Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2410
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...
(The entire section contains 2410 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Paul Auster study guide. You'll get access to all of the Paul Auster content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays
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 identifies with Fanshawe that he nearly joins him in his dark night of the soul. Lines between truth and fiction are dramatically blurred in a deeply satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.
In the Country of Last Things
For In the Country of Last Things, Auster also uses an established genre, this time science fiction, to achieve his postmodernist ends. This novel shares stylistic and thematic concerns with The New York Trilogy. The protagonist, Anna Blume, travels to a large metropolis on another continent in search of her missing brother. She discovers a city in chaos, a hellish postapocalyptic scene, a futuristic nightmare of doom. At first the reader believes this is a dystopian novel of the future in the tradition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The reader soon realizes, however, that this world represents the ethical, spiritual, and cultural chaos of the urban jungle of the present. Auster concludes that, without art and creativity, life is bleak.
Auster’s novels following In the Country of Last Things cannot be as easily categorized by genre. Looser in structure, Moon Palace is sometimes referred to as a picaresque novel, as it follows its young hero’s adventures on a journey in search of his lost father. This novel employs some of the familiar motifs of the bildungsroman: the struggling orphan, the lost father, the search for self, the journey as initiation into manhood. The writer-narrator, however, seems unconcerned with creating a realistic or believable plot; in fact, he himself does not seem to believe what he has written. The writer violates realistic conventions intentionally to investigate other functions of the novel. Plot and character are secondary to structure, the relationship between reader and writer, and the act of reading.
The Music of Chance
The Music of Chance is another accessible story that can be enjoyed on many levels. It opens in the manner of a road-trip novel, as protagonist Jim Nashe takes to the road in search of himself. When his money runs out, he joins a young gambler, Pozzi, in a poker game against two eccentric lottery winners. When Jim and Pozzi fall into debt, they are forced to build a stone wall for the eccentrics as payment.
Critics have faulted this novel for weakness of plot and character, yet once again these “faults” seem to be intentional. In this work, Auster takes the opportunity to explore some of his favorite themes: the roles of coincidence and random chance, the consequences of solitude, the limitations of language and free will. Character and plot are deliberately unconvincing, calling attention to the author’s other literary aims. Beneath a conventional exterior, Auster’s fiction is disturbing, intellectually challenging, and structurally experimental. The use of gambling as a metaphor for the role of chance in life and the allusions to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist and existentialist play Waiting for Godot (pb. 1952) in the character names add literary depth to the novel.
Leviathan, published in 1992, is a complex novel in the looser style Auster adopted with Moon Palace three years earlier. Theclimax of the story, the death by explosion of the New York writer Benjamin Sachs, is unveiled on the first page. Another writer, Peter Aaron, becomes obsessed with writing the story of his friend’s life, not unlike the narrator’s obsession with Fanshawe in The Locked Room. Aaron uncovers a world of secrets, multiple and exchanged identities, and previously unknown connections between characters. Readers familiar with Auster’s work will recognize such elements as the references to the detective-story framework of The New York Trilogy, the self-referential character of the writer-narrator, shifting identities, and the importance of the written word to creating and maintaining identity.
The Book of Illusions
The Book of Illusions is a novel that is as much driven by the double themes of chance and blurred identity as any of Auster’s previous books. Zimmer, a university professor who has descended into alcoholism and loneliness following the loss of his wife and sons in an accident, happens upon the films of Hector Mann, a star of silent movies who had disappeared at the height of his career some sixty years earlier. Zimmer saves his sanity by writing a book about the film star. Then a letter arrives in Zimmer’s mailbox, purported to be from Hector Mann’s wife, saying that Mann is alive and would like to meet him. Is this a hoax?
Critics have deemed The Book of Illusions Auster’s richest work to date, his best book in years. Auster’s trademarks—coincidence, disappearance, twists and turns of plot, a writer protagonist, characters whose lives eerily reflect one another, merging identities, random events, the thin line between sanity and madness—merge with a plot-driven, fast-moving story. Allusions to a Hawthorne plot and to a translation from the French autobiography of François-René de Chateaubriand add literary interest. There is a new maturity and tenderness in the ending as the fictional character of Zimmer, now merged with the real writer, Auster himself, reaches a reconciliation of sorts, coming to terms with the deaths of his wife and children.
Oracle Night is a book within a book within a book. Its main character, Sidney Orr, is a writer with similarities to Auster, a middle-aged married man who lives in Brooklyn. After recovering from a life-threatening illness, he buys a new blue notebook and begins writing a novel, also titled Oracle Night. The stage is set for another novel in which fiction bleeds into reality and identities merge.
While some critics have found the plot of Oracle Night even more unbelievable than the plots of most of Auster’s other works, others have appreciated the novel’s absurdity and have praised it for its chilling ghostliness. Chance and coincidence play major roles in the novel, which has echoes of the eerie mysteries of Edgar Allan Poe. The title suggests that fiction may shape reality, yet the ambiguous ending leaves the possibility of randomness open as well.
The Brooklyn Follies
The Brooklyn Follies is a more straightforward, down-to-earth book than Auster’s previous two novels. Like Mr. Vertigo and Timbuktu, The Brooklyn Follies is notable for its storytelling, though chance makes an inevitable appearance. All three novels have linear plot structures, and while they are enjoyable and sold well upon publication, Auster’s devoted followers have not all appreciated the author’s departure in these novels from his dark existentialism.
The protagonist of The Brooklyn Follies is Nathan Glass, a survivor of lung cancer who has come to Brooklyn to die, seeking only solitude and anonymity. He unexpectedly connects with an estranged nephew working in the bookstore of a former forger. In one of Auster’s familiar references to Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the plot twists involves a forgery of the first page of The Scarlet Letter (1850). Glass begins work on his own book, which he calls The Book of Human Folly, but his own despair is superseded by unexpected connections with other people. A collection of vignettes of typical Brooklyn characters is one of the pleasures of the book. In a novel that is warmer and more cheerful than most of Auster’s work, Nathan finds redemption, but the ending darkens as a happy Nathan steps out into the bright sunshine of the morning of September 11, 2001.
Travels in the Scriptorium
Travels in the Scriptorium, a spare, fable-like novella, is pure distilled Auster, reminiscent of Ghosts in its abstractness. Mr. Blank has lost all memory of his identity. He finds himself in a locked room, with a few labeled objects—DESK, CHAIR, LAMP—the labels of which mysteriously change places. Language itself is not to be trusted. Blank appears to be undergoing some kind of treatment; he feels a vague sense of guilt. In the room is a manuscript, the story within the story, and Blank begins to read. The narrative seems to be a report, but his doctor tells him it is fiction and suggests that he create an ending to the story as an exercise in “imaginative reasoning.” As characters enter the room, Blank writes down their names so that he can remember them. The names he lists have appeared in previous Auster novels. The locked room appears to be Auster’s own.
Stories with changing endings, objects with changing labels, characters that move from book to book, fact that is indistinguishable from fiction, loss of identity, a violent and chaotic dystopian society—reading Auster is like wandering in a maze or working a puzzle for which there is no solution. The more Auster one has read, the more intricate the layers become, but the message seems to recede further into abstraction. The elements of the novel are familiar, but the whole is outside conventional meaning.