Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Auster’s relentless use of psychological doubles unifies The New York Trilogy and underscores his concern with contemporary humanity’s obsession with self and uncertainty about the validity and value of that self. Quinn’s initial relief in being someone else, a mask he can hide behind, turns into the anguish of losing his grip on reality. Blue decides he has to deny Black’s existence to retain his own identity, a solution similar to that reached by Fanshawe’s friend. The latter acknowledges, however, the impossibility of discovering the true self, remarking that “at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence . . . no one can gain access to himself.”

The identity theme is related to Auster’s exploration of the conflict between order and chaos. A seemingly wrong number begins Quinn’s involvement with the Stillmans. He is told that Paul Auster is the name of a detective recommended by a relative of Peter’s wife, Virginia, but the only Paul Auster he can locate is a writer like himself. Are people’s fates determined by random influences, or are more malevolent forces at work? Has Quinn been chosen—perhaps by the son—to cause the senior Stillman’s death, or is it all a matter of chance? The detective work of Quinn, Blue, and the narrator (the biographer as detective) leads less to resolution than to confusion. The instrument of order causes even more chaos. The student of Babel tells Quinn that “the world is in fragments. . . . And it’s my job to put it back together again.” His method includes denying his son’s humanity and taking walks that spell out words. The quest for order can result in madness. The narrator of The Locked Room concludes that “each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, or random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose.”