Paul Auster Long Fiction Analysis
Paul Auster is best known as a postmodernist writer. “Postmodernism” is an elusive academic term applied to unconventional fiction from the late twentieth century onward that in style and theme investigates the methods of fiction. Beneath a deceptively simple fictional form—the detective novel, science fiction, the picaresque story—lies an intellectually stimulating, thematically complex interplay between reader and author as well as between protagonist and writer. Auster’s fiction is accessible on the surface level, yet the subtext is worthy of the term “experimental.” The appeal of postmodern fiction is intellectual; readers are forced to think about the writer’s allusions, use of unexpected devices, and breaking of the rules of conventional fiction. Auster’s fiction is intelligent and puzzling, influenced by the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Beckett, and the French Symbolists.
The three short novels collected as The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room) constitute Auster’s most often discussed work. The use of the detective-story form to introduce themes of isolation and the crisis of the individual is taken as a prime example of postmodern literature, writing that may use traditional forms in ironic or displaced ways. Characteristic of postmodernist stories, the protagonists of Auster novels do not reach solutions. Many of his heroes disappear, die mysterious deaths, or lose all of their personal possessions.
Throughout his long fiction, Auster is critically admired for his diversity of form, his intelligence, the agility of his prose, and the complexity of his structure and themes. His writing appeals to a mass audience as well as to literary scholars; his fiction has a cult following among students. He is known for the variety of genres in which he works: poetry, memoirs, essays, and screenplays.
Auster’s novels are connected, in many cases by the names of characters who appear in more than one novel, but above all by their abstraction and ambiguity and by their intertwining themes: the role of chance and coincidence and the unstable nature of identity. They feature mazes of story lines and narrative twists and turns in which fiction bleeds into reality. Much of Auster’s work is characterized by its examination of language. The protagonist is often a writer, sometimes Auster himself.
The New York Trilogy
The New York Trilogy, composed of the three short novels City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, has received more attention from critics than any of Auster’s subsequent work. The three novels share a common style, theme, and New York setting. Auster intentionally blurs the distinction between reality and text, placing himself as a character in the first novel. This postmodern device raises questions of identity that resonate throughout the series. Auster takes the convention of mistaken identity and develops it into a metaphor for contemporary urban life.
The first novel, City of Glass, opens as a standard detective novel. Quinn, a detective novelist, receives a telephone call intended for a detective named Paul Auster. Quinn decides to take on Auster’s identity and accept the case. The job is to tail a madman named Stillman who has recently been released from a mental institution. Once a promising linguist, Stillman had been committed for isolating his son in a locked room for nine years to try to re-create the primitive language of Adam and Eve. Now that Stillman has been released, the son’s life is in danger.
The novel subtly shifts from a standard detective story to an existential quest for identity. It moves into the realm of serious literature as it explores themes of the degeneration of language, the shifting of identity, and the struggle to remain sane in the anonymity of the metropolis. Each detail is significant. Coincidences abound, particularly coincidences involving names. Quinn the watcher becomes as seedy and degenerate as Stillman the quarry. True to its postmodern identity, and typical of Auster’s work, the novel does not actually offer a resolution. Questions remain unanswered; characters simply disappear.
Ghosts, the second novel of the trilogy, explores many of the same questions of identity and blurred distinctions between watcher and prey, detective and client, but on a more abstract plane. A client named White hires a detective named Blue to follow a man named Black. The three characters merge into one as Blue passes years watching Black writing a book in a room across the street, while Blue records his observations and mails them weekly to White.
Clearly the novel is meant to be a metaphor, and after carefully paying attention to details and clues, as is necessary in a mystery story, the reader is left with the question, What does it all mean? As in the first novel, the detective hired to watch merges into the watched. In this novel, however, neither the reader nor the protagonist knows why the detective is watching his subject.
The final volume in the trilogy, The Locked Room, is the richest and most accessible of the three. The narrator is summoned by the wife of his old friend Fanshawe (the name is an allusion to Hawthorne’s work), who has disappeared and is presumed dead. Fanshawe, a brilliant writer, has left behind a closetful of manuscripts and instructions for his friend to have them published. The narrator moves into Fanshawe’s life, marrying his wife and publishing his work. He has nearly succumbed to believing the rumors that he is actually Fanshawe, or at least the creator of the works, when he receives a communication from the real Fanshawe. The plot becomes suspenseful and dangerous as the narrator follows Fanshawe to the brink of annihilation. He so...
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