Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2339
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 (1986), and The Locked Room (1986). It introduces the themes that Auster would continue to explore in novels for years to come. Drawing on the style of hard-boiled detective fiction and the imagery of film noir, Auster sets these three intricate mysteries in New York in different time periods. Essentially, each of these three books tells the same story, as the nameless narrator confesses at the end of The Locked Room, related at different stages of the narrator’s awareness. They are tales about the nature of identity and language and the role that coincidence and chance plays in forming the human character. Auster uses concise language to reveal the pieces of a complicated textual puzzle. Never perplexing just for the sake of it, Auster remains focused and accessible throughout.
The first of these books, City of Glass, was published in 1985 by Sun and Moon Press, a small Los Angeles company, after being rejected by other publishers seventeen times over the course of two years. It is the story of Daniel Quinn, a mystery novelist who writes a series of detective novels about a private eye named Max Work, under the pseudonym William Wilson. One day Quinn, devastated by the death of his wife and son, receives a call from someone looking for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency. Ultimately, Quinn, anxious and bored, assumes Auster’s identity and pretends to be a private detective. He accepts the case and begins trailing a man named Stillman, a linguist who had been confined to a mental institution for locking up his son alone in a room for nine years.
It is immediately apparent how much fun Auster is having with names: “William Wilson” is taken from an Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, and it is also the real name of New York Mets center fielder “Mookie” Wilson. Daniel Quinn’s initials are not insignificant, nor is the “Mrs. Saavedra” that the reader learns is waiting for Peter Stillman after he first talks to Quinn, as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) plays a major role in the text. There is also “Paul Auster,” the character—later in the book, one learns that “Paul Auster” is not a detective at all but a writer with a wife named Siri and a son named Daniel. Daniel Quinn and Auster’s son joke about having the same name, just as Quinn marvels early on that Peter Stillman, the son of the man Quinn is hired to track, has the same name as his dead son. The story is all about shifting identities, about characters who melt and mold into one another.
Such dynamics carry into the subsequent volumes, Ghosts and The Locked Room. In Ghosts, a detective named Blue, a student of Brown, is hired by White to follow a man named Black. Coincidentally, the story begins in Brooklyn on February 3, 1947, the day that Auster was born in Newark. What, then, to make of this? Though one knows that Ghosts is a twist on the stories told in City of Glass and The Locked Room, one gets the feeling that Auster began the story with a simple question: “What might have been happening in New York on the day that I was born, and how is it connected to my life?” Auster, like Blue, who reads True Detective magazine religiously, is concerned with the possibilities of chance, with the way that lives weave and intersect. He knows that the present is equally as mysterious as the past and the future.
In The Locked Room, a nameless narrator is called by the wife of his childhood best friend, Fanshawe. (The name Fanshawe is also that of the title character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first book, Fanshawe: A Tale .) Fanshawe’s wife, Sophie, tells the narrator that her husband has been missing for more than six months, that she presumes he is dead, and that he left instructions that, if anything should ever happen to him, the narrator should become his literary executor. Fanshawe, it turns out, was a reclusive genius, leaving behind a closet full of extraordinary novels, poems, and plays. The narrator accepts the task and, slowly, moves into Fanshawe’s life: He publishes his work, marries his wife, adopts his son, and begins work on a biography of him.
Again, Auster is examining the frailty of human existence—how, almost by chance, one can move into an altogether different life and become another person. For Auster, detective work—following ambiguous clues and lousy leads—is the stuff of the human story: the search for character, for identity, and, ultimately, for death. Auster is also concerned with why and how people create art, and nowhere does he meditate on this subject more poignantly than in The Locked Room. The true artist, Auster knows, must submit to necessity.
The Music of Chance
First published: 1990
Type of work: Novel
In order to pay off a debt, a former firefighter and a tempestuous gambler are forced to build a stone wall in a Pennsylvania meadow.
The Music of Chance begins with Jim Nashe, a former firefighter from Boston, coming to the end of a year-long road journey. In this way, the novel is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), but the similarities end there. Nashe, one learns, is on the road thanks to a $200,000 inheritance from a father he never really knew, which has allowed him to leave behind his everyday life and drift around the United States. His trip is a series of chance encounters, and, just as the money is about to run out, he meets a seedy character named Jack Pozzi, a gambler who inducts him into the “International Brotherhood of Lost Dogs.” Nashe gambles away the last of his inheritance by bankrolling a poker game that Pozzi has put together. The game is with two Pennsylvania millionaires named Flower and Stone, who demand that Nashe and Pozzi work off their debt by building a stone wall on their estate.
Another strong outing by Auster, this book differs significantly from his others. It is a road narrative, but, as always in Auster’s world, chance is an authoritative force. Auster explores the roles of security and serenity, the restraints of freedom and solitude, the power of language and randomness in a violently apathetic world, and the nature of the true quest for justice. The Music of Chance is a thrilling story told in clean and exact prose.
The Book of Illusions
First published: 2002
Type of work: Novel
A grieving Vermont professor studies the life of a silent film comedian who vanished from sight in 1929 and embarks on a journey when he finds out that the comedian has resurfaced.
In The Book of Illusions, David Zimmer has lost his wife and two sons in a tragic car crash. Left wealthy by the insurance settlement, the grieving Zimmer quits his job as an English professor at a Vermont college and becomes a reclusive alcoholic. Flipping through television channels one night, Zimmer happens upon a film clip of the silent comedian Hector Mann, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1929. Suddenly, Zimmer’s life has purpose again, as he becomes enthralled by Mann’s work and writes a book about him. Some time later, after the book has been published, Zimmer receives a letter from someone in New Mexico claiming to be Mann’s wife. The woman tells Zimmer that Hector has read his book and would like to meet him. Zimmer is obviously confused, presuming that Mann has long been dead, and he writes the letter off as a fraud. A visit from an unusual and remarkable woman named Alma Grund, however, changes Zimmer’s mind.
The Book of Illusions takes Auster’s relationship with risk and chance to a new and exciting level, as Auster examines, in great depth, the life of a vanished man. We learn where Hector Mann went, what he did, and why he remains in hiding. Like François-René de Chateaubriand in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849-1850; memoirs of a dead man), which Zimmer translates, Mann seemingly communicates from a world beyond. He meditates on life, art, and love, as does Zimmer himself, and this sets the uniformity of mood pervading the novel. Like Hawthorne, whose “The Birthmark” is alluded to by Alma, Auster has a spirit of introspective memory and moral consciousness. The Book of Illusions is, in a way, a high-wire act, a reflection on the thin line between madness and sanity, and, arguably, the finest achievement of Auster’s career.