Paul Auster 1947-
American novelist, poet, memoirist, essayist, critic, screenplay writer, translator, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Auster's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 47.
A provocative experimental novelist whose work represents an amalgam of several genres, Paul Auster is best known for his New York Trilogy, which consists of City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1987). In these novels and others, he combines elements of hard-boiled detective fiction, film noir, dystopian fantasy, and postmodern narrative strategies to address the possibility of certain knowledge, human redemption, and the function of language. His ambitious work is distinguished for challenging the limits of the novel form and tackling difficult epistemological concepts.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Auster was raised by parents Samuel, a landlord, and Queenie on the outskirts of New York City in the North Jersey suburbs. His interest in literature is indirectly attributed to his uncle, translator Allan Mandelbaum, who left a box of books at the Auster home while away in Europe. The teenaged Auster began reading them and soon resolved to become a writer himself. Upon graduating from high school, he attended Columbia University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1969 and an M.A. in 1970. While still in college, he wrote both poetry and prose and participated in campus protests against the Vietnam War. He then worked as a merchant seaman for several months to fund a move to France, where he remained for four years and worked a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet. In 1974, he married writer and translator Lydia Davis, with whom he shares a son; they divorced in 1979 and Auster remarried Siri Hustuedt in 1981. After returning to New York, Auster published his first two books—the thin poetry collections Unearth (1974) and Wall Writing (1976). He was awarded Ingram Merrill Foundation grants in 1975 and 1982, as well as National Endowment of the Arts fellowships in 1979 and 1985. Auster continued to labor in relative obscurity as a poet, essayist, and translator of French literature until the publication of his first novel, City of Glass, which was rejected by seventeen publishers before Sun & Moon Press finally issued the book in 1985. The novel was nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 1986. The third volume of his New York Trilogy, The Locked Room, was also nominated for several awards. Auster taught creative writing at Princeton University from 1986 to 1990. In 1994 he collaborated with director Wayne Wang on the films Smoke and Blue in the Face, which he co-directed. Auster was awarded the prestigious Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts des et des Lettres in 1993.
Though Auster's fiction eludes easy classification, his novels embody several recurring elements: the use of metafictional narrative techniques, textual puzzles, doppelgangers, ironic distancing, and self-reflexivity to underscore the relationship between past and present and the ambiguous nature of language and identity. While instances of confused or mistaken identity are common in the mystery genre, Auster adapts this stock device into a metaphor for contemporary urban life in his New York Trilogy, deliberately blurring the distinction between author and text. City of Glass, a grim and intellectually puzzling story, superficially resembles a mystery novel that exploits the conventions of the detective genre. The protagonist, Quinn, is a pseudonymous mystery novelist who assumes the identity of a real detective, named Paul Auster, after receiving a phone call intended for Auster. Lonely and bored, Quinn accepts the case in Auster's place. His assignment is to shadow Stillman, a brilliant linguistics professor whose obsessive quest to rediscover humanity's primordial language compelled him to isolate his own son in a closet for nine years. Newly released from a mental hospital, Stillman poses a threat to his son's life, prompting the need for a detective. In Ghosts, the second volume of the trilogy, Auster continues his investigation into lost identity with increasing abstraction, including characters identified only as Blue, White, and Black. The novel's coy tone and austere plot—a detective named Blue is contracted by a client named White to pursue a man named Black—places the action in a cerebral context largely disconnected from reality. The trilogy's concluding volume, The Locked Room, is less abstract and more accessible than the previous two. This novel features flesh and blood characters with whom readers can easily identify, including a nameless first-person narrator who ostensibly represents Auster himself. The narrator is summoned by the wife of a childhood friend named Fanshawe who has disappeared and is presumed dead. A fantastically gifted writer, Fanshawe has left behind some unpublished writings as well as instructions for his friend to see them into print. As time passes, the narrator easily moves into Fanshawe's existence, marrying his wife, publishing his work, and eventually engendering rumors that he is actually Fanshawe or, at least, the man who created the works. His deception is finally jeopardized when he receives a communication from the real Fanshawe.
In the Country of Last Things (1987), published the same year as The Locked Room, is an epistolary novel depicting a dystopian American city of the future. As in previous works, this novel evinces Auster's abiding interest in the nature of language and reality. The protagonist, Anna Blume, travels from one continent to a large metropolis on another, where she hopes to find her missing brother. Instead, she discovers a city in chaos where criminals brazenly exploit the desperate and homeless, “Runners” trot themselves to death, and “Leapers” jump to their deaths from the city's crumbling skyscrapers. Anna relates her search through this hellish environment in a letter to someone left behind on the other continent. Though Auster seems to have shifted from mystery to science fiction, In the Country of Last Things shares many of the narrative devices and thematic preoccupations of his New York Trilogy, most apparently the search for identity, also the central theme of Moon Palace (1989), a postmodern bildungsroman around the theme of lost family. In this story, the protagonist is Marco Stanley Fogg, an orphan who eventually becomes homeless in New York City after running out of money while studying at Columbia University. After recovering in the care of a college friend and a Chinese woman, Marco goes to work for an eccentric old man who turns out to be his paternal grandfather. The remainder of the narrative follows Marco's journey of discovery and loss as he encounters his previously unknown relatives and records the fantastic tales of his grandfather's youth. Auster's next novel, The Music of Chance (1990), begins as a generative personal journey, bringing to mind such fictional characters as Mark Twain's Huck Finn, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, and Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty. Protagonist Jim Nashe hits the road in search of self-knowledge after his wife leaves him and he receives an inheritance from his deceased father. His tour of the country winds down at about the same time as his money runs out, whereupon he meets a young gambler, Pozzi, who entices him into a poker game with two eccentric lottery winners from Pennsylvania. The two lose what they have and fall further into debt. In order to pay off the debt, Nashe and Pozzi are forced to build a stone wall for the eccentrics. Auster continued the thematic and stylistic concerns of his previous novels in Leviathan (1992), whose title brings to mind the legendary ocean beast and the seventeenth-century political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. The opening event of this novel is actually its denouement—the death by explosion of a New York writer, Benjamin Sachs. What follows—a reconstruction of precipitating events—is facilitated by Peter Aaron, another New York writer who learns of Sachs's bizarre death and becomes obsessed with writing the story of his friend. Aaron's investigation uncovers a world of secrets, multiple and exchanged identities, and previously unknown connections between characters.
In Mr. Vertigo (1994), Auster relates the story of Walter Rawley, also known as “Walt the Wonder Boy” and “Mr. Vertigo.” Set in the Midwest of the 1920s, Walt is an orphaned street urchin who is offered a new life by a mystical showman, named Master Yehudi, who teaches Walt to levitate. The two, along with a Sioux Indian woman and an Ethiopian boy, barnstorm the country, growing increasingly famous on their way toward Broadway. However, on the verge of stardom, Walt loses his gift for levitating. He begins to wander and eventually ends up in the mobster underworld of Chicago. Timbuktu (1999) revolves around a poignant relationship between a middle-aged homeless man named Willy G. Christmas and his dog, Mr. Bones. The narrative is notable for its unusual dog's-eye perspective, as an omniscient narrator relates the story through the observations of Mr. Bones. In anticipation of his death, Willy travels with Mr. Bones from Brooklyn to Baltimore to establish a new home for his dog and to vouchsafe the manuscript of his epic lifework with a former high school English teacher. After Willy's death, Mr. Bones passes through a succession of new owners—some loving, some cruel—as he traverses rural, suburban, and urban America. Throughout, Mr. Bones is sustained by his continuing love for the deceased Willy and the promise of their reunion in an afterlife destination called Timbuktu. Auster's various volumes of nonfiction and translation further display his diverse literary talents and knowledge of international literature. The Invention of Solitude (1982), a memoir written after the death of his father, details Auster's relationship with and impressions of his father. Through a discursive and fragmented presentation, this book also contains discussions of authors such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Carlos Collodi. In addition, Auster has translated works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Dupin, and Mallarmé, edited the Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (1982), and published a collection of essays and interviews entitled The Art of Hunger (1992).
Often regarded as a postmodern writer, a default classification due to his metafictional techniques and ironic posturing, Auster is noted for his idiosyncratic work, which resists simple categorization. His critical reputation rests largely upon his New York Trilogy, which was enthusiastically received by reviewers, winning him respect as a formidable new literary talent during the mid-1980s. While The Locked Room is judged by many to be the richest and most compelling book of the trilogy, all three volumes have been commended for their facile appropriation—and dismantling—of conventional detective motifs to expose contradictory aspects of reality, literary artifice, and self-perception. Additional genre-defying novels such as Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, Leviathan, Mr. Vertigo, and Timbuktu won critical approval for tackling difficult themes without sacrificing the pleasures of entertainment or alienating the reader. Though some commentators have dismissed Auster's intellectual game-playing as unconvincing and gratuitous, and others find his wit and symbolism labored, most critics praise his sophisticated narrative structures, lucid prose, and daring forays into the philosophical paradoxes surrounding issues of linguistic self-invention and metaphysical doubt. Auster's innovative work is appreciated by many critics for reclaiming the vitality of contemporary experimental literature, for which he is widely regarded as one of the foremost American novelists of his generation.