Paul Auster Essay - Critical Essays

Paul Auster American Literature Analysis

A fan of hard-boiled detective novels, and of the humbleness with which many practitioners of that genre proceeded, Auster pseudonymously wrote one for money in 1978. The novel did not achieve its intended purpose, and Auster continued on as a well-regarded but struggling poet, translator, and essayist. He again turned to writing novels in the mid-1980’s, this time under his own name. Still influenced by the sharpness and crispness of the best of the hard-boiled detective novels, Auster again drew from that genre to fashion a crafty and unusual twist on the detective story, City of Glass, the first volume of The New York Trilogy (1990). He followed this with two more curious and inventive detective stories, the second and third volumes of The New York Trilogy: Ghosts and The Locked Room.

It is apparent in these three books that Auster’s style is heavily influenced by hard-boiled writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, writers who crafted sharp, clear, and economical sentences in the manner of Ernest Hemingway but ultimately cooked up complicated and cryptic potboilers. Auster, though, does not limit himself to the hard-boiled school. He is also deeply influenced by nineteenth century American authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, and the felt presence of these writers is plain—in fact, in the reader’s face—in The New York Trilogy and later works.

On the surface, Auster’s work—especially The New York Trilogy—is like Poe reimagined by Chandler (or some such combination). It is, however, never merely that, because Auster’s trenchant prose only serves to derail the reader as Auster promptly reveals the literary tricks that he has up his sleeve. The first thing to know, then, is that an Auster story is almost never what it at first seems. Auster never gives presents anything that is exceedingly simple or too difficult to handle, and he is never too clever for his own good. His novels, instead, unfold as gracefully and seamlessly as a well-played baseball game.

Auster often employs metafictional narrative techniques and textual puzzles that allow his stories to traverse the landscapes of ostensibly dissimilar genres. Essentially, Auster allows characters who are equal parts gumshoe, silent-film comedian, and existentialist quester to run wild in a universe governed by chance and circumstance. In Auster’s work one often meets worn-out, broken, and paranoid characters who must confront the problem of the past in order to move on. They often follow a series of clues which lead them away from their normal lives into worlds where order is disrupted, where time stands still, and where, to paraphrase Robert Penn Warren’s discussion of the characters in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), they are perilously balanced in their humanity between the deep darknesses in themselves and the immense indifference of nature.

Nowhere is this more evident than in The New York Trilogy. In City of Glass, the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, literally disappears into the brutal anonymity of New York City, and in The Locked Room, the much sought-after Fanshawe disappears into the vastness of America and the world, only to reappear in a fantastical locked room in the nameless narrator’s skull and, finally, in a literal locked room in Boston. Ultimately, in a strange twist, one learns that Quinn has pursued Fanshawe. Their identities blur, as do the identities of many characters in The New York Trilogy, canceling each other out, and speaking to the connectedness of things, to the recognition by these characters that the death of the self is the true source of selfhood.

Above all, Auster’s work is concerned with themes of mystery and chance, of space and coincidence, of isolation and identity. He presents questions about what is real and what is imagined, but he is not an idealist. A typical character of his is likely to have a doppelgänger or a ghostly connection to a historical or literary figure. Auster also seems to have a preoccupation with the mystical and transformative power of notebooks. In this way, he is similar to the American filmmaker David Lynch, who, in Mulholland Drive (2001), placed a seemingly simple object, a blue box, at the center of his mystery. Auster, in fact, has more in common with Lynch than one might at first assume, namely a taste for whodunits that play out like surrealist noir and draw from a curious cabinet of potent symbolism and imagery. Both have created art that is simultaneously powerful, ambitious, and accessible. What seems to set Auster’s characters apart is their understanding that if one does not cultivate the past—instead of choosing to misinterpret one’s guilt about it—one is doomed. Auster’s work teaches that there is nothing, no event, from which wisdom cannot be drawn. It is only after one accepts that everyone depends on everyone else, and everything that has come before and that exists today, that one can learn to live well in the world.

The New York Trilogy

First published: 1990

Type of work: Novels (includes City of Glass, 1985; Ghosts, 1986; and The Locked Room, 1986)

A mystery novelist assumes the identity of a real detective; a detective named Blue is hired by a client named White to follow a man named Black; a nameless narrator moves into the life of a childhood friend who has disappeared and is presumed dead.

The New York Trilogy comprises Auster’s first three novels, City of Glass (1985), Ghosts...

(The entire section is 2339 words.)