life came when I was a kid and some Sunday school teacher tried to tell me I was practically worshipping Satan for believing this. This was not a church I went to regularly as a child. I went there exactly once. I do not remember where it was but if I did I probably would have burned it to the ground a long time ago. The night before I spent the night with some kid and his family went to this church every Sunday. Being seven, maybe eight, I didn’t really know that different churches believed in different things so pretty much everything I heard I assumed was Gospel. This woman, I am sure she meant well, but I vowed to never attend Sunday school after her “lesson.” She told this room full of kids that animals do not have souls. They are put on this earth for our enjoyment (This always seemed to me like saying the stars are there because God wanted to light up the sky for us to navigate our ships which is just absurd and infuriating and stupid. It is that total ignoring science that gives some fundamentalists that “crazy” label. After all, Einstein said that “religion without science is blind but science without religion is dull.” I don’t think science ever really attacked religion the way religion attacked science. Saying that evolution is “just a theory” is totally ignoring all scientific data and misunderstanding what a capital T “Theory” really is) alone. I was not feeling this at all. I started to panic almost. My hand shot up and I told her, not these exact words of course, that my parents said God could be found in all things and that everything had a soul. She then replied that that was “New Aged crap.” (A comment made in that special confidence that is pretentious and also wrong.) And, let’s just say, my reaction more or less got me banned from that kid’s house like for life. But I stood firm and defended my actions. To think that we, as human beings, are the only life in the universe that God cares for and loves was just cruel and horrible.