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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...

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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Unearth: Poems (poetry) 1974

Wall Writing: Poems, 1971-1975 (poetry) 1976

Facing the Music (poetry) 1980

White Spaces (prose) 1980

The Invention of Solitude (memoir) 1982

Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry [editor] (poetry) 1982

City of Glass (novel) 1985

Ghosts (novel) 1986

The Locked Room (novel) 1987

In the Country of Last Things (novel) 1987

Disappearances: Selected Poems (poetry) 1988

Moon Palace (novel) 1989

The Music of Chance (novel) 1990

The New York Trilogy [contains City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room] (novels) 1990

The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews (essays and interviews) 1992

Leviathan (novel) 1992

Mr. Vertigo (novel) 1994

The Red Notebook and Other Writings (prose) 1995

Smoke and Blue in the Face: Two Screenplays (screenplays) 1995

Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure (memoir, novel, and dramas) 1997

Timbuktu (novel) 1999

Carolyn See (review date 17 November 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of City of Glass, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 17, 1985, pp. 3-4.

[In the following review, See offers positive assessment of City of Glass.]

“I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You have only to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts. The whole city is a junk heap. It suits my purpose admirably. I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things. Each day I go out with my bag and collect object that seem worthy of investigation. My samples now number in the hundreds—from the chipped to the smashed, from the dented to the squashed, from the pulverized to the putrid.”

City of Glass is the first in a New York trilogy, an experimental novel that wanders and digresses and loses its own narrative thread, but with all that, keeps offering bits of dialogue or scenes or “ideas” that make the whole thing much like a very good day for a street scavenger: In among the nondescript junk, there are maybe a hundred little treasures. …

City of Glass is about the degeneration of language, the shiftings of identity, the struggle to remain human in a great metropolis, when the city itself is cranking on its own falling-apart mechanical life that completely overrides any and every individual. Our hero, our narrator, has already gone through several lives, several identities. His name, he tells us, is Quinn (which rhymes with twin and bin). For a while he was “William Wilson,” but before that “he had published several books of poetry, had written plays, critical essays, and worked on a number of long translations. …”

But quite abruptly, he has changed all that. As Wilson, he took a pseudonym within a pseudonym, and began to write a series of detective novels about a private eye named Max Work: “In the triad of selves that Quinn had become, Wilson served as a kind of ventriloquist, Quinn himself was the dummy, and Work was the animated voice that gave purpose to the enterprise.”

Once all this has been established, we are instructed to see Quinn as bereft of a wife and child, a “bachelor” living alone, interested in the fate of the Mets, one of those sad, single guys who eat breakfast alone at lunch counters. The author then allows him to get a phone call (put through by mistake?) asking for Paul Auster (the author of this book). This is a plea for some detective work and Quinn/twin, after hesitating, answers that request.

A loving wife has a crazy husband, who has been locked up in a dark room for the first nine years of his life by a mad dad, who sometimes takes the name of “Henry Dark” to use as a mouthpiece for some of his more revolutionary scholarly ideas about language, civilization, Paradise and child-rearing. This mad dad, whose name is Stillman, has been put in jail some years before for abusing his son, and is just now returning to New York. Quinn/Auster, because of his stories about Max Work, and because he has nothing else to do, agrees to watch for the elder Mr. Stillman.

Except, of course, when Mr. Stillman gets off the train at Grand Central, there are two of him—one shabby, one perfectly dressed. Quinn makes an arbitrary decision and begins to shadow the shabby one, starting a long journey through the city to his ultimate destiny.

Walking through the city! This really is a New York novel. Quinn walks the length and breadth of Manhattan Island just for the heck of it, and the elder Mr. Stillman, in his walks, manages literally to spell out cryptic messages about the meaning of life. It is Stillman who sees the great Metropolis as a city “of broken people, broken things, broken thoughts,” but that falls right in with his theory that we are to return soon to a “prelapsarian” condition: a universal language, a universal state of well-being. Of course, Stillman has cracked completely, as Quinn realizes, as he presents himself to him in a series of interlocking identities.

Quinn, at one point, begins to wonder about the “real” Paul Auster and goes to see him—and if you're thinking that Pirandello and Unamuno and a hundred other serious writers and tens of thousands of undergraduates have pondered the relationship between character and author, it really is OK, since those “identities” are only two among 20 or so.

In fact, Auster's laconic, throwaway, often very funny tone keeps this book (and many of its ideas) fresh. If, during the middle of the narrative, the reader entertains a few vagrant thoughts about where this novel is going, what Quinn/Wilson/Work/Auster is up to anyway, that question is satisfactorily answered in a series of ending scenes that mustn't be given away—except that there's a clue hidden in this sentence.

It's true, in a small town we are born, live and die as more or less one person, because that's the way our family and friends know us. In cities, we either rush to change our identities—or they are changed brutally for us. City of Glass thoughtfully and cleverly draws our attention to these questions of self.

E. F. Bleiler (review date 29 March 1987)

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SOURCE: “Almanacs of Urban Decay,” in Washington Post Book World, March 28, 1987, p. 11.

[In the following review, Bleiler offers positive estimation of The Locked Room and In the Country of Last Things.]

In City of Glass, the first volume of The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster wrote of his character Quinn/William Wilson that “what interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories.” This is perhaps also true of Paul Auster.

In The Locked Room, the third volume of the trilogy, Auster builds on Fanshawe (1828), Nathaniel Hawthorne's suppressed first novel, which is a secularization of the demon-lover motif with strong mythic elements. Fanshawe is generally rated a bad book, but it has one interesting point: After rescuing a fair maiden from the fate worse than death, Fanshawe rejects her and a worldly life because of a spiritual leprosy that gnaws at his soul.

Auster, who is saturated in 19th-century fiction, in The Locked Room creates another Fanshawe, who, suffering from spiritual death, withdraws from life and passes the possibility of worldliness on to another, normal man. This, however, is not Auster's only theme; he enriches his story with concepts of metaphysical dual identity and interpenetration of author and work. The narrator both is and is not the great writer Fanshawe, and part of his story is the possibility that he will become Fanshawe.

According to the plot line, which is that of a mystery story, the narrator is summoned by the widow of his childhood friend Fanshawe, with whom he has long been out of touch. Fanshawe, it turns out, has simply disappeared and is presumably dead. His task, set up by Fanshawe, is to act as literary executor and place the novels, short stories, plays and poems that Fanshawe created. Since (ironically) they are all great, the narrator succeeds, but there are complexities when he is commissioned to write a life of Fanshawe.

The narrator (who is both a character and Paul Auster) wanders in and out of Fanshawe's life, compulsively, convulsively, seeking Fanshawe, until a melodramatic climax. Along the way he receives a letter from the supposedly dead man, warning him that if he ever finds Fanshawe, Fanshawe will kill him. The letter urges the narrator to “be who you are,” which the narrator unwittingly alters to “remain who you are.”

In summary The Locked Room sounds much like one of Claude Houghton's neglected metaphysical novels of the 1930s, a comparison that is not improper. But there are differences. Houghton wrote about quests for a self, with an exuberant, optimistic, yet elegantly styled mysticism, while Auster is concerned with darker shadows of personality, and the inevitable conclusion is not enhancement but death.

The Locked Room is well worth reading. It lacks the brilliance and wild imagination of City of Glass, but it conveys a message of somber doom through a rhythmic, austere (to make a necessary word-play) style and excellent characterizations.

If the members of The New York Trilogy are presented as extrapolations of the detective story, In the Country of Last Things is a similar extension of the dystopia and the journey through Hell. The subject is “the city,” a horrible place not geographically identified, but certainly the faulty side of the United States. The author focuses on milieu more than on individual spiritual downfall, and the book tends to be an ethnographic survey of death and degradation. Hawthorne, now cited by the author, is again the historical germ, with perhaps links back to John Bunyan and forward to the Land of Darkness of the prolific Victorian Mrs. Oliphant.

To describe the city in any detail would be beyond the scope of this review. Let it be enough to say that it is a world of entropy, where everything runs down into decay, and that the central metaphor is cannibalism, both literal and figurative. The city's ailment is not so much political (as is most common in such dystopias) as spiritual. Creation has ended. Life persists by devouring the past and recycling it in ever more inferior forms. On the specific, material side, there is no housing, though sharpers survive by selling its non-existence; there is little food, and that little is obtainable only by violence or an exchange system based on scavenging. Life is so miserable that the will to live diminishes, and there are institutionalized ways of dying. Not just in euthanasia chambers, but with bands that starve themselves to death, troupes that race until they drop dead and fanatics that leap in exaltation off high places. (The exact analogies to our world are clear in Auster's text.) All these horrors are told in a bald style with little emotional tone, as passionless as an almanac.

The story vehicle is a long letter written in a small notebook that Anna Blume sends back to her friends across the sea. Anna, who in addition to being a well-rounded character is a type representing the will to live and perhaps Judaism, has come to the city to find her brother, a journalist who disappeared some time before. Her quest, at first arrogant and ill-planned, is predictably unsuccessful, but she gradually adapts to the city and survives. She becomes a professional scavenger; pushing a small cart that is chained to her to prevent its being stolen, she prowls the streets looking for things edible or barterable. Her adventures take her through violence, privation, cold, disease and hunger.

In the Country of Last Things is a painful, horrible book, and it cannot be called enjoyable in terms of light reading. But it is powerful, original, imaginative and handled with artistry. It is one of the better modern attempts at describing Hell.

Michael Dirda (review date 26 March 1989)

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SOURCE: “Marvels and Mysteries,” in Washington Post Book World, March 26, 1989, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Dirda offers positive assessment of Moon Palace.]

Hemingway once remarked that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” That story of a boy's passage toward maturity, told against the astounding dreamscape of America, has since been repeated in the adventures of Nick Carraway, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and countless others. Moon Palace, which relates the growing up of Marco Stanley Fogg, shows that there's a dance in the old theme yet, especially when a brilliant writer takes the floor.

After working for many years as a translator of modern French poetry, Paul Auster rocketed into semi-celebrity with the publication of his New York trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room.

The first of these novels played with the conventions of the hard-boiled detective story, as a mystery writer finds himself impersonating a private eye in order to help a beautiful dark-haired woman. The second, displaying a more austere Auster, worked a series of Beckett-like permutations on the relationship between observer and observed: a p.i. named Blue spends years shadowing a character named Black. The concluding volume of the trilogy took up the modernist conceit of a shamus-like biographer compelled to learn the truth about a writer, no matter what the personal costs.

Chock-a-block with arcana about language, responsibility and identity, the novels might have been nothing more than a high-brow snooze were it not for their author's commanding narrative skills. For all his post-modern reflexivity, Auster is a masterly, often autobiographical, storyteller, one whose voice—unruffled, meditative, intelligent—quickly snares a reader. His memoir, The Invention of Solitude, points up the personal element in much of his writing—from the recurrent obsession with fathers and sons to details about life in Paris and his characters' refined taste in reading. Anyone who likes, say, the philosophical melodramas of Robertson Davies, the melancholy comedies of Russell Hoban or the intellectual fantasies of John Crowley should try Auster. He's of their company.

His latest book, Moon Palace, divides roughly into three main sections. In the first we meet the hero, Marco Stanley Fogg, an orphan—named after three explorers—who has just enough money to finish Columbia University. But, “like all the Foggs, he had a penchant for aimlessness and reverie, for sudden bolts and lengthy torpors.” Acting purely out of a kind of existential obstinacy, M.S., as he likes to be called, ends up starving on the street, dimly surviving as a wanderer in Central Park, living on discarded food and sleeping under bushes.

Eventually, though, he is rescued by his old roommate Zimmer and a future girlfriend named Kitty Wu. They nurse him back to health, at which point he finds a job as a companion to a wealthy old man, Thomas Effing. Nearly 90, blind, confined to a wheelchair, the cantankerous Effing is a blend of magus, Ancient Mariner and the invalid Gen. Sternwood of The Big Sleep. In a thrilling flashback, lasting nearly a third of Moon Palace, he recounts his life from his youthful admiration for the inventor Nikola Tesla and his passion for the paintings of Ralph Albert Blakelock through his disorienting adventures in the Utah desert.

By the time we reach these last, “his narrative,” remarks Fogg, “had taken on a phantasmagoric quality … and there were times when he did not seem to be remembering the outward facts of his life so much as inventing a parable to explain its inner meanings.”

Actually all of Moon Palace shares this same phantasmagoric quality, this skirting around the edges of the uncanny, this sense of “subterranean vision.”

Where did Effing get his money? How can he predict the exact date of his own death? Why is he excessively thin, while his neglected son is exceedingly obese? The book shimmers with such mysteries, thematic echoes, outrageous coincidences, as well as artfully timed revelations. All three main characters, classic American loners, suffer the same pattern of madness. Allusions to the moon abound, largely as an emblem of man's deepest or most extreme desires. Unexpected paternity plays a major role, as do unwanted babies. By his story's end, the genial and likeable Fogg also manages—indirectly—to kill his grandfather, father and child.

Partly to counter these Jacobean excesses Auster chooses to have Fogg tell his tale in a voice like twilight, serene, after the fact, almost resigned. All of Auster's books follow this pattern of the French recit, short, introspective narratives, relying on telling as much as showing, keeping dialogue to a minimum. The effect is to grant this, and Auster's other novels, an air of wistfulness and a certain calm plausibility: I was there, I suffered, I am the man.

Auster also enjoys following a seemly, straightforward narrative line, until everything starts to get tied up, at which point he will let the story go slack, twist and loop back on itself. In Moon Palace the last third of the book introduces a new character, an historian named Solomon Barber, who “was born of a madwoman and a ghost.” Naturally Barber holds the keys to several mysteries—not all of which are resolved before our hero stands, at the novel's soulful but happy end, on a California beach and stares up at the moon rising above the dark Pacific.

At one point, Fogg mentions the writing habits of his friend Zimmer, habits which clearly apply to his creator as well: “Zimmer's chief concern in life was writing … and he spent long, hard hours at it, laboring over each word as if the fate of the world hung in the balance—which is surely the only sensible way to go about it.”

If the result is a book as fine as Moon Palace, then it is unquestionably the only sensible way of going about it.

Sven Birkerts (review date 27 March 1989)

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SOURCE: “Postmodern Picaresque,” in The New Republic, March 27, 1989, pp. 36-40.

[In the following review, Birkerts provides an overview of Auster's fiction and evaluation of Moon Palace,which he finds promising but ultimately disappointing.]

Paul Auster has been, until just now, the ghost at the banquet of contemporary American letters. Though unquestionably accomplished (in the last decade he has published a memoir, five novels, several collections of poetry, and a major compendium of modern French poetry, which he edited and partly translated), he has been curiously absent from the debates being waged at the far end of the table. There are reasons for this. For one thing, his work does not fit neatly into the currently active slots. While his prose has tended toward stylistic austerity, it has little in common with the water and wafer fare beloved of the minimalists. In the same way, Auster has narrowly escaped the “postmodernist” tag; for all his concern with the slipperiness of perception and identity, his writing has a solid modernist grounding. He has not given up on the idea that art can discover new meaning from experience.

This has really been the main cause of Auster's marginality: that he has favored the serious and “artistic”—the novel as epistemology—over the democratically accessible. His characters have been embodiments, players in philosophical puzzles (I'm thinking mainly of the three books of his The New York Trilogy), or test cases to be subjected to the pressure of extreme situations; his plots, coolly calculated. But now, quite suddenly, comes a change. Moon Palace, Auster's new novel, breaks the chrysalis of high seriousness and stretches out its colorful wings. And the retrospective gaze alters everything: we see that his career has been in fact a complex progress toward liberation.

Auster first announced himself with the publication of a two-part memoir titled The Invention of Solitude (1982). Section one, “Portrait of an Invisible Man,” begins with the author receiving word of his father's death. The prose, as Auster searches himself for his reactions, is remarkably matter-of-fact. Distant. As if the deeper turmoils of life could only be handled with the gloves of intellect. Auster himself is surprised by his response:

I had always imagined that death would numb me, immobilize me with grief. But now that it had happened, I did not shed any tears. I did not feel as though the world had collapsed around me. … What disturbed me was something else, something unrelated to death or my response to it: the realization that my father had left no traces.

We then partake of the sustained excavation of the life—of the apparent non-life—of a man who was a stranger to himself. A man who hid from all emotion, all responsibility, who donned the proper masks of civility, who confided nothing, gave nothing. “Solitary. But not in the sense of being alone. … Solitary in the sense of retreat. In the sense of not having to see himself being seen by anyone else.”

A coincidental encounter on an airplane (Auster is, throughout his work, a connoisseur of the serendipitous) eventually puts him on the track of the hidden horror in his family's past. He learns that 60 years before, in a small Wisconsin town, his grandmother shot her husband to death in their kitchen. His father, Sam, then a young boy, was present. The psychological clues begin to fall into place; the memoir becomes a kind of Freudian detective story. Auster steeps himself in ancient newspaper clippings, clarifying the web of circumstance for himself. Now all of the reticence, the blankness, that he remembers in his father can be explained. But explanation is cold comfort: a small compensation for a life with a man who gave nothing, and left nothing behind. Nothing, that is, but a permanent suspicion of appearances.

“The Book of Memory,” the second section, is a collage of meditations, memories, and quotations. Auster reflects upon his solitude, and upon his situation as a husband and a father. The piece is not satisfying as a narrative—the fragments gather no momentum—but we come away with a clear sense of the psychic imperatives that drive the writer. We feel the desolation of his small rooms in New York and Paris, as well as the nullifying glare of the empty page. The author struggles to find an expression that will be his own. His last sentences are tense with the effort of bringing a truth up out of the self:

He finds a fresh sheet of paper. He lays it out on the table before him and writes these words with his pen.

It was. It will never be again. Remember.

Auster's next three books, City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, known collectively as The New York Trilogy, can be seen as detached, intellectual explorations of some of the core themes of the memoir. Each of these short, elegant books turns on a search of some kind—all of them feature detectives, missing persons, mistaken identities. The moods are of watching and waiting. Personalities and human crochets have no place here. Indeed, Auster seems bent upon pruning the urban detective novel (he has written in the genre under a pseudonym) of all extraneous particulars, in order to reveal the underlying paradigm: that all existence is, at root, a stalking of clues to the self, and to the true relation of that self to everything that is Other.

The premises in these novels are resoundingly French. Auster has absorbed a great deal from the hypervigilant and ultimately self-reflexive practice of the French modernists. (He has translated Mallarmé, Blanchot, and others.) The narration of the search, carried out in the simplest translucent prose, invariably reflects back upon the process of writing itself. Time and again, the characters come to feel that they are being scripted by some higher authority; their ventures come to seem co-extensive with the movement of figments in an author's mind. Take, for instance, this passage from the climactic scene of The Locked Room. The narrator has just opened a notebook that he hopes will clarify something about his prolonged quest for a certain Fanshawe:

I read steadily for almost an hour, flipping back and forth among the pages, trying to get a sense of what Fanshawe had written. If I say nothing about what I found there, it is because I understood very little. All the words were familiar to me, and yet they seemed to have been put together strangely, as though their final purpose was to cancel each other out. … Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible.

In some way, this response to the text is designed to mirror our response to the text that encloses it. The prose is thrilling in its reduced precision, its escalating sense of paradox, but it asks of the reader a powerful appetite for cerebration.

The problem with self-reflexive fictions is that they obey a law of diminishing returns. Unable to suspend his disbelief, the reader starts to find the revelations merely academic. Auster appears to have recognized this. In In the Country of Last Things (1987), he reasserted the traditional rights of the genre, exploring the “real” (here the word needs cautionary quotation marks) by way of the invented. This is not to say that Auster found his way back to naturalism—he's too much of a modernist for that—but he does allow us to forget that the story is the product of a superintending author.

In the Country of Last Things is a legend of post-apocalypse. A young woman named Anna Blume (the book is her letter to a friend) arrives by ship at a large, unnamed port city. Its location, as well as the historical period, remain unspecified. Her mission is to locate her missing brother. But as she discovers that she has journeyed into a nightmare, the search is suspended; survival becomes her sole imperative.

The city is a place of worst fears. All municipal order has broken down. Gangs terrorize and pillage; those who would eat are forced to spend the entire day scavenging. Before long, Anna is pushing her own scavenger cart:

Little by little, my hauls became almost adequate. Odds and ends, of course, but a few totally unexpected things as well: a collapsible telescope with one cracked lens; a rubber Frankenstein mask; a bicycle wheel; a Cyrillic typewriter missing only five keys and the space bar; the passport of a man named Quinn … but there were certain lines I drew within myself, limits I refused to step beyond. Touching the dead, for example.

Anna does eventually cross all of her inner boundaries, and with each transgression she discovers that she is less bound by her “human” ways than she had thought. Auster's aim is to find what remains after Anna has been systematically divested of the accretions of civilization. What she arrives at, paradoxically—and exaltingly—is an ideal of charity. Beneath brutishness a flame of goodness can live. In our extremity, Auster suggests, something like grace may flourish.

It is almost as if the author needed to put himself through a winnowing process—cutting away at narrative, peeling away the fabric of learned behavior—before he could find a way to begin writing. I don't mean that the prose of these novels is lacking in artistry. But what riches are there on the page have been carefully accumulated. The augmentation comes sentence by sentence, and is the product of great discipline. Moon Palace breaks free of such constraint with its opening lines:

It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future. I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go, and then see what happened to me when I got there. As it turned out, I nearly did not make it. Little by little, I saw my money dwindle to zero; I wound up living in the streets.

The paragraph continues. But one does not need to quote at great length to show that a change has taken place in Auster's prose. The forward motion is now kinetic; the language feels inhabited from within, is self-propelling. Gone is the studious bricklaying, the sense of mind controlling hand.

In Moon Palace Auster sets out to write the fantastic destiny tale of Marco Stanley Fogg. In the manner of all good picaresques, Marco is presented as serious, noble-hearted, and (we might think of David Copperfield, Tom Jones, and Huck Finn) orphaned. Born illegitimate—he was never told about his father—Marco lost his mother in an accident while very young. He grew up in the care of his Uncle Victor. (We can compute, by the way, that Marco was born in 1947, the same year as Auster.) Victor is something of an eccentric, an itinerant clarinetist with a love of books and chess. He treats the boy to his theories and obsessions, making little allowance for his years. Marco—small wonder—grows up a solitary misfit.

Victor uses the insurance payments from his sister's accident to set up a small trust for the boy. He sends him away to boarding school, and later provides tuition to Columbia. When Marco is ready to move to New York. Victor insists that he pack along the dozens and dozens of boxes that contain his library. Marco obliges, though the first use he finds for the books is peculiar; he uses the boxes to build a table, chairs, and bed for himself.

Auster begins the novel with energy and inventiveness, building in layers of allusiveness. There is, for instance, the matter of Marco's name:

Uncle Victor loved to concoct elaborate, nonsensical theories about things, and he never tired of expounding on the glories hidden in my name, Marco Stanley Fogg. According to him, it proved that travel was in my blood, that life would carry me to places where no man had ever been before. Marco, naturally enough, was for Marco Polo, the first European to visit China. Stanley was for the American journalist who had tracked down Dr. Livingston “in the heart of darkest Africa”; and Fogg was for Phileas, the man who had stormed around the globe in less than three months. It didn't matter that my mother had chosen Marco simply because she liked it, or that Stanley had been my grandfather's name, or that Fogg was a misnomer, the whim of some half-literate American functionary. Uncle Victor found meanings where no one else would have found them, and then, very deftly, he turned them into a form of clandestine support.

Not only will Marco fulfill the promise of his moniker, but he will also become, like his uncle, a man who finds meanings and coincidental flashes wherever he turns. Auster obviously loves to sport with the possibilities. The mention of the moon landing in the first sentence is a case in point: Marco's wanderings will be accompanied at every step by lunar symbols. The word “moon,” the orb's painted image, and the orb itself are persistently recurrent in these pages. To what end? Perhaps just to place everything under the aspect of fancy and madness (lunacy). But Auster is also, to some extent, seeding the clouds to make sure that there will be rain. Though the references at times feel artificially planted, they help to promote an atmosphere of uncanniness that makes the myriad coincidences seem less impossible than common sense would judge.

Marco is studying at Columbia and living the fringe life of the late '60s when he learns that Uncle Victor has died. Soon after, compounding his grief, he discovers that his money is nearly gone—he will not be able to make his way through school as planned. Marco faces the problem with profound passivity. Little by little—reading them first—he sells off his uncle's books. When that money is gone, he starts to practice extraordinary economies, giving up one necessity after the next. He all but stops eating. Finally, inevitably, his landlord throws him out. But even when he reaches the street, Marco cannot take initiative. He can only react.

It is as if he must undergo this peculiar rite of passage—turning himself into a vagrant—before he can connect with his fate. Holderlin's lines are appropriate here: “Near, but hard to find, is the God / But where danger is, there the saving power grows.” When Marco reaches the far extreme of destitution, everything changes. A beautiful young Chinese woman named Kitty Wu rescues him and becomes his lover. And very soon after, Marco answers a posted ad. The problem of making a living is solved as he signs on as amanuensis and scribe to a wealthy old cripple named Thomas Effing.

The first third of the book, which I have tried to summarize, is enormously compelling. We identify with Marco, share his confusions and pains. The voice is direct and winning. In addition, Auster is skillful in creating the ambience of the times: Marco's urban adventures are played against a backdrop of larger social malaise; change and violence are everywhere on these streets. Our hero is living, exaggeratedly, the life of his times. Alas, with the introduction of Effing comes a shift that weakens the strong surge of Marco's tale.

Effing wants Marco to write his obituary, as well as a lengthy essay that will explain his mysterious life to posterity. For months he retails his deeds and misdeeds: how he was once a promising painter, how he entangled himself in an unhappy marriage, how he traveled to the deserts of the West to paint. The story gets increasingly improbable. Effing is betrayed by his guide, left for dead; he engineers his own disappearance and returns under a new identity. The episodes are piled high. And Marco reports them all in faithful detail. The problem is, it has been Marco's book all along: his is the life that has won our attention, and he steps aside for too long. For the marvels of Effing's account come to us from a propped-up figure, and it gets harder and harder to care. Interestingly, Marco at one point makes an observation that inadvertently reflects upon Auster's own failing:

The major turning points in Effing's life had all taken place in America, in the years before his departure for Utah and the accident in San Francisco, and once he arrived in Europe, the story became just another story. … Effing was aware of this. I felt, and though he didn't come out and say it directly, the manner of his telling began to change, to lose the precision and earnestness of the earlier's episodes.

A meta-fictional prescience is expressed here: Auster has, likewise, begun to lose the precision and earnestness of his earlier pages.

I am circumspect about describing the developments in the second part of Moon Palace, because the drama hinges upon a series of recognitions as outlandish as anything in Dickens. I will not spoil the reader's pleasure by discharging the central tensions. I will say only that a player even stranger than Effing makes his way onto the stage, and that the discoveries that Marco subsequently makes tie a knot of lineage so bizarre that he ends up poised between madness and enlightenment. In contriving his kinds of resolutions. Auster takes a risk: the novel that began among portents and promises ends up ominously close to campy self-parody. Too many coincidences overwhelm the ground of plausibility that meaningful coincidences require. While Moon Palace never entirely surrenders its charm—the writing is engaging throughout—its animating force slackens at the halfway mark.

One would like to herald Auster's breakthrough without reservations. He has a rare combination of talent, scope, and audacity. And in the beginning of this novel, when all of the elements are working in concert, the narrative achieves an irresistible propulsion. The diminution, therefore, a consequence of overreaching, is doubly disappointing. Still, there is the good news. Auster has served out an exciting apprenticeship. He stands poised to write something momentous about our times.

Alison Russell (essay date Winter 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6781

SOURCE: “Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Fiction,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 71-84.

[In the following essay, Russell examines the patterns of representation and meaning in The New York Trilogy based on the theoretical principles of Jacques Derrida. Russell contends that Auster's fiction, with its multiple interpretations and nonlinear movement, resists the conventions of detective fiction and works to “deconstruct logocentrism.”]

Detective fiction comprises a genre seemingly at odds with American experimental writing. The detective story's highly stylized patterns are derivative of the Romance, an extremely conventional literary genre. Recent experimental novelists, however, are taking advantage of these conventions to create what Stefano Tani has called “anti-detective fiction.”1 Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Nabokov's Pale Fire illustrate this postmodern mutation in their parodic forms and subversions of the end-dominated detective story. A more recent example of anti-detective fiction is Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, a highly entertaining yet sophisticated work, amenable to the deconstructive principles of Jacques Derrida. Auster's novels have attracted the attention of a wide range of readers: City of Glass, the first volume of the trilogy, was nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery of the year, but this recognition by a non-academic community may account for the lack of critical attention given to The New York Trilogy. The fact that Auster is known primarily as a poet and translator may also account for his exclusion from recent studies of American experimental fiction. This essay offers a Derridean analysis of Auster's trilogy, which will hopefully attract further academic attention to The New York Trilogy.

The three novels comprising the trilogy—City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room—are essentially retellings of the same story. All three employ and deconstruct the conventional elements of the detective story, resulting in a recursive linguistic investigation of the nature, function, and meaning of language. The trilogy also parodies and subverts the Romance, “realistic” fiction, and autobiography, thereby exploding the narrative traditions associated with these genres. By denying conventional expectations of fiction—linear movement, realistic representation, and closure—Auster's novels also deconstruct logocentrism, a primary subject of Derrida's subversions. Logocentrism, the term applied to uses and theories of language grounded in the metaphysics of presence, is the “crime” that Auster investigates in The New York Trilogy. In each volume, the detective searches for “presence”: an ultimate referent or foundation outside the play of language itself. This quest for correspondence between signifier and signified is inextricably related to each protagonist's quest for origin and identity, for the self only exists insofar as language grants existence to it.

In Writing and Difference, Derrida states that “the absence of [a presence or] a transcendental signified extends the domain and play of signification infinitely.”2 As a retelling of the same story, each volume of Auster's trilogy illustrates this Derridean dissemination; each text denies any one meaning or “solution.” Like language itself, the three texts are an incessant play of “différance,” which Derrida defines in Positions as “the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other.”3 Meaning is deferred in an endless movement from one linguistic interpretation to the next. Auster reinforces this deconstructive effect through the use of other language games, such as intertextual references, mirror images, and puns, thereby exploding the centering and unifying conventions of detective stories. The distinction among author, narrator, and character is increasingly blurred. Similarly, the textual boundary of each volume of the trilogy disintegrates: characters in one book dream of characters in another or reappear in different disguises. For obvious reasons, it may be inappropriate to discuss these books separately, just as it may be equally inappropriate to use the terms “author,” “narrator,” and “protagonist”; for the sake of convention, however, this approach and these terms will be used to analyze Auster's trilogy.

The title of the first volume, City of Glass, is a play on Augustine's The City of God, a neoplatonic treatise that suggests that an eternal order exists outside the realm of sense: Augustine's work posits transcendence or, in Derrida's terms, presence. The title City of Glass also connotes transparency; thus Daniel Quinn, the novel's detective and protagonist, becomes a pilgrim searching for correspondence between signifiers and signifieds. The search for transparent language is predominantly visual, a characteristic alluded to in the narrator's discussion of the phrase “private eye” in the novel's first chapter.

The term held a triple meaning for Quinn. Not only was it the letter “i,” standing for “investigator,” it was “I” in the upper case, the tiny life-bud buried in the body of the breathing self. At the same time, it was also the physical eye of the writer, the eye of the man who looks out from himself into the world and demands that the world reveal itself to him.4

Quinn, as a writer of mystery novels, exists in a world dominated by signifiers and assumed solutions. The first chapter of City of Glass describes the function of the writer-detective and reveals the metaphor that will be employed—and deconstructed—in all three volumes of The New York Trilogy: “The detective is one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable” (15). This passage offers a multiplicity of orientations, as the detective metaphor applies to Quinn, to Auster, and to the relationship between the two. It is also a “clue” to the mystery of The New York Trilogy because Auster is always both inside and outside his three texts. The narrator of the first volume continually denies any one locus of meaning, yet teases the reader with the possibility of one: “The center, then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to its end” (15). By directing our attention to the end of the book and to a possible solution, the narrator forces us to participate in the detective's game.

As a genre, the detective story is end-dominated, and its popularity attests to Western culture's obsession with closure. By denying closure, and by sprinkling his trilogy with references to other end-dominated texts, Auster continually disseminates the meaning of this detective story. The detective story also necessitates a movement backward in time, from the corpse to the crime, so to speak. In City of Glass, Quinn's quest for an ultimate referent leads him into an investigation of the origin of logos; his quest becomes a pursuit of paternal authority associated with creation and also a quest for his own identity. In the beginning of the novel, Quinn is described as a mystery novelist who writes stories about the detective Max Work under the pseudonym William Wilson (an allusion to Poe's story about doubles and, later in the novel, to the baseball player Mookie Wilson). The narrator alludes to Quinn's identity crisis by withholding information: “Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance” (7). Essentially, Quinn is a paper-Auster, a mere linguistic construct of the author himself: “As a young man he had published several books of poetry, had written plays, critical essays, and had worked on a number of long translations” (9). Although Quinn suspects that he is not real, he is not aware that he is Auster's creation. The novel becomes increasingly comic when Quinn receives middle-of-the-night telephone calls for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. Quinn tells the mysterious caller, “[T]here is no Paul Auster here” (13).

Logocentrism in The New York Trilogy is closely associated with paternal authority. Quinn's unconscious denial of his creator's presence suggests the loss of the Father, the ultimate authority and founder of logos—the word. Quinn usurps the role of the Father when he assumes the identity of Paul Auster (of the detective agency)—when he meets his client, Peter Stillman, he thinks of “his own dead son,” but “just as suddenly as the thought had appeared, it vanished” (25). Quinn is unable to posit the determinacy characteristic of paternal authority. The interview with Stillman strikes Quinn as strange and unreal, and “as a consequence, he could never be sure of any of it” (23). Significantly, Quinn is hired to find and tail the father of his client, also named Peter Stillman. The elder Stillman had attempted to find God's language thirteen years earlier by keeping his young son in a locked dark room for nine years. As a product of this experiment, the son babbles incoherently to Quinn, unable to affirm his own identity: “For now, I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name. I cannot say who I will be tomorrow. … But that makes no difference. To me. Thank you very much. I know you will save my life, Mr. Auster. I am counting on you” (36-37). Like his language, Stillman himself lacks solidity—he moves like a marionette “trying to walk without strings” and dresses completely in white (25). At one point in their meeting, “Quinn suddenly felt that Stillman had become invisible” (26). Everything about Stillman and the Stillman case lacks substance, for they are fictions within the larger fiction of City of Glass.

Quinn's pursuit of the Father is a search for authority and “author-ity.” In looking for the creator of logos, he is looking for his own creator as well, but his investigation is subverted by Auster's authorial duplicity. In many ways, City of Glass is a reworking of Don Quixote, a book that also denies its own authority while claiming to be a true story. When Virginia Stillman tells Quinn that she was referred to the Paul Auster Detective Agency by Michael Saavedra (Cervantes's family name), Quinn becomes the quixotic hero, the unknowing victim of a strange conspiracy. This possible “solution” to City of Glass is exfoliated in chapter ten, when Quinn decides to contact the “real” Paul Auster for help with his case. This Auster claims to know nothing about a detective agency. He is a writer, he explains to Quinn, working on an essay about the hoax of Don Quixote. Don Quixote “orchestrated the whole thing himself,” Auster tells Quinn, duping Cervantes into “hiring Don Quixote to decipher the story of Don Quixote himself” (153-54). This analysis, when applied to City of Glass, raises a number of questions about the book's authorship, and results in endless doublings and mirror images. When Quinn meets Auster's young son, also named Daniel, he tells the boy, “I'm you, and you're me.” The boy replies, “and around and around it goes” (157).

Quinn's investigation becomes an obsessive search for an ultimate authority, for his research on the elder Stillman leads him to believe that this “father” holds the key to finding a way back to pure logos. He reads Stillman's book, The Garden and the Tower: Early Visions of the New World, in which Stillman analyzes Paradise Lost, identifying words that embodied two equal and opposite meanings—“one before the fall and one after the fall” (70). This ironic deconstructive reading of Milton's text results in Stillman's own quest for prelapsarian language: he prophecies a new paradise based upon his reading of Henry Dark's pamphlet, The New Babel (75). According to Derridean philosophy, Dark's (and Stillman's) return to pure logos is impossible because of the nature of language. As a play of differences, language offers no basis for attributing a determinate meaning to any word or utterance.

The quixotic Quinn, deluded by Stillman's book, stalks the old man throughout the labyrinth of New York City, recording Stillman's every move in a red notebook (possibly a parodic allusion to Wittgenstein's The Blue and Brown Books). By keeping Stillman in his sight, Quinn is attempting to retain “presence,” but in rereading his notebook, he “often discovered that he had written two or even three lines on top of each other, producing a jumbled, illegible palimpsest” (100). Words continually fail to produce an absolute meaning for Quinn, for Stillman's movements always remain divorced from the words in the red notebook. Repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to decipher the meaning of Stillman's patterned walks through the city, Quinn decides to confront physically the logocentric father. Presenting himself alternately as Paul Auster, Henry Dark, and Peter Stillman, Quinn discusses language, lies, and history with the old man. Stillman tells Quinn, “A lie can never be undone. … I am a father, and I know about these things. Remember what happened to the father of our country” (133). By referring to one of the most popular fictions of American history, Stillman unwittingly subverts his own authority. His attempt to rename the world is doomed to failure.

By the end of the novel, fiction is piled upon fiction, negating any one meaning or solution to the mystery of City of Glass. The narrator interrupts his own narrative in Cervantes's fashion, claiming both ownership and authorship of the text: “Since this story is based entirely on facts, the author feels it his duty not to overstep the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils of invention. Even the red notebook, which until now has provided a detailed account of Quinn's experiences, is suspect” (173). The narrator is a self-undermining linguistic agent, offering truth and then subverting the possibility of truth, continually denying his readers any one locus of meaning.

As the novel “ends,” City of Glass illustrates Derridean dissemination. Quinn literally vanishes from the text when he runs out of space in his red notebook, seemingly imploding into the text of City of Glass: “It was as though he had melted into the walls of the city” (178). Similarly, Peter Stillman and his wife have disappeared, while the elder Stillman has supposedly committed suicide. In City of Glass, characters “die” when their signifiers are omitted from the printed page. All that remains is the cryptic conclusion of the narrator, who claims to have received Quinn's notebook from his friend, the writer Paul Auster.

As for Quinn, it is impossible for me to say where he is now. I have followed the red notebook as closely as I could, and any inaccuracies in the story should be blamed on me. There were moments when the text was difficult to decipher, but I have done my best with it and have refrained from any interpretation. The red notebook, of course, is only half the story, as any sensitive reader will understand. As for Auster, I am convinced that he behaved badly throughout. If our friendship has ended, he has only himself to blame. As for me, my thoughts remain with Quinn. He will be with me always. And wherever he may have disappeared to, I wish him luck. (202-03)

The narrator's conclusion shows this fiction to be a game against itself. His assertion deconstructs itself through references to the indeterminacy of the red notebook. City of Glass is a paranoid text in its uncertainty and contradictory frames of reference.

In Ghosts, the second volume of the trilogy, Auster presents another version of this detective story. This text, as a repetitive but also differing collection of signifiers, continues to illustrate Derridean différance, both within the text itself and in its differences from City of Glass. Like its predecessor, Ghosts defers the possibility of a solution or meaning. Again, Auster explores and deconstructs the logocentric quest for origin—the origin of language, but also the origin of “self.” The story begins on February 3, 1947 (the author's birthdate), a movement backward in time appropriate to the text's illustration of différance. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida explains that

différance is what makes the movement of signification possible only if each element that is said to be “present,” appearing on the stage of presence, is related to something other than itself but retains the mark of a past element and already lets itself be hollowed out by the mark of its relation to a future element. This trace relates no less to what is called the future than to what is called the past, and it constitutes what is called the present by this very relation to what it is not, to what it absolutely is not; that is, not even to a past or future considered as a modified present.5

Thus, in Ghosts, we read the narrator's statement, “the time is the present,” followed two pages later by a contradicting statement: “It is February 3, 1947. … But the present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.”6Ghosts is a “trace” of a past element that was never fully present; therefore, the novel's detective protagonist, Blue, is shown to be increasingly obsessed with “presence.” Like Daniel Quinn, Blue's identity is inextricably related to language. Since différance destroys the notion of a simple presence, identity and the origin of self are equally destroyed, for origin is always other than itself.

The title of Ghosts, like City of Glass, suggests transparency, the ideal logocentric relationship between signifier and signified, but it also connotes a lack of substance. Ghosts contains fewer pages, characters, and plot complications than the other two volumes of the trilogy. The book is a “ghost” of City of Glass and of the detective story genre: the “meat” of the text is stripped down to a generic level, reinforced by Auster's rejection of nomenclature and his use of Film Noir signifiers. Auster's reductionist technique in Ghosts is in itself a form of deception—it suggests that the details of the story will be presented in black-and-white, transparent facts that will lead to the solution of the trilogy. The opening lines of the book are equally deceptive in their sparing use of language and their structural similarity to Biblical syntax: “First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown” (7). These bare “facts,” with their connotations of creation, begin the deconstructive process of the text by illustrating the movement of signification as a distortion of the linear regression to origin.

Ghosts, as an investigation of origin, also suggests the parallel search for truth—truth as measured by visual presence. Blue, the protagonist-detective, is hired by White “to follow a man named Black and to keep an eye on him for as long as necessary” (7). Truth, for Blue, is always limited to that which he can see: “Words are transparent for him, great windows that stand between him and the world” (23-24). Blue dutifully writes his reports on Black for the never present or visible White, but he becomes frustrated with the ineffectiveness of language: “He discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say” (25-26).

Blue's obsession with transparency is rooted in the primacy he gives to visual perception. He attends a baseball game, “struck by the sharp clarity of the colors around him,” and is fond of movies because “the pictures on the screen are somehow like the thoughts inside his head” (42, 44). When Blue's vision is obscured, language (and therefore truth or meaning) becomes opaque to him: “Without being able to read what Black has written, everything is a blank so far” (11). Significantly, when Blue experiences this failure of language, he begins to think about his dead father and other dead or rejecting father figures. Blue's memories of lost fathers result in the loss of his own identity. He feels as if he is becoming one with Black, “so completely in harmony … that to anticipate what Black is going to do, to know when he will stay in his room and when he will go out, he needs merely to look into himself” (38).

Although Blue occasionally ventures out of his room, he exists essentially in a hermetic space. Ghosts is a self-enclosed structure of self-mirrorings, but it is also a mirror image, in some ways, of the first and third volumes of The New York Trilogy. Much of the book consists of Blue looking out of his window to observe and write about Black, who sits by a window in a building across the street writing and looking back at Blue. Blue reads Walden because he sees Black reading Walden, but he feels trapped in the process: “He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life … seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others” (57). Blue's description of Walden is self-reflexive: “There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book” (58). Blue becomes trapped in the hermetic world of the text: “How to get out of the room that is the book that will go on being written for as long as he stays in the room?” (58). Blue verges on insanity when Black claims that he, too, is a private detective hired “to watch someone … and send in a report about him every week” (73). Experiencing complete ontological instability, Blue tries to recover language by verbally cataloguing objects according to their color, but he realizes that “there is no end to it” (77). The colors blue, black, and white are meaningless distinctions, he realizes, for each can be applied to any number of people, places, and things.

Ghosts is not merely a reductive version of City of Glass, despite its stripped-down quality and bared concepts. In many ways, the second volume of the trilogy offers itself as a collection of the signs that make up American culture, taken from baseball, popular movies, and the canonical texts and authors of nineteenth-century literature. These artifacts of our collective identity haunt the pages of Ghosts, raising the issue of whether or not original discourse is possible. Just as language is divorced from the things it signifies, texts themselves become divorced from their creators. When Black recounts anecdotes about the “ghosts” of New York City, he provides Blue with a lesson about the flesh and spirit of the writer. Whitman's brain, Black recalls, was removed from his body to be measured and weighed, but it was dropped on the floor: “The brains of America's greatest poet got swept up and thrown out with the garbage” (63). Black is equally amused by Thoreau's visit to Whitman, a meeting that took place next to Whitman's full chamber pot.

That chamber pot, you see, somehow reminds me of the brains on the floor. … There's a definite connection. Brains and guts, the insides of a man. We always talk about trying to get inside a writer to understand his work better. But when you get right down to it, there's not much to find in there—at least not much that's different from what you'd find in anyone else. (65)

Black's anecdotes reveal his concern with the solipsistic existence of the writer's life. He tells Blue how Hawthorne sat in a room for twelve years to write, a situation similar to his own: “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he's there, he's not really there” (66). The writer is a ghost, a trace. In Of Grammatology, Derrida explains that there is nothing outside of textuality, outside of “the temporalization of a lived experience which is neither in the world nor in ‘another world.’”7

This “problem” is the crux of the mystery in Ghosts. Black and Blue are both inside and outside one another, oppositions of what Derrida calls a “violent hierarchy”: “one of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.) or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.”8 Throughout Ghosts, Black has the upper hand, as it is he who hired Blue. When Blue decides that he must deny Black's existence in order to prove his own, he sets out “to erase the whole story” (89). In the novel's final scenes, Blue and Black are intent upon killing one another, and their physical struggle illustrates Derrida's “violent hierarchy.” Although Blue appears to be the victor, he is not sure whether the sound of Black's breath is coming from Black or from himself (94).

The final volume of The New York Trilogy, The Locked Room, takes its title from a popular motif of detective novels: a murdered body is discovered in a sealed room, the exits of which have been locked from the inside. Auster complicates the conventional puzzle by omitting the corpse in The Locked Room (another denial of presence). The third version of this repeating story continues to keep différance in play by rejecting the binary opposites inherent in Western traditions and philosophies. In The Locked Room, each side of the dualism is inextricably related to the other; thus, like Black and Blue in Ghosts, the narrator (the protagonist of this volume) and his counterpart Fanshawe experience a mutually parasitic relationship.

Binary opposition is deconstructed on a larger scale throughout The New York Trilogy, not only because the work is in three parts, but because the texts are linked parasitically: references to Quinn, Stillman, and Henry Dark reappear in The Locked Room, just as subtle allusions in the first and second volumes foreshadow events in the third. The oscillation of the dominating term of any hierarchy is also illustrated by the changing hierarchy of the terms “writer” and “detective”: Daniel Quinn is a writer turned detective, Blue a detective turned writer, and the narrator of The Locked Room a writer turned detective. Since deconstruction rejects the notion of a single self, these three novels, as linguistic constructs, also serve as the selves of Auster.

The logocentric quest in The Locked Room differs from that of the preceding volumes in several ways. Quinn and Blue are able to confront Stillman and Black physically, but the narrator of The Locked Room is frustrated in his attempts to find evidence of the physical presence of his childhood friend, Fanshawe, who has mysteriously disappeared. He has only the words of Fanshawe, the unpublished novels he inherits as Fanshawe's literary executor. As soon as he gains possession of Fanshawe's manuscripts, he usurps the role—the life—of his friend. He marries Fanshawe's wife, adopts his son, and considers the idea of publishing Fanshawe's books as his own. Unlike Quinn and Blue, the narrator of The Locked Room has access only to the language, the signifiers, of his counterpart, never to his physical presence. When he learns that Fanshawe is not dead, he sets out to recover and re-create presence in a search that takes him to Fanshawe's mother and childhood home, to his haunts in Paris, and, finally, to a locked room. His quest for Fanshawe turns out to be a quest for himself, for his own identity, since like Black and Blue, the narrator and Fanshawe are inseparable.

If these novels are linguistic constructs of the author, Paul Auster, their protagonists' quests for an ultimate authority and identity serve as ironic frames for the author's own logocentric quest for origin, a quest he himself continually deconstructs. Early in The Locked Room, the narrator wonders “what it means when a writer puts his name on a book, why some writers choose to hide behind a pseudonym, whether or not a writer has a real life anyway.”9 This echo of Black's reference to Hawthorne (Fanshawe, ironically, is the title of an early novel by Hawthorne) raises again the question of the writer's nonlife. In The Locked Room, Auster suggests that language can destroy identity as well as create it. The narrator, in attempting to write a biography of Fanshawe, realizes that life, the “essential thing,” resists telling.

We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another—for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (80-81)

This is the problem of the writer, as well as of the reader. The Locked Room is a “locked room” for Auster himself: it contains the life of Auster, not only in the sense that it contains his words, but also in its biographical elements. Auster is inside and outside his text, fighting for the upper hand of Derrida's “violent hierarchy.” Since the self in the text must die when the story ends, the rewriting of the detective story in The New York Trilogy is also a deferment of death for the author. The narrator says, however, that “stories without endings can do nothing but go on forever, and to be caught in one means that you must die before your part in it is played out” (63). The solution for Auster, then, is to posit no one self but many selves.

The narrator's logocentric quest for origin (for his search for Fanshawe is undertaken ostensibly to collect data for a biography of his friend) involves a deterministic single-minded approach to what he sees as a self-contained entity. Instead, he accumulates information and learns that Fanshawe has many lives.

A life touches one life, which in turn touches another life, and very quickly the links are innumerable, beyond calculation. … Faced with a million bits of random information, led down a million paths of false inquiry, I had to find the one path that would take me where I wanted to go. (131)

In Paris, where words become a “collection of sounds” without meaning, the narrator loses the ability to distinguish between signifiers and signifieds: “Thoughts stop where the world begins. … But the self is also in the world” (143). In place of stable meaning, he finds what Derrida calls “free-play.” He becomes exhilarated by this freedom of language and his ability to name things at random. He usurps the role of the creator of logos and becomes mad with this power: he “names” a girl in a bar Fayaway and himself Herman Melville, recalling the naming of the narrator in Moby Dick (a book the narrator's wife had given him). When the narrator meets a vaguely familiar young man, he decides that this person will be Fanshawe: “This man was Fanshawe because I said he was Fanshawe” (152). The narrator is unable to retain his naming power, however, for the “Fanshawe” claims that his name is Peter Stillman (153). When the two men fight, they reenact the battle for identity between Black and Blue in Ghosts. This time the battle also suggests two texts, or versions of the story, grappling for supremacy. In accordance with the oscillating dominance of the “violent hierarchy,” the narrator loses the battle, getting pummeled by Stillman before blacking out.

In this same chapter, the narrator claims authorship of The New York Trilogy and reveals his own interpretation of the books: “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about. I don't claim to have solved any problems. … The story is not in the words; it's in the struggle” (149). This “author,” who intrudes into his narrative to assert his intentions and conclusions, is also a self-undermining linguistic agent within the text. He offers a kind of closure to the puzzle of The New York Trilogy but undermines this solution by continuing the story in the following chapter.

The relationship between the narrator and Fanshawe is extremely complicated throughout The Locked Room. An examination of the “clues” invites us to infer that the narrator and Fanshawe are one and the same; if so, this person is the victim of the sort of quixotic conspiracy promoted by the writer Paul Auster in City of Glass. This solution is subverted in the last chapter of the story, in which the textual boundaries of the trilogy disintegrate: Fanshawe may also be Daniel Quinn, Peter Stillman, and Henry Dark, in accordance with the deconstructive denial of a single self. When the narrator is summoned by Fanshawe, he goes to the locked room in Boston expecting to find a presence outside of himself, a correspondence between his thoughts and external reality. (Significantly, Fanshawe summons the narrator in a letter, implying the possibility of correspondence.) The locked room in which Fanshawe “exists” is located on Columbus Street in Boston—place names associated with the discovery of a new Eden and with the founding fathers of this country. Fanshawe is thus associated with paternal authority, but he denies both his name and his presence to the narrator: they communicate through the door of the locked room.

In an ironic subversion of theistic authority and logocentrism, Fanshawe reveals that he is going to kill himself: “I've proved the point to myself. There's no need to go on with it. I'm tired. I've had enough” (174). The narrator blacks out and wakes up to darkness—the fallen world—holding the red notebook left behind by Fanshawe. The authority of logos is completely deconstructed in this paternal message to the narrator:

All the words were familiar to me, and yet they seemed to have been put together strangely, as though their final purpose was to cancel each other out. … Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible. It is odd, then, that the feeling that survives from this notebook is one of great lucidity. It is as if Fanshawe knew his final work had to subvert every expectation I had for it. … He had answered the question by asking another question, and therefore everything remained open, unfinished, to be started again. I lost my way after the first word, and from then on I could only grope ahead, faltering in the darkness, blinded by the book that had been written for me. (178-79)

The red notebook illustrates Derrida's writing “sous rature”—writing under erasure, a ceaseless undoing and preserving of meaning. Even these words are suspect, however, the narrator tells us, leading him to destroy the paternal message: “One by one, I tore the pages from the notebook, crumpled them in my hand, and dropped them into a trash bin on the platform. I came to the last page just as the train was pulling out” (179).

Throughout The New York Trilogy, Auster parodies elements and motifs of the Romance in order to bare the formulaic expectations associated with this genre. According to Northrop Frye, in The Secular Scripture, “most romances exhibit a cyclical movement of descent into a night world and a return to the idyllic world.”10 Ostensibly, the failure to ascend or return characterizes a failed quest. Ironically, Auster's protagonists, by continually descending into darker and darker worlds, are freed from the tyranny of their logos-motivated quests. In Frye's mythological universe, based upon Judeo-Christian polarities of Heaven and Hell, “themes of descent are connected with the establishing of order, authority, and hierarchy.”11 In The New York Trilogy, these concepts of power and control are repeatedly denied to each of the protagonists because they are logocentric ideals, the subjects of Auster's subversions. Quinn, Blue, and the narrator of The Locked Room are parodic romantic heroes. Like Don Quixote, they are all bewitched by books, especially books of a romantic nature: “Quinn had been a devoted reader of mystery novels. He knew that most of them were poorly written, that most could not stand up to even the vaguest sort of examination, but still, it was the form that appealed to him” (14); Blue is “a devoted reader of True Detective and tries never to miss a month” (16); the narrator of The Locked Room reads Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, and other travel-oriented books (24, 54, 85, 91).

Similarly, the themes and conventions associated with descent in Romance—confused identities, twins, doubles, and mirror images—appear repeatedly in the trilogy: in City of Glass, Quinn starts to follow Stillman but sees another man whose face is “the exact twin of Stillman's” (90); Blue, in spying on Black, feels as though he were “looking into a mirror” (20); the narrator of The Locked Room reads one of Fanshawe's stories, which hinges on “the confused identities of two sets of twins” (30). According to Frye, “[A]t the lower levels the Narcissus or twin image darkens into a sinister doppelganger figure, the hero's shadow and portent of his own death or isolation.”12 Auster subverts this binary opposition characteristic of Romance by insisting upon a “both/and” oscillating movement: he denies romantic hierarchization by refusing to privilege permanently one term of an opposition over another. Blue is Black, for example, and also not Black.

The detective story is closely affiliated with the Romance (despite its “gritty” realism) through its solitary quest and in its emphasis on “reintegrating the existing order.”13 The detective in conventional fiction discovers “the truth,” but in the deconstructive anti-detective novel, “the inanity of the discovery is brought to its climax in the nonsolution, which unmasks a tendency toward disorder and irrationality that has always been implicit within detective fiction.”14 The lack of any one single solution leaves the narrator, and implied author, of the trilogy free to choose any or none of the potential solutions available to him; he is free to begin another quest in a new world full of possibilities.

The New York Trilogy is in many respects a travel narrative—a semantic journey through fictional space and an ontological voyage for a paradise of pure presence. The implied author of the trilogy, and perhaps Auster himself, crosses the boundaries of fictional zones to rediscover himself through self-exploration. In romantic literature, the hero often returns to his native land; in The New York Trilogy, the return to origin is impossible. Each volume serves as a trace or recording of the travel, and each concludes with a reference to other travels: at the end of City of Glass, the narrator claims to have just returned from Africa (201); at the end of Ghosts, the narrator says he likes to think of “Blue booking passage on some ship and sailing to China” (96); at the end of The Locked Room, the narrator stands on the platform waiting for a train (179).

The travel theme of the trilogy is reinforced through references to fictional, nonfictional, and imaginary travel narratives: Moby Dick, A. Gordon Pym, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Raleigh's History of the World, The Journeys of Cabeza de Vaca, Peter Freuchen's Arctic Adventure, Marco Polo's Travels, Fanshawe's Neverland, and many others. The protagonists of these books, like those of The New York Trilogy, are exiles, pilgrims, and explorers who claim unknown regions through language. The traveler's attempt to name things and to decipher “signs” is also the function of the ontological voyager, for adventures only “exist” in language—when they are told or written down. Since language is unstable and it's meaning indeterminate, no place can be completely claimed or owned by its discoverer. The uncertainty of language also denies the self-exploring traveler access to an absolute origin, or self. As a travel narrative, The New York Trilogy is nomadic in nature: the semantic journey never ends but consists of a never-ending loop of arrivals and departures. The Chinese box structure of the trilogy offers vertical, as well as horizontal, travel. The references to historical texts allow travel through time as well as space, as does the trilogy's movement from present to past to present. This plurality of orientations results in endless shifting frames of references that continually deny any one locus, or “place,” of meaning for the infinite traveler.


  1. Stefano Tani, The Doomed Detective (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1984).

  2. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1978) 280.

  3. Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981) 27.

  4. Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985; New York: Penguin, 1987) 15-16. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  5. Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1973) 142-43.

  6. Paul Auster, Ghosts (1986; New York: Penguin, 1987) 7, 9. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  7. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1976) 65.

  8. Derrida, Positions 41.

  9. Paul Auster, The Locked Room (1986; New York: Penguin, 1988) 64. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  10. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1976) 54.

  11. Frye 182.

  12. Frye 117.

  13. Frye 138.

  14. Tani 46.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 2 October 1990)

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SOURCE: “Allusions and Subtext Don't Slow a Good Plot,” in The New York Times, October 2, 1990, p. C15.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers positive assessment of The Music of Chance.]

Paul Auster's new book, The Music of Chance, begins like many classic American novels with the hero leaving an old life behind and setting off to invent a new identity for himself. When Jim Nashe inherits a modest fortune from his father, he quits his job as a fireman in Boston, parks his daughter with his sister, sells his possessions, buys a new car and begins driving the highways. He zigzags back and forth from Oregon to Texas, “charging down the enormous, vacant highways that cut through Arizona, Montana and Utah,” then turns around and heads back East. Addicted to the idea of motion, he finds himself reluctant to stop and decides to keep driving around the country until his money completely runs out.

A critic as well as a novelist, Mr. Auster is an old hand at cramming literary allusions into his fiction, and Jim Nashe's odyssey of self-invention immediately brings to mind a variety of earlier books. The reader thinks of Huck Finn lighting out for new territory, of Jimmy Gatz transforming himself into the fabulous Gatsby, of John Updike's Rabbit trying to run away from his family obligations, of Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty navigating one of his jalopies on the road. In each case, the hero embraces the idea of freedom as his legacy of the American dream, and in each case he tries to leave the past behind in order to start over again, tabula rasa.

As for Jim Nashe, he quickly runs through most of his money, and he soon realizes that without money, he has no real freedom. It is then that his life takes another unexpected turn: he meets an itinerant poker player named Jack Pozzi, who offers him the opportunity to make some quick and easy cash. Nashe takes Pozzi under his wing, buys him some new clothes and installs him in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. In exchange for the use of Nashe's last $10,000, Pozzi will cut him in, 50-50, on a high stakes poker game with a pair of wealthy eccentrics who live in Pennsylvania. Pozzi has played these men before, he says, and he knows they're easy marks. Their names are Flower and Stone.

When Pozzi and Nashe turn up at the Pennsylvania estate, they are given dinner, a tour of the house, and a rambling account of how Flower and Stone made their millions. It seems the two of them bought a lottery ticket many years ago, won and parlayed their windfall into a fortune. The garrulous Flower used to be an accountant; the bashful Stone used to be an optometrist. Now, freed from the need to earn a living, they spend their time pursuing hobbies. Stone is building a miniature model of an elaborate city on a table top; Flower is collecting objects from around the world. Among his most recent acquisitions are a heap of stones from a ruined castle in Ireland: he wants to use them to build a wall in his backyard.

Although Stone and Flower seem benign, even inept during the dinnertime pleasantries, they turn into ferocious competitors once the poker game has begun. Pozzi's brief winning streak quickly ends, and within hours he's lost all of Nashe's money. Desperate to get back into the game, Nashe allows Pozzi to use his car for collateral. He does and promptly loses it. By the time the evening is over, he and Nashe owe their hosts $10,000.

Instead of allowing them to write an I.O.U., Flower and Stone gently but firmly persuade Nashe and Pozzi to work off their debt: they are to stay on at the estate and help build Flower's wall. It's supposed to take them only 50 days to settle their account, but things quickly take a sinister turn, and Nashe and Pozzi soon realize they are being held captive on the estate against their will.

Writing in brisk, precise prose, Mr. Auster lends these events all the suspense and pace of a best-selling thriller. As his last novel, Moon Palace, so clearly demonstrated, he can write with the speed and skill of a self-assured pool player, sending one bizarre event ricocheting neatly and unexpectedly into the next. At the same time, he gives Nashe's adventures a brooding philosophical subtext that enables him to explore some of his favorite preoccupations; the roles of randomness and causality; the consequences of solitude, and the limitations of freedom, language and free will in an indifferent world.

Indeed, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the parallels Mr. Auster is drawing between Nashe's story and Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Pozzi's name, of course, instantly recalls that of Pozzo in the play; and a small boy, much like the one in Godot, makes a brief but crucial appearance later in the story. In addition, Stone and Flower are described in terms reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon. They seem mysteriously but permanently bound to each other, and they are compared to Laurel and Hardy: the first is tall and thin; the second, short and round.

Instead of belaboring such analogies, Mr. Auster simply plays with them, working variations on some of Beckett's themes while at the same time creating a narrative that continually manages to elude our expectations. The result: a chilling little story that's entertaining and provocative, resonant without being overly derivative.

Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 22 March 1991)

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SOURCE: “Unlucky Jim,” in New Statesman and Society, March 22, 1991, p. 45.

[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott offers favorable assessment of The Music of Chance.]

Paul Auster has produced some of the most remarkable fiction of the past decade in the New York Trilogy and Moon Palace. Those books combined a formal complexity with sheer imaginative exuberance to produce a particularly distinctive voice. High expectations indeed, then, for The Music of Chance.

It begins with ex-fireman Jim Nashe nearing the end of more than a year on the road. A $200,000 inheritance from a long-estranged father began a series of “odd conjunctions of chance”, typical of Auster. It enabled Nashe to abandon the life he knew and drift: we meet him waiting for the money to run out. Just as action becomes necessary, he meets a “wiry little runt” called Jack Pozzi who welcomes him into the “International Brotherhood of Lost Dogs”.

Impulsively, he decides to gamble his last cent on a poker game that Pozzi has arranged with two reclusive millionaires in Pennsylvania, called Flower and Stone. After testing Pozzi's integrity and ability. Nashe is convinced of success and volunteers to bankroll the game. They lose badly and, suddenly stranded, agree to work off their debt with 50 days' labour on the millionaires' estate.

Despite its familiar parameters, Chance is a departure for Auster. In contrast to his fiction imbued with urban exile, this is a “road” narrative. Much of it is told through dialogue, which proves the weakest element of the book. Unable to luxuriate in the high-minded monologue at which he excels. Auster is constrained to lower the standard of his own prose to that of Pozzi's speech. The result is a rather lightweight, but correspondingly lean, Auster.

Moon Palace finished on the road, at the end of a continent but the beginning of a new life. Nashe picks up from there, finding absolution in the pain of destroying his old life. The “bullet through his head … was not death but life”. Independence arrived in a miraculous windfall, but is lost in enslavement to Flower and Stone. Their state lottery millions enable them to indulge in various eccentricities evocative of an infantilised Bouvard and Pecuchet. In respective playrooms in their shared mansion. Stone builds a model utopia while Flower creates a museum from his collection of historical ephemera.

Nashe and Pozzi's punishment is to build a “Wailing Wall” of 10,000 stones from a ruined Irish castle. Set up in an open prison on the estate and overseen by a man called Calvin, they perform what Stone characterises as “honest work for an honest wage”. As a neat Puritanical parable takes shape, it is thwarted by Auster's restless narrative intrigue, built on the veneration of chance. An abrupt ending only adds ambivalence, though leaving a hint of respect for the ridiculous but purposive Flower and Stone.

Auster works over the language of the novel with the eyes of a poet and hands of a storyteller to produce prolonged bursts of joy. The Music of Chance sustains the brilliance of his previous writing, providing another rare experience of contemporary fiction at its most thrilling.

Norma Rowen (essay date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Detective in Search of the Lost Tongue of Adam: Paul Auster's City of Glass,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 224-34.

[In the following essay, Rowen examines Auster's detective-like investigations into the role of language as a medium of representation and the nature of reality in the modern world as portrayed in City of Glass. “Throughout the book,” Rowen notes, “we are continually reminded of the unknowable nature of this world.”]

When the volumes of Paul Auster's New York trilogy began to appear, reactions were confused. Reviewers were interested and curious, even excited, but puzzled and rather wary. Rebecca Goldstein in the New York Times Book Review described Ghosts, the second work of the trilogy, as “a mystery novel-of-sorts,” a kind of “metamystery” (13); and other reviewers noted the presence of such disturbing elements as complex interplays of doubles and a wilful confusion of fact and fiction that added more mystery to the basic mystery of the detective story form. Some bookstores, on the other hand, showed less readiness to speculate. They simply placed the book on the detective-fiction shelves.

In fact, all three works of the trilogy are examples of the genre now known as the metaphysical detective story, which has been shaped by a number of modern writers from Borges to Pynchon and Nabokov. Its defining characteristic is its transmutation of the traditional detective's quest into something more elusive and complex. In it, the relatively straightforward business of identifying a guilty person, bringing him or her to justice, and restoring social order is ineluctably subverted into a larger and more ambiguous affair. The identity in question becomes as often as not the detective's own, and justice and order dissolve into chimeras in a struggle with a reality that has become increasingly ungraspable. In this postmodernist version of the detective genre, rather than the final working out of the initial puzzle, we are left with what Stefano Tani in The Doomed Detective describes as “the decentering and chaotic admission of mystery, of non-solution” (40).

The parts of The New York Trilogy are set in such a universe of “chaos and non-solution,” and the Auster detectives find themselves decoyed into a quest of a very different kind from the one they contracted for.

But Auster comes up with another and very original twist by adding a crucial language theme. Many who write about the detective story have pointed out that the detective is a kind of reader, a decoder of signs, of the clues that the scenario of the crime throws up. Peter Huhn in his article on this topic characterizes the similarities. “Continual rearrangement and reinterpretation of clues” he says, “is, of course, the basic method of reading and understanding unfamiliar texts” (455). Todorov in The Poetics of Prose is even more succinct. “Author:reader = criminal:detective” (49), he states, citing S. S. Van Dyne.1 In the postmodern world, however, things have become more complicated. Clues no longer point to anything certain; signifiers have drifted away from what they signify; and what Peter Huhn refers to as “a general lack of confidence in the efficacy of reading” has arisen (462).

This “lack of confidence in the efficacy of reading” forms the major theme of The New York Trilogy. Alison Russell, in her article “Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Fiction,” identifies the central “crime,” and also the central quest of the three books, as “logocentrism,” the search for a Derridean “presence,” “an ultimate referent or foundation,” which is “outside the play of language itself” (72). Locating such a “presence” may ultimately restore something of the lost efficacy of reading.

Although this search is a major preoccupation of all the New York novels, the first one, perhaps presents this theme with the most force and clarity. In this opening work, the detective's quest becomes overtly and inextricably mingled with the search for the prelapsarian language, the tongue of the innocent Adam by which alone things can be reunited with their right names.

For centuries this quest had been a concern of biblical scholars, who speculated that the prelapsarian tongue might be a form of Hebrew; and as John Irwin has demonstrated in his book American Hieroglyphs, it also haunted the works of Poe and Whitman and other nineteenth-century American writers. Whether Daniel Quinn, Auster's twentieth-century representative of American consciousness in City of Glass, ever finds the prelapsarian tongue and—perhaps more important—whether he should, are matters that the book leaves open. However, during the search, interesting questions are raised about the capacities of language and the role of story in the postmodern world.

As befits a work centered on language, Quinn, the central questor, is not a detective but merely a writer of detective stories. His obsessive interest in the genre (he is a committed reader of them as well) arises from a profound sense of loss of a rationally ordered universe that the conventional detective story so reliably projects. As Quinn himself explains it:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. … Since everything seen or said, even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence. … The center … is everywhere. (15)

Quinn's own world, we soon learn, has been radically decentered. The deaths, some years ago, of his wife and son, unexplained and apparently arbitrary, have dislocated every certainty and have banished forever all idea that the universe makes sense. For him, then, the detective story is a refuge from the metaphysical chaos that he finds around him.

Quinn's broken condition, rooted in the deaths of his wife and child, is in one sense particular to him. But throughout the work, we are made to see that this experience is also representative, one form of a general late-twentieth-century malaise. This is perhaps best illustrated in an early scene in a diner. Quinn converses, with marked fluency and coherence, with the owner, an old acquaintance. The conversation, however, is restricted to baseball, another example of an artificial world of order in a chaotic universe. Subsequently, we learn that the owner has a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm.

Here, then, is the postholocaust universe, in which the only coherent stories, ones with beginnings, middles, ends, and comprehensive solutions, are told in protected, carefully set-up areas of the consciousness, far removed from the terrible heart of contemporary experience.

That such refuge in games and avoidance exacts its price, however, is soon demonstrated. Writing his detective stories has caused Quinn in some measure to disintegrate, to split into a triad of selves whose relationship to each other he can describe only in a curious metaphor of ventriloquism. In his eyes, the actual writer of the works is no longer himself but a kind of double called William Wilson. The speaker of the words is the fictional detective, Max Work. The self closest to Quinn, because it bears his name, is the dummy, the insensate block in the middle. The dangers of this psychological situation are obvious. As a self, Quinn has lost control of his words. They originate with and issue from someone else. He has become a puppet through which they pass, and hence they no longer seem to belong to him. He did not, we are told, “consider himself to be the author of what he wrote” (9).

The relationship to language indicated here gains even more significance as a comment on Quinn's alienated state of mind when we remember that in his earlier days he was a poet, the kind of writer who presumably is very close to his own words and the self from which they issue. Reversing the implications of his first name (the biblical Daniel was a dream reader), he determinedly suppresses his dreams, just as he refuses to deal in the language in which his inner reality might be expressed. Like Paul Auster's own father, as he is described in The Invention of Solitude, Quinn has become “a block of impenetrable space in the form of a man” (7).

Quinn is roused from this invisible existence when a midnight phone call gives him a chance, like Don Quixote whose initials he shares, to inhabit and make real one of his own fictions. Don Quixote manages to turn himself into a medieval knight; Daniel Quinn is given the opportunity to play the detective. Like Don Quixote, he is able to do so only by first assuming another identity. The fact that by an amusing trick, this identify is apparently that of Paul Auster himself, the writer of the novel, illustrates the extent to which elements of instability and of self-reflexive fictionalizing have invaded all ideas of self and its manifestations in the postmodern world.

Quinn's case seems at first to take him into the world of Chandler or Macdonald. All the conventional elements of their detective fiction are present. The bizarre crime, in which a member of a rich and distinguished family has locked up and abused his young son, creates an appropriate ambience of money, madness, and damage. A number of familiar genre figures soon make their ritual appearances: the loyal retainer, the voluptuous, ambiguously available wife. Quinn himself moves smoothly into his appointed role, adopting a manner and way of speaking that turn him into a kind of Philip Marlowe:

Quinn smiled judiciously. … “Whatever I do or do not understand,” he said, “is probably beside the point. You've hired me to do a job, and the sooner I get on with it the better. From what I can gather the case is urgent. …”

He was warming up now. Something told him that he had captured the right tone, and a sudden sense of pleasure surged through him. (41)

Soon, in typical detective style, he is tailing the father, Peter Stillman, Sr., newly released from confinement, through the streets of New York. At this point, however, elements emerge in the case that suggest that a story may be developing that is different from the one that Quinn thinks he is in. To begin with, Stillman's seemingly random wanderings appear to be tracing out hieroglyphic shapes that may or may not make certain words. Second, the motive for the crime is untypical to say the least: The father locked up his son in accordance with an old theory that an infant insulated from the world in this fashion would start speaking the language of unfallen man, thus making it available again. Most disturbing of all, as Quinn follows this strange figure, the trail shifts its nature and direction to lead not outward to the world around him but inward to his own self. All the figures and situations in the case turn out inexorably to be in various ways his own reflections, and his wide divagations through the labyrinth of New York only bring him back to the inner world that he has been so assiduously avoiding.

Thus, the central situation of the case immediately confronts Quinn with an image of his own. Here, too, a son has been lost and destroyed and a father set adrift in the world. Now, however, the situation has taken on a more intense and horrific coloring. In this version of father-son estrangement, the father is unequivocally guilty and the son openly hostile and frightened. Quinn's own situation has been given the dimensions of nightmare.

As individuals, the Stillmans have a reflexive function, embodying aspects of Quinn's own nature and forming part of the complicated interplay of doubles that confront him. Perhaps most important for the themes of the book, they each embody aspects of Quinn's relationship to language. The speeches of Peter, Jr., victim and puppet as he is, reflect Quinn's own estrangement from language. Their reliance on cliché and their contrived and mechanical delivery express in extreme form Quinn's sense, underlying all his fluency, that the language he is using is not his own:

“No questions please,” the young man said at last. “Yes. No. Thank you.” He paused for a moment. “I am Peter Stillman. I say this of my own free will. Yes. That is not my real name. No.” (26)

Peter Stillman, Sr., seems to represent the other side of the coin. His aim is to find the non-alien tongue, the first language of Adam that, by giving everything its right name, will heal this breach between speaker and word, subject and object. In having this attitude, he recalls the earlier Quinn, the poet Quinn. Auster's article on Charles Reznikoff (“The Decisive Moment” in The Art of Hunger) explicitly connects poetry and the attempt to rediscover the prelapsarian language. In the fallen world, Auster suggests, only through the practice of poetry can this language be regained even momentarily (16).

If Stillman's interest in the prelapsarian language recalls the poet, the uses to which he seeks to put this language reveal him to be another version of the detective. He is seeking a solution, and a solution on a cosmic scale. Fuelled by a biblical sense of the creative power of the word and by the millenarian zeal of his Puritan culture, he sees the recovery of the Adamic tongue as the means by which the whole world can be redeemed and restored to its original order. He had argued for this idea earlier, under the guise of the seventeenth-century clergyman Henry Dark, in his book on the Tower of Babel and the fall of language it involved.

If the fall of man also entailed the fall of language, was it not logical to assume that it would be possible to undo the fall, to reverse its effects by undoing the fall of language, by striving to recreate the language that was spoken in Eden? (76)

Earlier in this article it was pointed out that in the metaphysical workings of the detective story, the detective-reader often is in difficulties because clues and the things they point to, signifiers and the signified, no longer match up. In repossessing the prelapsarian tongue, Stillman aims to clear up these difficulties. By giving things their right names again, calling back to its signifier the wandering signified, he finally will be able to achieve a reliable reading of the world and formulate, once and for all, the correct, clear, accessible, and unified text of reality. This vision still works in him as, old and broken himself, he now wanders through the city, trying to find the right names for all the broken things he finds there and thus making whole again the fragmented Tower of Babel of the late-twentieth-century cosmos.

Such is the monomaniacal visionary whom Quinn tracks through the wilderness of the city. Quinn, himself a Don Quixote figure, has encountered another one, more obsessive, more powerful, and madder than he, whom, like Sancho Panza, he now must follow and serve. Thus over the next few weeks Quinn reduplicates Stillman's every move, going where he goes and trimming his own stride and behavior to Stillman's. Soon we begin to realize that this shadowing is not only physical. Noting down every detail of his quarry's behavior in a special new red notebook, trying in orthodox detective fashion to penetrate his mind and manner of thinking, Quinn begins to be drawn into Stillman's obsessive world. He starts to perform actions that are hard to explain in rational terms. He insists on always using the pen given him by a deaf-mute. If we remember that one school of thought adhered to the theory that the prelapsarian language was preverbal, a language of signs, we can see that, without perhaps being aware of it, Quinn is becoming involved in Stillman's search. This is further suggested by his obsessive concern about how to hold the red notebook while he tails Stillman. Eventually he hits on a method that will enable him to “[see] the thing and [write] about it in the same fluid gesture” (100-101). This unimpeded melding of subject and object, in which word and thing perfectly coalesce, is again characteristic of language in the prelapsarian world.

Despite these incidental oddities of behavior, Quinn, for the moment, plays the part required of him by the detective story he is engaged in. Then a series of incidents occurs that shatter Quinn. Although for a while he remains unaware of the fact, these incidents cause the story he is in to collapse around him; another story that decisively shifts the direction of the quest takes shape from the wreckage.

The first of these incidents is the disappearance of Stillman; the follower is deprived of what he has been following. The second is Quinn's encounter with another double in the person of “Paul Auster,” the character2 (obviously himself a kind of double of Paul Auster the author of the work) whose identity Quinn had previously assumed. This double, however, works in the opposite way from the ones previously encountered. Unlike the Stillmans, who presented him with nightmare images of his situation as it now is, the “Paul Auster” figure presents an image of his unfallen world, as it was in the idyllic past. The visit to “Auster” brings him face-to-face with Auster's wife and son and poignantly resurrects the warm and close-knit family life, the connectedness that Quinn has lost. The boy, close to the age that Quinn's own child would have been, increases the sense of inexorable doubling by bearing Quinn's own first name, Daniel.

This vision of his past, which also, ironically, is a vision of his present, totally unhinges Quinn. From now on his actions seem completely mad, although at first he advances careful rationales for them. On leaving “Auster's” place he forsakes his home and daily life and stows himself away in a garbage can outside the residence of the junior Stillmans. During the several weeks of his stay there he systematically reduces his bodily needs to almost nothing. His pretext for these actions is that it is his duty as a good private eye to maintain a constant watch over his clients. In fact he has by now lost all contact not only with the case but also with the story of which it was a part. Although at this point he is not yet aware of it, he has started to move into the other story. Viewed from the perspective of this superseding story, his actions make a kind of sense.

Quinn, deeply upset by the vision of his own unfallen world, is taking upon himself the quest that Stillman Sr., left behind. He now is in search of the lost paradise, the world of innocent wholeness that Adam knew, and the prelapsarian language through which it might be recovered. This quest will take over his attention and direct his actions for the rest of the book.

From this context, his immersion in the garbage can has a number of complex meanings. On the simplest level, it is an attempt to make his outward state reflect the inward one, to link up word with thing. After his encounter with “Paul Auster,” Quinn realizes that he “was nowhere now … he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing” (159). By reducing himself to rubbish, Quinn tries to express this nothingness. Deeper motives are also involved. The language of innocence can issue only from the mouth of innocence. Such innocence requires rebirth, and to be reborn one first must die.

Something of this pattern and this necessity is revealed to Quinn by his namesake, “Paul Auster's” little boy. As has been noted, Quinn resolutely forgets his dreams, but this new Daniel is true to the implications of his name. An unconscious revealer and interpreter, he brings to the surface the knowledge and desires that are now beginning to work in the depths of Quinn's psyche. This is what occurs in the incident with the yo-yo. Presented with the toy by the child, Quinn finds he can make it go down but cannot find a way to make it go up. His comments and the child's, however, make clear that one direction may be part of the other.

“A great philosopher once said,” muttered Quinn, “that the way up and the way down are one and the same.”

“But you didn't make it go up,” said the boy. “It only went down.”

“You have to keep trying.” (156)

Up and down are parts of the same process; one cannot be without the other. This perception, in part, fuels Quinn's aggressive pursuit of his own nothingness, his determination to seek rock bottom, to throw himself thoroughly away. Only from this near obliteration of the self may a new one arise. Only by becoming garbage can one hope to be recycled.

Quinn's actions in the concluding part of the novel, after he has emerged from the garbage, conform to this death-rebirth pattern. Finding the case in disintegration around him, and the doors of his previous life almost literally shut against him, he moves into Peter Stillman, Jr.'s room. The movement is both physical and symbolic. Physically, he ensconces himself in a room in the now-deserted Stillman apartment and reproduces almost exactly the conditions of Peter's childhood incarceration—the total silence and sequestration in which he spent his first years. Symbolically, he tries to become what Peter then was, the child, the unmarked innocent, pure of all contact with the outer world, through which the language of unfallen man may issue. Thus he divests himself of his clothing, making himself completely naked like the child just emerged, or about to emerge, from the womb.

In this condition we catch our last glimpse of Quinn, sleeping intermittently, eating occasionally, and writing steadily in his red notebook as the darkness falls. A narrator, editor figure, who earlier has given hints of his existence, emerges at this point and takes control of the story. Subsequent investigation, he tells us, has revealed no more of Quinn than the red notebook, left lying on the floor of the room. Quinn himself has completely disappeared.

What are we, as readers and detectives ourselves, to make of this conclusion? Has Quinn found the prelapsarian tongue? Has he achieved anything, or have his endeavors ended in absurdity? The narrator-editor seems to take a gloomy view of Quinn and his life. He refers to him as “a man … obviously in trouble,” blames Auster (character or author?) for his treatment of him, and ends his comments on a lugubrious note. “My thoughts remain with Quinn,” he says. “And wherever he may have disappeared to, I wish him luck” (201). However, in a late-twentieth-century text that continually stresses the subjective element in all experience, we need not take this authorial view as authoritative. Certain aspects of the final phase of Quinn's story require more consideration. During this period he produced writing of a very different kind from his previous detective works. It is described as follows:

He wrote about the stars, the earth, his hopes for mankind. He felt that his words had been severed from him, that now they were a part of the world at large, as real and specific as a stone, or a lake or a flower. … He remembered the moment of his birth and how he had been pulled gently from his mother's womb. He remembered the infinite kindnesses of the world and all the people he had ever loved. Nothing mattered now but the beauty of all this. (200)

Much in this account reminds us of Auster's description of the works of Charles Reznikoff, a poet who he seems to feel came close in his use of language to finding the freshness and creative clarity of prelapsarian speech. Auster sees in Reznikoff's writings such a perfect coalescing of words into things that they seem to “penetrate the pre-history of matter” (Art of Hunger 16). As a poet, he seems to be seeing rather than speaking, or speaking “from his eye” (16). Influenced by the imagists, he has learnt from them “the value—the force—of the image in itself, unadorned by the claims of the ego” (18). Into these images the poet disappears. He becomes transparent and “invisible” (19).

Such qualities are recalled in the description of Quinn's final writings. Here are words that turn into things, images of such force and clarity that they seem able to take their place in the world of objects, to become matter. And here, too, is a testament to his invisibility and transparency—in the sense of his words becoming severed from himself. Earlier he felt that his words had become severed from himself because they were not his own. Here, the feeling of severance seems to arise from the fact that he has effaced himself in them.

Perhaps then, in some measure, Quinn achieved his quest. He made his difficult way back to language's unfallen core and gave it utterance. However, he achieved nothing on the scale envisioned by his mentor, Stillman, Sr. He was not able to come up with the correct text of reality. He did not importantly alter reality. Above all, he did not achieve any cosmic solutions. Fragmented, fallen, the world at the end of Quinn's quest remains in much the same plight as it was at the beginning. Quinn's contact with the pure prelapsarian word has been partial, momentary, and personal. He was granted only a series of glimpses. In giving utterance to these glimpses, however, Quinn again laid hold on his vocation as a poet; in the process he became reconciled to the world he could not save and sensitive again to what it has of beauty.

Much in both City of Glass and in Auster's other works suggests that this partial, glimpsed achievement of truth is the only possible and genuine one in the difficult world of the twentieth century. Throughout the book we are continually reminded of the unknowable nature of this world. In the Babel of New York, things stream across the eye in a series of disconnected atoms, and subject and object blur each other's image until we feel trapped in a universe of mirrors, a city of glass indeed. As the novel pointed out, in Poe's tale of the journey of Arthur Gordon Pym, the hieroglyphs that the hero discovers and that might be a form of the first tongue of Adam, though undecipherable, are inscribed on solid rock. The hieroglyphs that Stillman's wanderings seem to inscribe upon New York are inscribed in air or may simply be a figment of Quinn's imagination. Over the intervening century, the decipherment of the world has become so much more difficult. To seek for absolute knowledge and final solutions is, therefore, a form of madness. The career of Stillman, Sr., bears this out. The effects of his totalitarian vision are fearful. In the end, they destroy everything human, all connection, all community, and life itself.

Discussing Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Auster suggests that a truly modern art, the only one relevant to our current condition, “begins with the knowledge that there are no right answers” and cites Samuel Beckett's statement that this art must “be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is something else” (Art of Hunger 13). For Auster, the profound and unassuageable metaphysical insecurity of twentieth-century man is symbolized in the condition of the hero of the novel. Perpetually hungry, he obtains only enough food to stop him from starving, never enough to satisfy him. In the same way, modern man can know only enough to see him through the day, to enable him to go on feeling his way along. Metaphysically speaking, in the late twentieth century, there is no such thing as a complete meal. Quinn's crucial understanding of this fact is perhaps demonstrated by his refusal, in his last confinement, to eat more than a small portion of the lavish trays of food that appear before him like mysterious temptations.

At the end the text we are left not with Quinn's final pieces of writing, the examples of vision achieved, but the story of the search for that vision, the novel City of Glass itself. Perhaps this is a reflection of Auster's sense of the nature of the modern condition. Auster's reworking of the detective story as a quest for the definitive language finally tells us that it is not the correct and final text of reality but a text about the text that is the most appropriate one for the postmodern world. Stories about stories, books not of answers but of questions: these are the forms in which the difficult reality of our time finds its best embodiment.


  1. The view of the reader as a decoder of signs is central to modern theories of narrativity. See, especially, Shlometh Rimmon-Kenan, pp. 117-129.

  2. During the course of this paper, I will refer to Paul Auster the character in quotation marks to distinguish him from Paul Auster the author.

Works Cited

Auster, Paul. The Art of Hunger. Northants: Menard, 1982.

———. 1985. The City of Glass. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.

———. 1982. The Invention of Solitude. London: Faber, 1988.

Goldstein, Rebecca. “The Man Shadowing Black Is Blue.” New York Times Book Review 29 June 1986: 13.

Huhn, Peter. “The Detective as Reader: Narrativity and Reading Concepts in Detective Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 451-456.

Irwin, John T. American Hieroglyphs. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlometh. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983.

Russell, Alison. “Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Fiction.” Critique 31 (1990): 71-83.

Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1971.

Thomas Mallon (review date 6 September 1992)

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SOURCE: “Caught in the Waltz of Disasters,” in Washington Post Book World, September 6, 1992, p. 5.

[In the following review, Mallon offers positive assessment of Leviathan.]

Some years ago, in a burst of pre-p.c. phallocentrism, Bernard Malamud responded to an interviewer's question about the supposed death of narration by saying, “It'll be dead when the penis is.” There was a certain defensiveness in this outburst, of course. Plots, once the protein of prose fiction, had been shunned by many modern writers as if they were animal fat, a vulgar diet for the poor and unenlightened.

In recent years, however, plots have had a spectacular champion in Paul Auster, who once explained his preference for writing novels rather than plays in this way: “I wanted just narrative, telling the story … I think we absolutely depend on [stories] for our survival.” In such novels as the marvelous Moon Palace (1989) he has confected worlds of tremendous complication and bizarre plausibility.

His new work, Leviathan, contains the following account of a novel being constructed from peculiar, juxtaposed stories: “All of them are true, each is grounded in the real, and yet [he] fits them together in such a way that they become steadily more fantastic … you reach a point where you feel the whole thing begin to levitate, to rise ponderously off the ground like some gigantic weather balloon.” Though these words might serve as Auster's characterization of some of his own work, they actually belong to Leviathan's narrator, Peter Aaron, who is talking about the work of another novelist, his friend Benjamin Sachs.

Their lives have been intertwined for 15 years when Leviathan opens on July 4, 1990, with Aaron telling readers that he is sure a man who recently “blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin … sitting on the grass next to his parked car when the bomb he was building accidentally went off,” was his friend Sachs, an “exhausting” personality, a being “too large-spirited and cunning, too full of new ideas to stand in one place for very long.” A draft resister who served time in prison, Sachs created much excitement with a novel called The New Colossus and was renowned as an essayist on any number of subjects, though he was largely indifferent to “pursuing what people refer to as a ‘literary career.’”

Auster's novel, like Sachs's, is full of stories within stories, driven by a plot that is linear only in the way spaghetti is. What eventually emerges from the brilliant tangle is the story of how Sachs eventually meets his own doppelganger and becomes “a solitary speck in the American night,” removed from his wife and friends and work, “hurtling toward his destruction in a stolen car.”

In Leviathan the Statue of Liberty serves the kind of connective and causative functions that the moon did in Moon Palace. When Sachs was a little boy he visited it with his mother, who suffered a panic attack while climbing up its arm. Years later his New Colossus is “filled with references” to the Statue, and on July 4, 1986, four years before Leviathan opens, Sachs is nearly killed by falling off a fire escape during a rooftop party where guests are watching the fireworks celebration of the Statue's 100th anniversary. This ambiguous accident is the true beginning of the “waltz of disasters” in which Sachs and his friends become caught.

Sachs, we are told, is in love with ironic coincidences, and Leviathan is full of them, great and small. The largest involves the manner in which he meets the above-mentioned doppelganger. In most modern novels, plot is so subordinate to character and sensibility that reviewers needn't worry about giving anything away, but with Auster it is different, and it must suffice to say of this biggest coincidence what the narrator says of Sachs's own attitude toward it: It “was in fact a solution, an opportunity in the shape of a miracle. The essential thing was to accept the uncanniness of the event—not to deny it, but to embrace it, to breathe it into himself as a sustaining force.” This is precisely how Auster himself works his often strange material.

Leviathan's vivid pivotal characters include Maria, a demi-artist given to arbitrary projects like “following strangers around the streets, choosing someone at random when she left her house in the morning and allowing that choice to determine where she went for the rest of the day.” The novel contains occasional patches of gorgeous prose, but more often the style is deliberately spare, a stainless steel string for all the gaudy narrative beads. Aaron is supposedly writing the book over a period of two months, trying to get the whole story down from memory before an expected return visit from two FBI agents investigating the explosion in Wisconsin. The conceit proves effectively unnerving. Convinced of the urgency of Aaron's situation, the reader experiences the narration like the kind of deliberate driving that's done in a rainstorm. Leviathan ends with one “last little surprise, the ultimate twist.” As it happens, this last twist is among the less compelling ones, but readers will find that it hardly hampers the improbable fight of Auster's beautiful new balloon.

Barry Lewis (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Strange Case of Paul Auster,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 53-61.

[In the following essay, Lewis examines the narrative and thematic characteristics of Auster's “anti-detective” fiction and the elusive authorial presence of Auster.]

The mystery is this: How can we best classify the works of Paul Auster? Exhibit 1 is a statement he makes about one of his characters: “What interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories.”1 Auster's fictional world is an austere one, composed of reconfigured plots and reworked motifs drawn from the history of American literature and his own back catalog, and this makes it difficult to untangle the many different intertextual threads which stitch his stories together. One consistent theme is that of the detective's search for a missing person, so in this inspection I too shall turn detective and search for the person who is most conspicuously absent from the texts of Paul Auster: Paul Auster himself.

The typical detective story can be divided into three basic components: the presentation of the mystery, the process of detection, and the solution towards which the whole of the narrative moves. The invariability of this formula accounts in large part for the continued popularity of such writers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their rituals of ratiocination. Each of the novels in Auster's The New York Trilogy follows the pattern by introducing the detective figure and the case he has to solve.2 In City of Glass Daniel Quinn is hired by Virginia Stillman to follow her father-in-law, Peter Stillman, who has been in a mental hospital for fifteen years for keeping his son locked up in solitary confinement throughout his childhood. The mystery centers on Stillman's motives for his bizarre behavior. Ghosts, the second novel, introduces the ground situation in a more schematic fashion: “The case seems simple enough. White wants Blue to follow a man named Black and to keep an eye on him for as long as necessary” (161). Unfortunately, Blue is not told why he has to shadow Black, and the case drags on for several months. The third novel, The Locked Room, revolves around the unnamed narrator's attempts to find out why his best friend, Fanshawe, has abandoned his wife and child.3 A series of manuscripts is the only trace which has been left behind for the narrator to investigate Fanshawe's sudden disappearance.

At the beginning of an investigation everything is a potential clue, and both the detective and the reader operate at their height of attentiveness. This is an important lead towards understanding Auster's use of the detective genre, and Exhibit 2 is another comment from City of Glass which sheds light on his own methods:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so—which amounts to the same thing. The world of the book comes to life, seething with possibilities, with secrets and contradictions. Since everything seen or said, even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence; the center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward. The center, then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to its end.(9)

The process of detection is initiated when the detective assesses the situation and amasses clues, usually by a combination of patient observation and logical deduction. Auster's protagonists are all reluctant detectives who are drawn into the case against their inclination, and in this respect they resemble the second generation of cynical sleuths, such as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, who obtain financial rather than intellectual satisfaction from their work. Nevertheless, it is to Edgar Allan Poe's character August Dupin—the prototype of the old school of detectives—that Quinn turns to for advice in City of Glass. He copies Dupin's dictum that there must be “an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent”4 into his notebook, and follows Stillman for several days as he wanders aimlessly around the city, picking up broken or discarded objects. These random walks puzzle him until he traces the routes out on paper. They spell out the words “TOWER OF BABEL,” and this convinces him that the enforced detention of Stillman's son was part of a bizarre, Kaspar Hauser-like linguistic experiment. Quinn identifies himself so closely with his adversary's insane behavior that he himself undergoes a kind of breakdown. In order to keep Virginia Stillman's apartment under continuous observation, he lives like a tramp on the street below and gradually reduces his need for food and sleep. In Ghosts Blue cracks up too, suspecting that Black and White are in league and that it is really he who is being watched by Black. Disguising himself also as a tramp, he engages Black in conversation about the ghosts of literary figures, such as Whitman and Thoreau, who haunt the district in which they live. Black tells Blue the story of Hawthorne's “Wakefield,” in which the central character pretends to his wife to go away on a business trip but rents a room close by his house where he spies on her for several days. The days soon turn into weeks and then months, and twenty years go by until he finally returns to his home. This parable does not enlighten Blue, but the person who goes “missing” from everyday life is an important theme in Auster and therefore constitutes Exhibit 3. It is also a potential key for unlocking The Locked Room. The narrator in that story slowly steps into the shoes of his friend by marrying his wife Sophie, adopting his son Ben, and acting as executor of his literary legacy, little suspecting that Fanshawe—like Wakefield—is watching his old life from afar. The narrator conducts research for a biography of Fanshawe after the success of the manuscripts he publishes but soon realizes that his friend's identity and the reason for his disappearance will remain a mystery no matter how much information he obtains: “I was a detective, after all, and my job was to hunt for clues. Faced with a million bits of random information, led down a million paths of false inquiry, I had to find the one path that would take me where I wanted to go. So far, the essential fact was that I hadn't found it” (332).

The three novels of The New York Trilogy illustrate Hawthorne's moral that “by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever.”5 Stillman, Black, and Fanshawe are all Wakefields who have stepped aside from the routines of daily life to follow their own crazy visions, and it is one of the unique ironies of Auster's world that the very figures who look for these missing persons—Quinn, Blue, Fanshawe's friend—are themselves stripped of their former identities during their search. This is a movement which is present in Auster's other work too. In the Country of Last Things maintains the investigative frame despite being set in a postapocalyptic future, as Anna Blume hunts among the ruins of a devastated city for her brother William. Her mission soon takes second place to the continuous struggle to find food and shelter, and she becomes one of the Object Hunters, scavengers who make their living by finding goods and materials which can be salvaged or recycled. The Invention of Solitude, Auster's autobiographical work, can also be viewed in terms of a search for a missing person: in this case, his dead father, whose life is reconstructed via a series of old photos and random memories. But these scraps cannot help him find his parent, and the project is every bit as futile as the search for Stillman, Black, or Fanshawe: “In the deepest, most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man. Invisible to others, and most likely invisible to himself as well. If, while he was alive, I kept looking for him, kept trying to find the father who was not there, now that he is dead I still feel as though I must go on looking for him.”6

Perhaps the search for Auster can be advanced by a close examination of his novel Moon Palace, which features the elements of mystery and detection familiar from his other books. It opens with the breakdown of a student called Marco Stanley Fogg, who was brought up by his Uncle Victor, a musician, after his mother Emily died in a traffic accident. He never knew his father. In the summer of the first moon landing, Fogg hears that Victor has died of a heart attack, following an unsuccessful tour of the West with a band called the Moon Men. Overcome with grief, Fogg “began to vanish into another world.”7 He sets himself the pointless task of reading from cover to cover the almost 1,500 books Victor had given him, which had functioned as makeshift chairs and tables in his apartment. As he finishes each volume, he sells it to the local bookstore and so gradually his “furniture” is dismantled: “Piece by piece, I could watch myself disappear” (24). Meanwhile, he casts off his other possessions and develops increasingly bizarre excuses to his friends for his apparent indifference to these discomforts. In fact he exhibits all the typical signs of a severe schizophrenic episode: his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, he loses track of time, he experiences disturbing hallucinations, and his powers of association are considerably loosened. Gazing at the neon sign of a Chinese restaurant opposite his apartment, he ponders the significance of the words Moon Palace:

I would think: the Apollo Project; Apollo, the god of music; Uncle Victor and the Moon Men traveling out West. I would think: the West; the war against the Indians; the war in Vietnam, once called Indochina. I would think: weapons, bombs, explosions; nuclear clouds in the deserts of Utah and Nevada; and then I would ask myself—why does the American West look so much like the landscape of the moon? It went on and on like that, and the more I opened myself to these secret correspondences, the closer I felt to understanding some fundamental truth about the world. I was going mad, perhaps, but I nevertheless felt a tremendous power surging through me, a gnostic joy that penetrated deep into the heart of things. (32-33)

This chain of speculative correspondences is similar to the type of lateral reasoning which a detective cultivates as he commences an investigation. No detail must be rejected; even the most trivial link is worth examining and pursuing to its logical conclusion, no matter how absurd. The slightest thing, to paraphrase Auster, has the potential to be significant. But the steady accumulation of clues and lines of inquiry should result in a gradual ordering of the apparently random set of data, otherwise the investigation is fruitless. The detective “moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them” (New York Trilogy 9). In the three novels of The New York Trilogy the detective figures keep an open mind in the hope of stumbling upon the correct sequence of reasoning which will unravel the mystery. Auster delights in multiplying the connections involved in the investigation. Quinn, Blue, and Fanshawe's friend all skirt insanity as they try to solve an inscrutable riddle, and the process of detection crumbles. In Moon Palace the sequence is reversed, and Fogg's breakdown occurs before the investigation is even under way. His manic reading of Uncle Victor's books seems to indicate that he is looking for clues, but the real mystery is the fact that there is, as yet, no mystery to solve. His thinking shows an inability to maintain boundaries between different concepts, and this “Moon Palace” train-of-thought shall be Exhibit 4:

the fact was that the words Moon Palace began to haunt my mind with all the mystery and fascination of an oracle. Everything was mixed up in it all at once: Uncle Victor and China, rocket ships and music, Marco Polo and the American West. I would look out at the sign and start to think about electricity. That would lead me to the blackout during my freshman year, which in turn would lead me to the baseball games played at Wrigley Field, which would then lead me back to Uncle Victor and the memorial candles burning on my windowsill. One thought kept giving way to another, spiraling into ever larger masses of connectedness. (32)

Like other Auster protagonists who have become swamped by possibility, Fogg deteriorates rapidly towards a degree-zero level of existence and lives as a tramp in Central Park when he is thrown out of his apartment for nonpayment of rent. He takes shelter in a cave, where he is later found by his friends Zimmer and Kitty Wu who restore him to health. The book then enters its second phase, which features the mystery Fogg is called upon to solve.

After his recuperation, Fogg is employed as a companion to Thomas Effing, who is old, blind, and crippled. Effing is a strange character who hints about his dark past and forces his bewildered employee to undergo a series of tests before he declares him suitable to take down some notes for an “obituary.” Effing claims to have been in his youth a promising artist called Julian Barber, who set off on a painting exhibition into the Great Salt Desert with his topographer friend, Teddy Byrne. Barber had been married for four years and on the eve of his departure enjoys rare sexual relations with his wife. Barber and Byrne hire a guide from Salt Lake City called Jack Scoresby, but the journey turns sour when Barber beats him at a game of cards. Not long after, Byrne has a bad accident after falling down the side of a cliff, and Scoresby cynically abandons Barber to tend to his injuries. The boy dies, and this cruel blow pushes Barber into insanity: “That was the moment when Julian Barber was obliterated: out there in the desert, hemmed in by rocks and blistering light, he simply canceled himself out” (165). On the fourth day of wandering dementedly across the arid plain, he takes shelter in a cave, which—incredibly—contains food and furniture and a corpse. Barber cannot believe his good fortune and for several months lives as a hermit. Then unexpectedly he receives a visitor, a halfwit called George Ugly Mouth who mistakes Barber for the dead man, Tom, and warns him that a group of bandits called the Greshams will be coming shortly to the cave. Barber kills them without remorse, just as they had murdered the cave's original inhabitant, and returns to civilization with their stolen money under the new name of Thomas Effing. So the mystery of Effing's early life is clearly another variation on the “disappearing man” motif, and Hawthorne's judgment of Wakefield is equally true of Julian Barber: “He had contrived, or rather he had happened, to dissever himself from the world—to vanish—to give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead” (160).

Fogg types up the story as a short article called “The Mysterious Life of Julian Barber” and as a longer biography; but Effing's mysterious life is not quite over. He sets himself a day to die, and with the help of Fogg gives away thousands of dollars on the streets of New York before that date as a means of making amends for the money he stole from the Greshams. Effing duly dies on 12 May, and after the funeral, Fogg contacts the historian Solomon Barber in accordance with the old man's last wishes. Solomon is the son who had been conceived the night before Barber departed on the painting expedition, and Fogg arranges to spend a weekend with him. It transpires that Solomon knew Emily Fogg, and this leads up to the revelation that Effing's son is Fogg's father. Auster creates no suspense out of this—indeed, this outcome is hinted at within the first dozen sentences of the book—but it functions as a decoy which deflects attention from the central mystery of the cave. Barber persuades Fogg to help him find Effing's shelter in the Utah desert, but before they even leave Chicago, the historian dies as a result of injuries sustained at the graveside of Emily Fogg. Fogg sets off on the expedition alone, only to find that the whole area has been submerged. This meandering conclusion of Moon Palace and the many coincidences in the narrative led one reviewer to describe it as a “spaghetti-junction of omens and congruencies.”8 Here is how Fogg himself describes it:

It was all a matter of missed connections, bad timing, blundering in the dark. We were always in the right place at the wrong time, the wrong place at the right time, always just missing each other, always just a few inches from figuring the whole thing out. That's what the story boils down to, I think. A series of lost chances. All the pieces were there from the beginning, but no one knew how to put them together. (249)

So the mystery is left dangling, unresolved. In traditional detective fiction, various false trails and red herrings will momentarily complicate the plot, but overall the possibilities will be narrowed down until only one sequence of events remains: the solution. This allows a circumference to be drawn around the action and the center of the story to be located. Auster subverts this familiar progression from chaos to order in Moon Palace by concentrating on the breakdown of the detection of the process. From the very opening pages the tale is one of dissolution, not solution, suspension, not suspense. Never was a detective better named than Marco Stanley Fogg: his spirited explorations only take him deeper into the heart of the pea-souper.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot or even Philip Marlowe, Auster's detectives never reach a solution, and the missing persons they pursue are either mad or addicted to motiveless games of cat and mouse. As in Moon Palace, none of the novels in The New York Trilogy ends conclusively. In City of Glass Quinn remains outside Virginia Stillman's apartment for several months without result, and when he returns to his own abode, he finds it is now occupied by a stranger who does not recognize him. He has become a Wakefield, an invisible man, and the case has been forgotten. In Ghosts Blue finally confronts Black and threatens him with a gun: “You're supposed to tell me the story. Isn't that how it's supposed to end? You tell me the story, and then we say goodbye” (230). But Black will not play the game, and Blue murders him without finding out what the affair was all about. In The Locked Room Fanshawe contacts his friend and arranges to speak to him through the locked door of an apartment in Columbus Square, Boston. He gives his friend a notebook in which his disappearance is explained, but the narrator tears it up on the way back to Sophie, without revealing its contents.

These disrupted endings are Exhibit 5 and suggest an answer to our own enigma: perhaps Paul Auster's fiction can be most accurately defined in terms of the anti-detective genre. This is a term used by Stefano Tani to describe books which employ the trappings of crime fiction to introduce the detective and a mystery only to frustrate the reader's expectation of an acceptable solution.9 There are several ways in which this can be accomplished. The case might be solved by pure chance or with a solution which is more puzzling than the initial state of affairs. The Conversions (1962) by Harry Mathews, for example, begins with three riddles set by Grent Wayl in his will. The anonymous narrator's attempts to answer them involve fortuitous encounters with various secret societies and translingual puns which complicate considerably an otherwise simple detection plot. Alternatively, the narrative may close prematurely before the guilty party has been named or a vital clue revealed. The final pages of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) do not disclose whether Oedipa's conspiracy theory—involving an underground postal network called the Trystero—is rooted in fact or fantasy. Lastly, the mystery might be subsumed under the weight of metafictional games played by the writer with the “detection” metaphor. Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew (1979) is a good instance of this. The murder which begins the book is really a thin pretext for the elaborate game of hide and seek played with Ned Beaumont, Antony Lamont, and Martin Halpin, characters who have been “borrowed” from the fictions of other authors. In each instance, the case is dissolved before a satisfactory outcome has been reached, and in the absence of an overarching plot to tie the narrative together, it is often the nature of objects themselves which becomes the focus of investigation. This explains Mathews's detailed descriptions of ludicrous machines, the scrupulous attention Pynchon pays to stamps and signs on lavatory walls, and the long lists in Sorrentino which itemize the books and furniture at the scene of the crime. These objects—unlike the stain on the door handle or the ash on the linoleum in the more conventional detective fiction—are no longer signs which point toward the discovery of a solution but opaque “things” resistant to interpretation. Alain Robbe-Grillet describes the mechanics of the anti-detective genre as follows:

the plot starts to thicken alarmingly; witnesses contradict each other, new factors crop up which had previously been overlooked. … And you have to keep coming back to the recorded evidence: the exact position of a piece of furniture, the shape and frequency of a fingerprint, a word written in a message. The impression grows on you that nothing else is true. Whether they conceal or reveal a mystery, these elements that defy all systems have only one serious, obvious quality—that of being there.10

This description fits the works of Auster well. The plots of The New York Trilogy and Moon Palace branch out disturbingly, without ever returning to their source; characters switch roles unexpectedly; and there is always the primacy of objects, whose quality of “being there” reinforces the chief imperative of Auster's vanishing men: “the need to be here.”11

The case seemed simple enough. You, the reader, wanted this writer to keep an eye on a man called Paul Auster and to follow him for as long as necessary. But the clues are proliferating already, new factors are coming into play, so let's see what can be gleaned from Exhibits 1-5 before the puzzle eludes us. First, there is the quote from City of Glass which seems self-referentially to point to the dynamics of Auster's fiction: his stories are built out of other stories. Therefore we would expect to define his work by its relation to other genres and fictions, and Exhibits 2 and 3 confirm this intuition. The former—a comment about the merits of detective tales, particularly their propensity for galvanizing the reader's attention and distributing it equally throughout the text—places his work in the context of one of the purest of fictional modes.12 The latter—the recurrent theme borrowed from Hawthorne's “Wakefield”—is an indication of Auster's indebtedness to earlier American writers such as Poe and Melville, and their probings into the frailties of human identity. Exhibit 4, Fogg's “Moon Palace” train of thought, is a pointer towards what is unique about Auster's blending of the detective and “disappearing man” tropes: the breakdown of the detection process is always accompanied by a breakdown of the self. The “disappearances” his books present are mental as much as physical, and it is this focus on the collapse of the self which lends to Auster's works “a narrative style that partakes of both the dryness of a clinical report and the inventiveness of fiction.”13 Exhibit 5, Auster's penchant for deferred endings, is the outcome of this dual preoccupation. The evidence is scanty, that is for sure, but from these isolated trails we have at least constructed a working hypothesis: Auster can best be classified as a late example of the anti-detective genre.

Yet a nagging suspicion remains that this is too simple a solution. It does not take sufficiently into account the ambivalence of Auster's texts and the way in which they play with equal irony upon the conventions of the anti-detective as well as the detective genre. But an examination along these lines would take us deep into the pea-souper and the terrifying possibility that it is Paul Auster who is the invisible man.


  1. Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy (New York: Penguin, 1990), 8; hereafter cited parenthetically.

  2. Auster's detective figures usually have literary associations. For example, Daniel Quinn in City of Glass is a writer of crime fiction under the name of William Wilson. Dan Quin was the pseudonym of Alfred Henry Lewis, who wrote about Western frontier life in the nineteenth century, and William Wilson is the protagonist of the eponymous Poe tale. The web of reference becomes instantly more complex when Quinn is mistaken for a detective called Paul Auster. Have we found our quarry already?

  3. The device of the locked room is one of the clichés of traditional detective fiction.

  4. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter,” in The Portable Poe, ed. Philip Van Doren Stern (New York: Penguin, 1977), 451.

  5. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Wakefield,” in The Portable Hawthorne, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Penguin, 1969), 161-62; hereafter cited parenthetically.

  6. Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude (New York: SUN, 1982), 7.

  7. Paul Auster, Moon Palace (New York: Viking, 1989), 3; hereafter cited parenthetically.

  8. Michael Walters, “In Circulation,” The Times Literary Supplement, 28 April—4 May 1989, 452.

  9. Stefano Tani, The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984).

  10. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Snapshots and Towards a New Novel, trans. Barbara Wright (London: Calder and Boyars, 1965), 56.

  11. The phrase is from Paul Auster's essay on the paintings of Jean-Paul Riopello in Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays 1970-1979 (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 176.

  12. Michael Holquist has suggested that detective fiction is to postmodernism what myth was to modernism, an ideal vehicle for the exploration of each period's concerns. See “Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction,” New Literary History 3.1 (1971): 135-56.

  13. Again I have taken down Auster's words and used them in evidence against him, as this is a description from his essay on the writings of schizophrenic Louis Wolfson (Ground Work 120).

Katharine Washburn (essay date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “A Book at the End of the World: Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 62-5.

[In the following essay, Washburn examines the imagery, literary and historical allusions, and narrative design employed by Auster to portray the deterioration of civilization In the Country of Last Things.]

Transparent, straightforward as speech, and almost entirely innocent of the formal conundrums and cross-referenced allusions for which his New York Trilogy is noted, Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things would appear at first glance to take a sharp turn in a new literary direction. Auster's novel, like the long visionary epistle that ends Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, is written in the shape of a document cast into the void, mailed to some sort of dead letter zone at the end of the world. This, too, is a fictional account of an apocalypse, but where Lessing's Martha Quest is prolix, doctrinaire, and relentlessly literal, the voice of Anna Blume maintains through 182 pages the discipline of a rare sanity contemplating extreme derangement, observing, reporting, and never escaping into the ease of the oracular or the comfort of the grand historical explanation.

A young woman has sailed across the ocean, leaving one continent, where civilization is evidently still intact, for another in a terminal stage of collapse and ruin. Although the text makes no such proposal, we are tempted to substitute the maps of first Europe, then America to chart her voyage. In search of her missing brother, William, Anna discovers she will require all her wits to survive in the rubble of a city governed by assassins, profiteers, and thugs. Years later she writes in a blue notebook of the failure of her quest and describes the history of her wanderings to an unnamed person, some old lover, old friend, or even her former self, still safe in the civility and reason of an older order on the other side of the sea. Anna's lost brother was sent across the same ocean on a journalistic mission, to report what he found in a city where all social and material structures have sunk into that debris which is the central image of this book. His reports soon cease, and it is one of the small ironies Auster folds into his story that it is Anna, in fact, who will send the last dispatch from a universe of “last things.”

What Anna finds in a country whose darkened shoreline warns her at her approach of a disaster beyond words—Hawthorne's “City of Destruction” provides the novel's epigraph—is a nightmare place where no children are born, a univers concentrationnaire whose inmates toil at the collection of garbage and corpses, where mayhem has replaced the rule of law, where nothing, save for a solitary madman's construction of a miniature fleet confined in glass bottles, is manufactured. Its beggared inhabitants scrabble in the ruins for the shards of material goods, the “last things” which give them their final employment in a brutal, half-criminalized salvaging and recycling operation. There is an official currency, measured in “glots,” but Auster, who wears his wide reading lightly, is no doubt playing with a Dickensian trope for the breakdown of industrial society by conjuring up a swarm of Golden Dustmen trafficking in the night soil and corpses which convert into the fuel which still runs the engine of this debased and exhausted world.

Anna Blume never finds her brother and spends her days roaming the blasted landscape of a city which, like Eliot's Unreal City, becomes a score of dying cities in the West. No departure is possible from this place: the city, under some last, mad, military directive, is expending its final resources in building a sea-wall to repel invaders, an echo of a similar enterprise undertaken by Thucydides' Athenians near the end of the Peloponnesian War which ultimately destroyed them. This city, where governments change with the same speed, incomprehensibility, and hostile force as its unpredictable weather, mirrors other cities, other dark times, as it tunnels through twentieth-century history: the Warsaw Ghetto, the Siege of Leningrad (without any redeeming heroic purpose), postearthquake Managua, the last days of Berlin, and, above all, New York City in the present.

Herein lies the enormous irony of Auster's tale. Once more, as in the three volumes of The New York Trilogy, it's all done with mirrors. This time, the game is played with, if anything, greater cunning and obliqueness behind the same screen of lucid and uncompromising prose. In the Country of Last Things is occupied not with a future dystopia but with a hellish present. Its citizens are no more inhabitants of the future than Swift's Houyhnhnms are native to some unmapped mid-Atlantic island. They belong to the here and now, to its ethical, spiritual, and cultural chaos. The broken objects and decayed relics they dig up from rutted streets and collapsed buildings to trade at considerable sums for a marginal existence are emblematic of a society which has not only ceased to invent and produce but which, for nearly two decades, has inflated the value of real property, objects of art, and fetishistic junk alike. Where productivity and invention fail, any artifact from the recent past becomes a work of art. Where even memory fails, becoming an atrophied faculty of human intelligence, the desire for sensation and novelty is quickly gratified by a highly accelerated recycling of goods, whether damaged or sound. Auster's description of this process gives the word collector an almost sinister ring, just as his “Leapers,” a group of elective suicides who jump from high buildings, suggest, through a familiar historical association, the shaky financial structure of our own economy.

Some of these correspondences converge in such an inescapable fashion on life in the present in New York City that In the Country of Last Things supplies a phantom unit to what is, in effect, Auster's New York Tetralogy. “A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today.” A bomb crater, a vanished neighborhood, a demolished building unite in the unstable urban landscape of an American city. Few readers will miss these implications, or, when they encounter the book's description of the howling “Runners” who hurl themselves down the filthy streets of Auster's metropolis, running blindly until they attain their end—death by exhaustion—will ever contemplate an urban creature loping along, senses sealed through his electronic apparatus, eyes glazed and vision straining at a distant nullity, in quite the same way.

Part of the book's bleak entertainment lies in the discovery of these manifold and dense connections between the fictional city and present reality. These remain, however, suggestive rather than coercive. Auster parodies the breakdown of law by unionizing his muggers: they organize themselves as “Tollists,” patrolling random streets, extorting a fee from every passerby unable to anticipate the presence of their barriers. The vacancy rate in the city is at zero, and streets and subways swarm with sleepers from an underclass of paupers, criminals, and lunatics, although a level of society called “the rich” still coexists with it.

In this climate of endless scarcity, there is continuous talk of food, obsessive reminiscence of meals once eaten, the preparation of meals which might be eaten, the verbal evocations of perfect menus and the sensations they bestow. The speakers in Anna Blume's astonished narrative are, in fact, half-starved, but their preoccupation with food, like the onanistic rush of the Runners, mimics still another cultural vagary of the last decade: the urban sophisticate's absorption in restaurants and cuisine. The parallels become uncanny. Where are we, if not in New York, near the end of the century, in an entrepreneurial capital where nothing indigenous is grown or generated? Children appear twice: one a corpse and the other an unborn fetus. (Anna's pregnancy ends in miscarriage.) Zero Population Growth is at its zenith. And corpses, which can be mined for gold teeth and burned for fuel, have some residual value.

Anna sees and records this world, her pluckiness and intelligence marking her for independent survival, although several calamities make her a candidate for rescue. Losing the shopping cart on which her trade as a licensed scavenger depends, cast out in the streets once more after the death of her dubious protectors, she wanders to the library (a beleaguered monument to high culture in which books must be burned for warmth) where she finds her brother's old colleague Samuel Farr. They fall in love and winter over in the library until Anna, literally barefoot and pregnant, is lured into a shop where corpse-merchants assault their victims. Diving through a window to safety, she's found by the head of a charitable hostel, a woman named Victoria whose rescue operation will end in defeat. Nursed back to health, restored to sanity by salvaging, this time, the sick and starving and through a somewhat unconvincing lesbian relationship with Victoria, she watches the city burn, smolder, and die around them through another frightful winter. Farr rejoins them, and a small pack of survivors prepares an escape from the city. Rejecting various exit points, all treacherous and uncertain, they choose a gate which leads—in hope? in despair?—past the westernmost barrier of the city. (The promise of safety outside the city seems small, and the western exit, in all the indices of folklore and mythology, is synonymous with death.) Although the close of the novel is ambiguous, Anna's doom seems imminent. The blue notebook will fall into the immense detritus of her world.

Closing the book, we think of Emmanuel Ringelbaum's memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto, buried in the earth and dug up for another generation. Anna's book, however, can address itself to no such hope, for in her catalog of loss the words which would serve her purpose and make intelligible her story are consigned to a rubbish heap from which they will not rise again. When Anna learns that there can be no return voyage by sea to her own country, she alludes to airplanes and learns that not only have airplanes been absent from this country for some time but the very word is extinct. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. There are no more bicycle wheels left in the world. Memory of the past is fading and Anna in In the Country of Last Things is one of its rare agents: perhaps this accounts for her name, borrowed from an obscure poem of Kurt Schwitters which celebrates an eponymous “pale Anna Blume.” Auster's Anna, however strong and unfaltering her powers of observation, is a wan ghost of the past astray in an intolerable present.

Auster's naming of his characters, however, points to one of the few flaws in his careful composition. There's a tendency to seed this book, as in his earlier volumes, with Significant Names, without any commitment to integrate them. “Ferdinand and Isabella,” “Samuel Farr,” and “Mr. Frick” summon associations that come too easily, shortcuts to the unfolding of a narrative scheme which Auster's fine prose is well equipped to avoid. The true force of the book lies in its oblique aim; the feminine narrator has managed an elegant trick of distance without relinquishing the power to move us, and the book does not suffer through the numerous comparisons to be made with the tone and the urgency of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. The strain of recording the gaze of the utterly normal on the totally insane is immense, and that Anna abides her author's severe economy, telling her personal story in precisely the same cadences she employs to detail the wreck of Western culture, is no small achievement.

Auster has succeeded with Swiftian guile and ferocity in constructing a world of demolished things which we are forced, immediately and painfully, to recognize as our own. The antecedents of such fables of an intolerable present, given life by removal to another place, another time, would comprise a long and honorable list. Among these, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, springing from an altogether different literary tradition, is considered to be grounded in the reality of the postwar England in which he wrote it. Here, coming in from a different angle, is an oblique history chronicle of a great city “after the storm,” its fall as unaccountable to its narrator as it is to us.

Phil Edwards (review date 8 April 1994)

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SOURCE: “Air Head,” in New Statesman and Society, April 8, 1994, p. 37.

[In the following review, Edwards offers unfavorable assessment of Mr. Vertigo.]

Since the New York Trilogy in 1986, Paul Auster's style has been unmistakable: erudite, laconic, minutely responsive to changes of light and mood. Auster's characters are beset by patterns and coincidences, driven by the urge to make sense of it all and become the authors of their own lives. The attempt is foredoomed, because nothing means anything: nothing matters beyond the bare fact of survival.

Auster's protagonists carry around thousands of dollars, then spend it all, lose it, gamble it away or simply forget about it. It makes no difference. Sleep rough and spend the day watching the clouds, your life will still be as valuable—will still be the same—as it ever was. When the money's gone. Auster's heroes head off into the blue again, unencumbered, aimless and alone.

Man (sic) as bare animal, condemned to pattern-making; man in search of significance, in flight from involvement. It's a distinctive but chilly way to write, something like a cross between Beckett and Hawthorne. Auster's masterpiece, The Music of Chance, was his last unselfconscious work in this mode. In Leviathan, his next novel, we saw the protagonist, with his mythic-existential-American baggage, as others see him: self-absorbed, obsessive, unreliable, the adolescent as hero.

Mr Vertigo is something else again. In 1924, aged nine, Walt Rawley is taken into the charge of the mysterious “Master Yehudi”. A horrific apprenticeship follows, at the end of which Walt can levitate. “The Master” works out a stage act and takes Walt on tour; then, in 1929, comes adolescence and the loss of Walt's gift.

By then the book is almost over. Walt works for the Mob, runs a nightclub (“Mr Vertigo's”), gets drafted, comes home. A few pages later, it's 1993. Walt is now 78 and writing his memoirs; and yes, it's this book.

Auster has not written a historical novel, any more than Hawthorne did: stock situations are furnished with minimal background detail. Sadly, Mr Vertigo also lacks the strengths of Auster's previous work. The young Walt's dialogue is a constant outpouring of bad puns and smart answers, just the kind of linguistic jangle Auster has previously banished from his writing. What's worse, Walt tells his story straight: there are no sudden epiphanies here, no yearnings after significance.

Shorn of the intense self-consciousness of the typical Auster narrator, the book's symbolism seems laboured and arbitrary. If Walt has the same name as the founder of Virginia, so what? If Walt learns his art in the house shared with a Jew, a black and an Oglala Sioux, so what? If Walt flies through the air … well, so what? Walt's act is described without any of the numinous quality Auster has previously brought to the most mundane scenes. He might as well have been a tightrope walker. The jacket tells me that this is “a profound meditation on the nature of creativity” and that it's by the author of The New York Trilogy. One of these claims, unfortunately, is true.

James Walton (review date 9 April 1994)

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SOURCE: “Facing Fearful Odds,” in The Spectator, April 9, 1994, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Walton offers tempered assessment of Mr. Vertigo, noting shortcomings in the novel's “excessive writerly knowingness.”]

As the standard government comment on the economy has demonstrated over the last three years, the fact that all the elements are in place for something does not guarantee that something will materialise. In Mr Vertigo, all the elements are in place for a fine novel.

The book's starting point, for example, is an enticing one—though admittedly the same enticing one as that of Auster's fine and recently filmed The Music of Chance. In this case the two outsiders pitched together by accident—or is it fate?—are Master Yehudi, a mysterious middle-aged Hungarian émigré and Walter Rawley, a nine-year-old ragamuffin from the streets of St Louis. The Master then takes the kid off to Kansas and teaches him to fly. Having perfect aerial ‘loft and locomotion’, Walt the Wonder Boy is—not altogether surprisingly—the sensation of the age (the 1920s) until puberty finishes his career at the end of the decade. He becomes a gangster, a second world war soldier and a figure of Fifties' domesticity, before ending up, in elegaic mood, in the present day. There is, in short, no lack of incident, and much of it is undeniably compelling. Moreover, the decades-spanning nature of the story allows Auster to add to the fictional mix some deeper reflections on The American Century. And the whole is narrated by Walt in authentic Billy Bathgate baroque, with a great villain, Uncle Slim, thrown in too. So why does the promised fine novel never materialise?

The problem is the very professionalism of the whole operation. Take the book's first sentence: ‘I was 12 years old the first time I walked on water.’ Arresting certainly, but in a self-conscious way. This sets the pattern. Too often the novel's oddness feels like a ploy—the product, not of an author who sees life as essentially strange, but of one who has decided to adopt this perspective for his own transparent literary purposes. ‘Odd’ novels work best when an internal logic dictates events; here the event always seem an authorial imposition. At one point Walt confesses: ‘I'm hard-pressed to explain how such a twisted notion wormed its way into my head.’ In fact the explanation is obvious—the notion wormed because Auster required it to do so. Similarly, because he required the young Walt to be ‘lit up with the fire of life’, Auster had earlier made his illiterate nine-year-old speak with forceful erudition. ‘The only brink I'm standing on is the brink of perdition,’ he tells the Master during a row. The same sense of contrivance, meanwhile, infects the aforementioned deeper reflections, as Walt's progress (the crashing to earth in 1929, the careers which follow) turns out to mirror that of his country rather too neatly.

Mr Vertigo is readable enough, but Auster clearly intends, and in his earlier fiction has accomplished, much more than that. This is a novel which occasionally hovers above the ground. Excessive writerly knowingness prevents it achieving genuine loft and locomotion.

Joanna Scott (review date 31 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “Levitate!,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 31, 1994, p. 2.

[In the following review, Scott offers positive assessment of Mr. Vertigo.]

Throughout his career as a novelist, Paul Auster has been making a fictional map of the United States, carefully pinning his characters to real places—to specific city streets, small towns and stretches of highway. In this new novel, Auster takes us to the Midwest in the 1920s and '30s, but this time his map includes a portion of the Kansas sky.

“I was 12 years old the first time I walked on water,” begins the narrator of Mr. Vertigo. He is Walter Rawley and, though he likes an occasional wisecrack, he's telling us the truth here. “Walt the Wonder Boy,” as he is nicknamed, does walk on water in this novel. He flies. He climbs up invisible staircases and over bridges that don't exist. He somersaults in midair, falls, brakes inches above the ground and floats down to earth. He is the supreme vaudevillian, a nearly flawless entertainer and his greatest act is the story he tells us, the story of his life.

Paul Auster has always been intrigued by games, and the fact that he is playing with the rules of realism in this novel seems a natural development, given his earlier sleight of hand. He's a sly realist, a writer who asks us to lose ourselves totally in the illusion of his fiction even as he exposes the artifice. This is part of the joy of reading Auster's work—his stories are absorbing, his insights jolting.

Mr. Vertigo is surely one of Auster's most absorbing tales, written in a prose that is precise, confident in its use of vernacular and sometimes smoothly lyrical, as in this description of a Kansas drought: “The air was so parched, so delirious in its desiccation, you could track the buzzing of a horsefly from a hundred yards away.” Reaching from old age back through memory, Auster's narrator recounts his life, miracle by miracle, beginning in 1924, when the mysterious Master Yehudi enters Walt's life. Walt is only 9, an orphan living with a wicked uncle and an indifferent aunt. Master Yehudi offers a rather primal proposition to young Walt. “If I haven't taught you to fly by your 13th birthday, you can chop off my head with an axe.” Since Walt has no better prospects, he accepts the challenge and goes to live with Master Yehudi on a farm in rural Kansas. There he meets Mother Sue, a Sioux Indian, and Aesop, an Ethiopian boy, both of whom are indebted to Yehudi for their lives.

Walt joins this makeshift family weighted down with the burden of provincial bigotry. He identifies Mother Sue as the “Queen of the Gypsies” and Aesop as the “Prince of Blackness.” It doesn't take him long to give up his prejudices, though. Walt attempts to escape Master Yehudi's harsh regimen and runs away several times. His last failed attempt ends in illness, and his recovery is marked by a vast shift in attitude. He forgets his earlier prejudices and comes to consider Aesop and Mother Sue his best friends. This improvement—too complete, too convenient, even for Auster's modern fairy tale—may be the one significant weakness of the novel. Walt gives up his dangerous bigotry as easily as an old coat, replacing it with loyalty and deep respect. The snarling, distrustful boy suddenly becomes likable, a transformation that ends up seeming more unreal than his levitations.

That complaint aside, Walt's catalogue of initiating terrors is unforgettable. In order to achieve some kind of psychic control over gravity, he must endure a variety of tortures. “I was flogged with a bullwhip; I was thrown from a galloping horse; I was lashed to the roof of the barn for two days without food or water; I had my skin smeared with honey and then stood naked in the August heat as a thousand flies and wasps swarmed over me. …” The list goes on. Somehow Walt manages to survive initiation. And at last, in his moment of deepest despair, he feels his body rise a few inches into the air.

With practice, Walt learns to control his flights, to turn levitation into a graceful dance. But his magical buoyancy has little consequence—it is entertainment, stupendous entertainment. Walt is no more than a boy with an amazing trick up his sleeve. His magic can't help him when the Ku Klux Klan rides in. He cowers with Yehudi behind a tree and witnesses terrors that far surpass the cruelties of his initiation.

The road has always been a useful metaphor for Auster—it is a means of escape and pursuit, as well as an image for the motion of though. Walt and Yehudi take their show on the road and escape the Klan's destruction. At the same time they head out in pursuit of fame, fighting their way into the limelight. Walt the Wonder Boy becomes a national celebrity, though only for a few short years. Levitation, it turns out, is a kind of magic that belongs only to children (and to eunuchs, Master Yehudi intimates). When Walt enters puberty, the effort of flying becomes unbearably excruciating and he is forced to abandon the show.

Walt all but abandons his singular self as well. No longer a curiosity, he becomes a type—a slick nightclub owner obsessed with guns and baseball. If Walt seems less interesting as an adult, it is not a fault of the novel. It is the fault of the culture, which offers the earthbound young man few prospects and no miraculous escape.

“Very slowly. I felt my body rise off the floor. The movement was so natural, so exquisite in its gentleness, it wasn't until I opened my eyes that I understood my limbs were touching only air,” Walt says about his first levitation. But as soon as the magic is over, Walt sinks “like a stone to the bottom of the world.” Mr. Vertigo is a thrilling flight of fancy that never abandons the world. A magical-pertinent book, it gives us a bird's-eye view of the strange, violent, paradoxical century behind us.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 26 June 1995)

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SOURCE: “Tracing Patterns,” in The New Republic, June 26, 1995, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Kauffmann offers positive assessment of the film Smoke.]

In My Dinner With Andrè, the Shawn-Gregory film of 1981, Andrè tells Wally of his transfiguring experiences in far-off places. Wally replies:

Why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality? Is Mount Everest more real than New York? Isn't New York real? I mean, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next to this restaurant, it would blow your brains out.

I can't say if Paul Auster knows these lines, but they could almost serve as epigraph for his screenplay of Smoke (Miramax), except that a cigar store is only one of the important places in the film and, as in Auster novels, the quest is for something more than reality—it's for parareality, the mysteries that underlie dailiness.

An easy comparison for this film (as for Auster novels) is to a jigsaw puzzle: the pieces are interesting chiefly because they foretell a larger picture they will combine to form. For instance, the cigar-store owner, Auggie, tells us that, five years earlier, a young pregnant woman stopped in for something. He gave her exact change for her purchase. She left and, a minute later, was accidentally killed in a criminal shoot-out down this Brooklyn street. The tragedy crushed her husband, Paul, a novelist, who, five years later, when the film begins, has long been unable to write. Chatting with Paul, Auggie mourns the fact that he had exact change for Paul's wife that day. If only it had taken him a little bit longer to make change, if he had delayed her a few seconds. …

Yet—without implying that it compensates for Paul's loss—if he were not now alone, he would not have invited a vagrant black teenager to crash in his place for a few days. The invitation then creates twists that enable the youth, Rashid, to find the long-lost father for whom he has been searching. This is only one example of the film's interweavings; and, once we get past Rashid's superficial reminders of Six Degrees of Separation, we see that his story and the others that it crosses are meant to dramatize a stark theme.

Patterns. All of us love patterns. Auster, in his fiction and in this screenplay, explores that love intensely. As in The Music of Chance, which was exquisitely filmed two years ago, Auster shows us that patterns are not divine, but man-made. We find, we insist on finding, patterns in everything: tornadoes, auto crashes, slaughters in restaurants by maniacs with Uzis. But the blunt fact is that most experience, no matter how grotesque, is sooner or later absorbed into human history; and after that happens, we retrospectively find some point in the disaster. Or, if it's a bright eventuality, we find some deep prior justification for it. Auster shows us how our penchant for pattern-making cossets us in the midst of chaos.

The director, Wayne Wang, is, we're told, in some measure responsible for the screenplay. A few years ago, Wang read a Christmas story of Auster's on the op-ed page of The New York Times, sought out Auster and suggested that they develop it into a screenplay. This they did, working backward from the original story, which is a wry account of how a deception made a Christmas cheerful. A theft in that story suggested a major segment of the finished film. (At the end of Smoke Auggie tells Paul that Christmas story. Paul doubts it. Then, under the closing credits, we see the story actually happening—in black and white.)

Wang is a Chinese-American whose first two films, Chan is Missing and Dim Sum, showed more promise than achievement. He made four subsequent pictures, of which I saw one, The Joy Luck Club. There's no stylistic connection between Wang's previous work, which was at best good ethnic celebration, and Smoke, which is crafted with subtle artistic intelligence. As Philip Haas did with the previous Auster film, Wang immediately sets a tone that seems a cinematic equivalent of the author's prose; patient, considerate, companiable yet sharp. Amused, almost, as it watches the antics of human beings.

Early on, in the cigar store, Paul tells some of the cigar store's usual crowd how smoke can be weighed. In an arch way, that story is symbolic of the film—paradoxically—because it symbolizes absolutely nothing about the film, other than mankind's hunger for symbology as for patterns. Wang treats the episode with just the right mixture of gravity and wit.

Paul, here and throughout, is simple and strong. He is played by William Hurt, bearded and surprisingly excellent. The surprise is in the way that Hurt speaks Auster's lines, without his customary ponderousness and conceit but with true thoughtfulness, keen inflection.

As Auggie, Harvey Keitel surprises, too. Instead of slicing off one more Keitel performance, saran-wrapped at the source, he looks for colors, shades, verity. Harold Perrineau plays Rashid with touching bravado, and Forest Whitaker is tremendous as his father. Stockard Channing has an easy part as a tough former girlfriend of Auggie's, but she avoids the usual clichés in playing toughies. Ashley Judd is vitriolic in her brief role as Channing's—and perhaps Auggie's—18-year-old daughter.

The story has a few glitches. (How did Rashid's aunt find out that he was staying with Paul?) But they fade in the film's generally quiet embrace. The idea of quiet means much to Auster and Wang. Instance: the reunion of Rashid and his father at a country garage. It's stormy. Paul and others struggle to part the fighting pair. Cut. All the parties are now sitting around a picnic table behind the garage. Silence. Paul offers the father one of his small cigars. The father offers Paul one of his large ones. More silence. Cut. It's delightful. It trusts us to supply the unseen and unsaid, and we enjoy doing it.

Steven E. Alford (essay date Fall 1995)

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SOURCE: “Mirrors and Madness: Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 17-33.

[In the following essay, Alford examines the identity and function of the narrator in The New York Trilogyand the use of shifting perspectives to juxtapose contradictory aspects of self-identity, textual meaning, and relationships between author, narrator, and reader.]

My true place in the world, it turned out, was somewhere beyond myself, and if that place was inside me, it was also unlocatable. This was the tiny hole between self and not-self, and for the first time in my life I saw this nowhere as the exact center of the world.

The Locked Room

Among the many puzzles in Paul Auster's remarkable New York Trilogy, a persistent one involves the identity of the narrator(s) of these novels. In answering the question, Who narrates these three stories? I will demonstrate that thematically the novels develop the problematic of self-identity. Along the way I will show how questions of identity flow into questions about textuality, and undermine the ontologically distinct categories of author, narrator, and reader. Thematically, The New York Trilogy argues that the self—within the novels and without—is a textual construct, and subject to the difference and deferral inherent in language. The novels enact a series of binary oppositions—between characters engaged in dramatic psychological and physical confrontation—that demonstrates the impossibility of a pure opposition between self and other. From within every conflicted doubling a triad emerges, challenging our common-sense notions of the self.

Previous scholars have examined The New York Trilogy from different angles. Alison Russell linked the novels to Derrida's analysis of polysemy and the problems such polysemy produces for our senses of identity and unity, and for the ability of language to refer truthfully to the world. In addition, she briefly explored the relation between The New York Trilogy and the romance (including the detective story), as well as noting the connection between it and travel literature. Norma Rowen's 1991 essay focused exclusively on City of Glass, arguing that the novel concerns the madness involved in the search for absolute knowledge, symbolized in the book (among other ways) as Peter Stillman's search for a prelapsarian language. While relying on their excellent work, I am concerned here to explore the issue of the identity of the narrator(s) of these stories.

The New York Trilogy is nominally a collection of detective stories that, within the generic constraints of detective fiction, engage in a series of self-oriented metaphysical explorations.1 These tales could be characterized accurately as postmodern, in that they employ a pop culture form to reflect on issues more profound than “whodunit,” but postmodern detective fiction did not originate the concern with metaphysical issues. Julian Symons offers some examples of metaphysical detective fiction at virtually the beginning of the genre. We can see, for example, a predecessor of Auster's Daniel Quinn-William Wilson-Max Work triad in Frederick Irving Anderson's Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914): “Godahl, a criminal who always succeeds, is the creation of a writer named Oliver Armiston. In one of the best stories the two become confused in a Borgesian manner, as Armiston is duped into using Godahl's talents to provide the means of committing an actual crime” (83). And Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin poses “in the novel 813 (1910) … as the Chef de la Sureté for four years, and arrests himself during the investigation” (84), echoing in fiction the experiences of the real-life Vidocq, whose own Mémoires were thought to be largely fictional (32). These latter dramas that reveal the border between lawfulness and criminality as nonexistent echo the erasure of the borders between one self and the other that we find between Black and Blue in Ghosts, and between the narrator and Fanshawe in The Locked Room.

Closer to our own time, Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op is not innocent of a metaphysical flavor. As Steven Marcus has noted

[The detective] actively undertakes to deconstruct, decompose, and thus demystify the fictional—and therefore false—reality created by the characters, crooks or not, with whom he is involved. … His major effort is to make the fictions of others visible as fictions, inventions, concealments, falsehoods, and mystifications. When a fiction becomes visible as such, it begins to dissolve and disappear, and presumably should reveal behind it the “real” reality that was there all the time and that it was masking. Yet what happens in Hammett is that what is revealed as “reality” is still a further fiction-making activity … Dashiell Hammett, the writer, is continually doing the same thing as the Op and all the other characters in the fiction he is creating. … He is making a fiction (in writing) in the real world; and this fiction, like the real world itself, is coherent but not necessarily rational. What one both begins and ends with, then, is a story, a narrative, a coherent yet questionable account of the world. (xxi)

What Stephen Marcus is suggesting here about Hammett's text could be asserted about Auster's works as well. Unlike Hammett, however, Auster recognizes that whereas detective stories are “coherent yet questionable,” the same could be said about any story about the world, including those nominally regarded as nonfictional. And given that the “real” authors of stories are themselves a part of the world, the making of the author, as well as the narrator is the making of a fiction, both inside and outside the text.2 Hence, in Auster's work, the solution to the mystery is not the discovery of the criminal “other,” but how the other is implicated in the self-constitution of the investigator. In turn, just as Lupin claims that detection involves “an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent” (qtd. in Auster 65), the author's intellect can be identified with that of his narrator. But the connections between author, narrator, character (and the character's relation with other characters, as well as the relation between these entities and the reader) are not as simple as a string of binary associations.

The names and interrelations of the narrators of the three books of The New York Trilogy are complex and paradoxical. Characters' names are twinned, characters are revealed to be imaginary beings invented by other characters, characters appear in one book, only to maintain their name, but switch to another identity, in another book, and so forth. This makes for not only complexity, but outright contradiction.


Told in the third person by an unnamed narrator, City of Glass follows Daniel Quinn, who at the prompting of a wrong number, impersonates Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency (who seems to exist only in the imaginations of Virginia and Peter Stillman, Junior, because Quinn fails to find him). The Paul Auster Quinn does find is a Manhattan author, whose name is identical to the “real” author of The New York Trilogy.3 This Paul Auster tells Quinn he is working on a book of essays, currently a piece about Don Quixote, concerned “with the authorship of the book. Who wrote it, and how it was written.”4

Don Quixote claims the text was originally written in Arabic by Cid Hamete Benengeli. Chancing on it in the Toledo market, Cervantes arranged to have it translated, and then presented himself as the editor of the translation. Because Cid Hamete neither appears in the novel, nor ever claims to be present during Quixote's exploits, the character Paul Auster argues that Cid Hamete is actually a pastiche of four people—the illiterate Sancho Panza and only witness to all Quixote's adventures, the barber and the priest (who transcribed Panza's dictated story), and Samson Carrasco, the bachelor from Salamanca, who translated it into Arabic. Cervantes then discovered the book, and had it translated and published.

Why should these men go to such trouble? According to Auster, to cure Don Quixote of his madness. “The idea was to hold a mirror up to Don Quixote's madness, to record each of his absurd and ludicrous delusions, so that when he finally read the book himself, he would see the error of his ways” (118-19). But Auster adds one last twist to his argument. Don Quixote was not mad, as his friends thought. Because Quixote wonders repeatedly how accurately the chronicler will record his adventures, he must have chosen Sancho Panza and the three others to play the roles of his “saviors.” In addition, Quixote probably translated the Arabic manuscript back into Spanish. That is, Cervantes hired Quixote to translate Quixote's own story.

Why, according to Auster, would anyone do anything so complex and bizarre?

[Quixote] wanted to test the gullibility of his fellow men. Would it be possible, he wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction spew out lies and nonsense? To say that windmills were knights, that a barber's basin was a helmet, that puppets were real people? … In other words, to what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn't it? To any extent. The proof is that we still read the book. (119-20)

As we shall see, The New York Trilogy holds a mirror up to our own madness—the assumption of our hermetic individuality.

City of Glass is told in the third person. However, after the bulk of the novel is rendered in the third person, the final two pages shift to the first person, when the narrator returns from a trip to Africa and calls his friend, the writer Paul Auster. Auster has become obsessed with Quinn (who himself was obsessed with the Stillmans), but has lost track of him, and also cannot find Virginia Stillman. Auster and the narrator visit Virginia Stillman's apartment, where Auster finds Quinn's red notebook and gives it to the narrator for safekeeping. The narrator then confesses that he has followed the red notebook as closely as possible in telling his story and has “refrained from any interpretation” (158).

Like “editors” of previous fictions (The Sorrows of Young Werther and Notes from Underground, for example), the confident professions of editorial thoroughness and sincerity lack foundation. The narrator has never met Quinn, the subject of his story, and has only two sources of information about him, Auster and the red notebook. Auster's knowledge of his narrator, Quinn, actually emerges only from Quinn's account, because the only time he and Auster met was in Auster's apartment (and Quinn's account to Auster may or may not have been distorted). Hence, the narrator's only two sources are the hearsay of Auster and a text, Quinn's notebook. The narrator has no direct experience of or information about the story he tells.5

Returning to the account of Quixote by the character Auster, we can observe some parallels.6 If we were to say provisionally that the narrator is {Paul Auster} (bracketing, for now, his ontological status),7 we could say that the story {Auster} tells has been invented for him by some concerned friends, presumably a real-life Quinn (who would parallel Sancho Panza) and the Stillmans (who would parallel the other three friends). Presumably, {Auster} has been having difficulty with his sanity, and his friends have concocted City of Glass to hold up a mirror to his madness. However, continuing to follow the lines of the Quixote argument, we could argue as well that {Auster} has engineered the entire enterprise and chosen Quinn and the Stillmans as his “saviors,” so that he could spew out lies and nonsense for people's amusement. Hence, Paul Auster, the writer in City of Glass, is a character invented by {Paul Auster}, narrator, the same way that the character “Don Quixote” was engineered by Don Quixote.

Of course, Don Quixote never existed, but was invented by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra of Spain. By association, {Paul Auster} never existed, but was an invention of the “real” Paul Auster, of Manhattan.8 Hence, we have three Austers, not two: author, narrator, and character, each ontologically distinct.

The twinning has uncovered a triad, which has its corollary in City of Glass. Daniel Quinn, detective fiction writer, had taken on the pseudonym of William Wilson. “William Wilson, after all, was an invention, and even though he had been born within Quinn himself, he now led an independent life. Quinn treated him with deference, at times even admiration, but he never went so far as to believe that he and William Wilson were the same man” (5). “William Wilson” has authored a series of books featuring a private-eye narrator, Max Work. “Whereas William Wilson remained an abstract figure for [Quinn], Work had increasingly come to life. In the triad of selves that Quinn had become, Wilson served as a kind of ventriloquist, Quinn himself was the dummy, and Work was the animated voice that gave purpose to the enterprise” (6).

Note the surprising role assignment in this conceit. Ordinarily, we would consider Quinn the ventriloquist, Wilson the dummy, and the words of the dummy Work's story. As the audience, we would then attend to the dummy's words, failing to notice Quinn moving his lips, owing to our absorption in the tale. By this account, however, Wilson is the ventriloquist and Quinn is the dummy. This textual analogy suggests that Quinn exists only insofar as the words he invents give him life.

To tell the story that is City of Glass, {Auster's} only sources are a text and one person's second-hand account. But, in terms of self-knowledge, what does Paul Auster, author, have to go on? In his daily life, Paul Auster tells himself stories about himself (as we all do, by engaging in interior dialogue), and others tell him stories about himself. He creates a text (whether it be The New York Trilogy or his other works) and through that text gains self-knowledge. But what kind of knowledge of self can one acquire by inventing stories, which are, by definition, untrue?

Auster's trilogy dramatizes the assertion that the self can gain knowledge only through language because, in a strict sense, the self is language. Anthony Paul Kerby argues that other views of the self, such as the Cartesian, originate in three fundamental misconceptions: (a) “that there is a doer before the deed,” that the “I” causes narration, rather than being implied by it; (b) that intentions or thoughts exist prior to their linguistic expression; and (c) that “language has a certain neutrality or transparency with respect to what is expressed” (65). On the contrary, “the self is a social and linguistic construct, a nexus of meaning rather than an unchanging entity” (34). One further misconception should be mentioned: that our originary experience of the world occurs in perception. Although no one would question that we do have extra-linguistic bodily experiences involving perception and sensation, the self, in its genesis and self-understanding, is a construct.9

In the wake of Benveniste and Michel Foucault, such an insight may approach a commonplace. However, when we ally the notion of the linguistically constructed self with the Saussurean/Derridian notion of language as a differing/deferring process, the real drama begins. Two problems with self-knowledge arise.

First, if the self is a text, and if text's knowability is endlessly deferred, referring within the cognitive process only to other texts (be they physical texts or other selves), then “true” self-knowledge is impossible. We understand our self as the locus of our identity by telling ourselves stories, yet these stories' criterion of correctness is not truth, but what we might call the adequacy of a meaningful narrative sequence. Kerby explains, “this identity … is not the persistence of an entity, a thing (a substance, subject, ego), but is a meaning constituted by a relation of figure to ground or part to whole. It is an identity in difference constituted by framing the flux of particular experiences by a broader story” (46).

Second, we should recognize also that once truth is abandoned as the transcendental criterion of self-knowledge, we find ourselves in a vertiginous intellectual space in which the distinction between narrative and its traditional certifying element (truth, whether that term be understood as a Kantian adequatio or in some other sense) collapses. In practical terms, if I assert that “true” self-knowledge is impossible, what is the guarantor of the truth of that statement? In discussing Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Foucault, Linda Hutcheon recognizes the implicit paradox of such a position. “These [positions] are typically paradoxical; they are the masterful denials of mastery, the cohesive attacks on cohesion, the essentializing challenges to essences, that characterize postmodern theory” (20). Hence, we must proceed to the next step of the argument fully conscious of the paradox involved: I am asserting the truth of an argument that assumes the unavailability of a truth-based certification.

Each of Auster's stories features a character who awakens to the ongoing deferral of the possibility of self-knowledge. {Auster} cites Baudelaire: “Wherever I am not is the place where I am myself” (132). In The Locked Room, the narrator suggests

We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another—for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (292)

The particular contribution of The New York Trilogy is that in each story, we see the realization of the “substancelessness” of the self in its psychological dimension.10 The characters and narrators of these stories respond to their evolving insight into the “nature” of their selves with fear, violence, and despair. Self-knowledge becomes a narrative agon, a contest in which there can be no declared winner. Or, to put it another way, the loser is whoever quits writing first.

One of the more interesting scenes in City of Glass has already been alluded to, wherein {Auster} and Auster visit the Stillman's apartment, only to find that Quinn has disappeared. Where is he? Alison Russell notes: “In City of Glass, characters ‘die’ when their signifiers are omitted from the printed page” (75). Quinn has “died” because he filled up his red notebook with signifiers. When he came to the last page, he himself came to an end.


Within the free realm of imaginative invention, an author's characters can, of course, do anything the author wants, including violating laws of logic and nature, in particular those involving paradox and identity. Also, they can easily breach ontological categories, as has already been shown with the three Paul Austers. These thematic threads run through this trilogy. However, what does the quandary of identity the characters experience imply for Paul Auster, the author of The New York Trilogy (or any writer, for that matter)? His work suggests that no clear dividing line exists between the characters' predicament and his own, that he is beset by the same paradoxical problems of identity in his “real” life. As Blue says in Ghosts, “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he's there, he's not really there” (209). As we shall see, these problems will emerge for the readers of his texts as well.

In Ghosts, a certain detective Blue is hired by White to shadow Black.11 The narrator says the location is unimportant, “let's say Brooklyn Heights, for the sake of argument. Some quiet, rarely traveled street not far from the bridge—Orange Street perhaps” (163). Blue moves into the third floor of a four-story brownstone to shadow Black, who lives in a third-floor apartment opposite. Blue is a detective self-conscious about his social role. He reads True Detective and Stranger Than Fiction with devotion. Owing to a peculiarity of his client, White, Blue is consigned to remain in his room and write weekly reports, which he mails to White. Observing Black, Blue notes that Black is composing a manuscript. Hence, Blue spends his days writing a report about someone who spends his days writing.12

For Blue, things are not going well:

He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough—to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others. But if the book were an interesting one, perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. He could get caught up in the story, so to speak, and little by lit the begin to forget himself. But this book offers him nothing. There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book. That's all there is, Blue realizes, and he no longer wants any part of it. But how to get out? How to get out of the room that is the book that will go on being written for as long as he stays in the room? (202)

A series of events complicate Blue's life. He discovers his fiancee is seeing another man. He tries to meet White in the post office, but White eludes him. Black continues to scribble. Blue's anxiety mounts. “It seems perfectly plausible to him that he is also being watched, observed by another in the same way that he has been observing Black. If that is the case, then he has never been free. From the very start he has been the man in the middle, thwarted in front and hemmed in on the rear” (200). Like Quinn, the dummy, whose words were generated by the ventriloquist, his narrator, William Wilson, Blue's words are being generated by the person controlling him, but that person is neither himself, nor White, but Black. From the twinning of Blue and Black, Blue has uncovered a triad, one beyond his control.

Like Quinn, who in his three meetings with Peter Stillman, Senior, adopted the “disguises of Quinn, Henry Dark, and Peter Stillman, Junior” (88, 95, 100), Blue adopts a series of disguises to get closer to his quarry, Black.13 Like Quinn, who visits Paul Auster, Blue gathers the courage to take the next, “inevitable” step and confront Black directly in his apartment. The narrator notes, “To enter Black, then, was the equivalent of entering himself, and once inside himself, he can no longer conceive of being anywhere else. But this is precisely where Black is, even though Blue does not know it” (88).

Black is not home, and Blue steals the papers on Black's desk before returning to his apartment. With a creeping sense of horror, Blue reads Black's papers, recognizing that they are nothing more than Blue's own reports to White. Blue is both scared of and angry with Black because he thinks that Black has somehow stolen his freedom and autonomy. The narrator comments, “For Blue at this point can no longer accept Black's existence, and therefore he denies it” (226).

Blue's error is an intellectual one with emotional consequences. As an individual, he thought he possessed the freedom one ordinarily ascribes to individuals. As a detective, as a type of private contractor, he thought he independently took the job of shadowing Black, and in a sense he did. But he now realizes that his metaphysical assumptions about his freedom, both personal and professional, were wrong. He responds with fear and projected anger. He denies Black's existence. What he doesn't understand is that “autonomy, freedom, and identity … are not pregiven or a priori characteristics but must be redefined within the context of the person's appearance within the sociolinguistic arena” (Kerby 113-14).

In his analysis of Derrida, Kerby further suggests that

If auto-affection is the possibility of subjectivity, this subjectivity finds its release, its expression of itself, in acts of signification. The feeling of subjectivity that we have more or less continually, … is quite simply the possibility of signification, of expression, what might be called vouloir dire or a wanting and being able, in most cases, to say or express. But this subjectivity does not know itself outside the fulfillment of its desire to express. (77)

Blue's selfhood emerges as his Self in his “reports.” But the reports themselves are not a discrete product of an autonomous, isolated self; they emerge as even feasible only through the possibility of the other's existence. In denying Black's existence, Blue is denying his own.14 For, “One cannot become ‘I’ without an implicit reference to another person, an auditor or narratee—which may be the same subject qua listener. ‘I’ functions in contrast to ‘you’ in much the same way as ‘here’ refers linguistically to ‘there’ rather than any fixed location” (Kerby 68). Hence, Blue's freedom, a consequence of his self-understanding, is contingent on Black's existence.

A further level of Blue's misunderstanding involves his notion of the “job,” namely that one begins a job, carries it to an end, and moves on to the next. He assumes that the persistent element linking one job to the other is his ongoing, Cartesian self, one which remains apart and exempt from whatever “case” he is under contract to pursue, in this instance, Black. Blue is, in this sense, denying the historical and hermeneutical dimension of self-constitution. “Interpretation, like understanding, is a continuous process with no precise starting point. … interpretation has always already started” (Kerby 44). Blue denies this “always-already” underway aspect of self-understanding and, when he sees himself mirrored in Black (or more precisely, mirrored in Black's text), he responds violently.

Blue enters Black's apartment, and Black awaits him, masked and armed with a revolver.15 Blue disarms Black and attacks him, rendering him unconscious, possibly dead. Blue muses, “There seems to be something [breathing], but he can't tell if it's coming from Black or himself” (231). Blue returns to his apartment with Black's manuscript, reads it, and leaves. The narrator explains, “For now is the moment that Blue stands up from his chair, puts on his hat, and walks through the door. And from this moment on, we know nothing” (232).

Quinn ceased to exist when he completed the red notebook. Blue ceased to exist when he completed reading Black's manuscript, which, we are told, Blue already knew by heart. When the words of the other ceased, the self ceased to exist. In Quinn's case his other was himself, which he masked from himself by filling his red notebook with observations about Stillman. In Blue's case his other was himself, which he masked from himself by filling his pages with observations about Black.

Who narrated Ghosts? I adduced the identity of the narrator in City of Glass from the story of Don Quixote. However, ferreting out the narrator of Ghosts is complicated by the difference in narrative time between the two books. City of Glass occurs in the narrative present and, based on copyright and publication information, we can date the narrative present of that book as the mid-eighties.16Ghosts, on the other hand, occurs approximately thirty-five to forty years before City of Glass, beginning on 3 February 1947, with the action continuing through midsummer of 1948 (203).17 Based on the evidence in City of Glass, Daniel Quinn and {Auster}, the narrator, are approximately the same age, and Quinn's age is given as thirty-five (3). Hence, {Auster} would have been born around the beginning of the narrative time of Ghosts.

Scouting ahead a bit, however, I note that the first-person narrator of The Locked Room talks about having written both City of Glass and Ghosts (346). Neither horn of this dilemma yields much satisfaction if we consider the world(s) of these stories to be governed by empirical laws. If {Auster} narrated both books, then he is either approximately thirty-five-years-old in City of Glass, or a new born infant in Ghosts. Both contradictory possibilities have equal textual evidence. But let us consider the passage in The Locked Room immediately following his admission that he wrote City of Glass and Ghosts: “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different state in my awareness of what it is about” (346). Given the paradox, given the imaginative arbitrariness of proper name and geographic place assignments in Ghosts (everyone's name is a color; the narrator confesses the place names originate in narrative convenience), it seems reasonable to assume that the narrator of Ghosts is {Auster}, who is establishing for himself an imaginative narrative space around the time of his birth. This allows him to metaphorically explore the complex issues of the relation of selfhood to language, but not as a self-reflecting, on-its-own constitution (as in City of Glass), but as one reflecting on its origin.

Further support for this position can be gleaned from the final paragraph, where a series of curious semantic shifts occur. The paragraph is worth quoting in full.

Where [Blue] goes after that is not important. For we must remember that all this took place more than thirty years ago, back in the days of our earliest childhood. Anything is possible, therefore. I myself prefer to think that he went far away, boarding a train that morning and going out West to start a new life. It is even possible that America was not the end of it. In my secret dreams, I like to think of Blue booking passage on some ship and sailing to China. Let it be China, then, and we'll leave it at that. For now is the moment that Blue stands up from his chair, puts on his hat, and walks through the door. And from this moment on, we know nothing. (232)

Ghosts began in third person omniscient. Like City of Glass, it closes with a shift into first person. But unlike City of Glass, the narrator does not assume the role of another (albeit unnamed) character. Instead, the reader is included along with the author, using the first person plural: we must remember, our earliest childhood.

At this point it becomes clear that the search for a narrator, the search itself, has been swallowed up into the anti-metaphysical18 (or metaphysical detective) terms of the novel(s). Just as Blue could not be Blue without including within himself Black, the narrator cannot exist without our inclusion into him, and he into us. “For in spying out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself” (20). Paul Auster, author, establishes the sense of his identity by projecting himself into the narrator, {Auster}, and holding the textual mirror up to himself. With Ghosts, we can now understand that the identity of the narrator lies in that ontologically indistinct realm of textuality, a linguistic black hole in which our common sense understanding of the proper separation of ontologically discrete categories—fiction, history, speculation, the empirical world of common, personal identity, as well as the conventional distinctions between author, narrator, and character—collapses. So, to answer the question of who narrates Ghosts, we can reply: you, me, and Paul Auster, all of whom are elided into an entity known, for the convenience of the narrative, as the narrator, or in our (!) terms, {Auster}.19


We can answer the question about the narrator's identity in The Locked Room right away. He is {Auster}, narrator of City of Glass and Ghosts, so long as we understand both the terms “narrator” and “author” as standing for what we might call a locus of textual space, one which nominally includes you, me, and Paul Auster, author. (Note that in the course of our discussion, this additional triad has been spawned.)20 We would do well to investigate this pattern of triads emerging from binary oppositions, wherein the self and other confrontation engenders a third entity.

Narrated in first person, The Locked Room opens in May 1984, with the disappearance of {Auster's} childhood friend, Fanshawe. {Auster} is summoned by Sophie, Fanshawe's wife, and he learns that Fanshawe has named {Auster} executor of his unpublished literary works, in the instance of Fanshawe's death or disappearance. He accepts the job and arranges for Fanshawe's works to be published with a calculated schedule of publication that, following wide acceptance of Fanshawe's first novel, engenders both Fanshawe's literary fame, and fortune for both Sophie and {Auster}. {Auster} and Sophie fall in love, and he moves in with her and her child by Fanshawe. Fanshawe's works make {Auster} and Sophie rich, and all seems to be going well until {Auster} receives a letter from Fanshawe, thanking him for his help and claiming that Fanshawe will never contact him again.

{Auster} is intrigued, but more so when he contracts to write Fanshawe's biography. He gains access to Fanshawe's childhood works from Fanshawe's mother, with whom he begins an affair. At this point, for {Auster}, “everything had been reduced to a single impulse: to find Fanshawe, to speak to Fanshawe, to confront Fanshawe one last time” (317). He is confused: he wants to kill Fanshawe; he wants Fanshawe to kill him; he wants to find Fanshawe and then walk away from him.

Fanshawe's trail leads to France, and {Auster} locates him in a Paris bar. Confronting him, however, Fanshawe says, “My name isn't Fanshawe. It's Stillman. Peter Stillman” (349). Fanshawe/Stillman leaves the bar and {Auster} follows him. They have a bloody fight and Fanshawe/Stillman wins.

Three years pass. Sophie and {Auster} have a child, Paul. In the spring of 1982, {Auster} receives a letter from Fanshawe, saying they must meet in Boston.

Fanshawe, armed behind a door, confronts {Auster}. At this point, a blizzard of twinning occurs: like Stillman, Fanshawe claims to have been followed by a detective, Quinn; like Black, he says he traveled in the West; like Quinn, he claims to have camped outside Sophie's apartment for months, observing Sophie, {Auster}, and the child; Fanshawe uses the name Henry Dark in his travels, and so forth. Fanshawe has lured {Auster} to give him an explanation of why he left; and there {Auster} picks up a red notebook, filled with text. Back in the New York train station, {Auster} reads the notebook.

All the words were familiar to me, and yet they seemed to have been put together strangely, as though their final purpose was to cancel each other out. I can think of no other way to express it. Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible. It is odd, then, that the feeling that survives from this notebook is one of great lucidity. … I came to the last page just as the train was pulling out. (370-71)

In her discussion of the postmodern novel, Linda Hutcheon has argued that the self-other opposition is what we could call a modernist moment along the way to postmodernism, a way-station through which our thought must pass (and conceivably return) in our understanding of postmodern texts. She writes, “The modernist concept of a single and alienated otherness is challenged by the postmodern questioning of binaries that conceal hierarchies (self/other)” (61). Instead of binary oppositions, she suggests it is more useful to think of difference, and the chaining movement of signifiers (originating in Saussure's insights and developed further by Derrida) that describes not only the movement of meaning-constitution within language, but self-constitution as well. “Difference suggests multiplicity, heterogeneity, plurality, rather than binary opposition and exclusion” (61).

Whenever a binary, self-other opposition is erected (as is the case in The New York Trilogy), it establishes a hierarchy that is both arbitrary and illusory. When Blue imagines his control of his case, or when {Auster} asserts control over Fanshawe through the decision to write his biography, both characters employ the self-other opposition and privilege the self as the controlling origin of the “job” (surveillance, writing) and of the discourse that constitutes the larger tale. Along the way, however, confidence in their autonomy is undermined, and they increasingly see themselves as being controlled and, ultimately, constituted as themselves by the other. This second movement, then privileges the other, rather than the self. The consequence is projected anger and violence: Blue assaults Black; {Auster} assaults Fanshawe/Stillman, and {Auster} wants to engage in some sort of violence toward Fanshawe near the end of the novel, although his confusion renders his exact aim unclear.21

The final pages of The Locked Room embody these arguments. The character Fanshawe evolves from his oppositionary role as {Auster's} other into an “Everycharacter,” wherein his own experiences suggest that he is the “same” character as Quinn, Stillman, Blue, Black, and Henry Dark.22 {Auster}, standing on the train station platform, realizes that in the end, there is text, and only text, and that each text (or, in this case, sentence, or paragraph) cancels out the previous one, establishing not the truth of identity, whether that be one's self-identity or the identity of the other, but simply another text, an experiential description of the differing/deferring movement of language.

I suggested earlier that our identity, far from originating within a soul or mind, has its origin in text. But if, “reality only exists in function of the discourse that articulates it” (Thiher 27), our attempts at truth-making are doomed to irrelevance. Instead we are left with the adequacy of a meaningful narrative sequence.23 In discussing Nabokov, Allen Thiher argues,

Freud appears to be a quintessential modernist insofar as the unconscious, with its storehouse of time past, can be compared to the modernist domain of revelation, waiting to be seized in the form of iconic symbols. By contrast Nabokov's self-conscious play with ironic doubles exults in the arbitrary relations that obtain between signs. There is, for Nabokov, no other discourse than this manifest play of autonomous language. There is nothing beneath this verbal surface. The novel's surface is all that the novel is: a self-enclosed structure of self-mirrorings, offered as so many language games, with only an occasional catastrophe to recall the void that waits on the other side. (100)

This description could well be applied to Paul Auster's New York Trilogy.

Hence, in Auster's work we have moved from the modernist, alienated fiction of the other, exemplified in Hammett and others of the hard-boiled school, to a postmodern fiction of difference.24 In Michael Huhn's discussion of the hard-boiled novel, he argues that the contest between detective and criminal is one for control over interpretation of the clues, a control over the text that defines the reality of their linked situation:

The main difficulty of the reading process is occasioned by the criminal's attempts to prevent the detective from deciphering the true meaning of his text. This is, basically, a contest between an author and a reader about the possession of meaning, each of them wishing to secure it for himself. (The contest within the novel is repeated on a higher level between the novelist and the actual reader.) (456)

The detectives and searchers in Auster's fiction, by contrast, realize that possession of meaning invariably lies in becoming one with the other, the object of their surveillance or search. What they do not realize, and what carries the main thematic weight of these texts, is that they have failed to take the next step, the movement from the violent confrontation of the self-other to the realization that both figure in a larger whole, that of a set of texts, whose shifting relations of difference and deferral form what we know as the world.

Having reached the end, let us return to the beginning, and the story of Don Quixote. Cervantes wrote a novel narrated by Cid Hamete Benengeli about Don Quixote, which is read by you and me. Because Cid Hamete is ultimately a “fiction,” we understand that only Cervantes is “real.” However, {Auster} argues that Quixote wrote a novel narrated by his friends about Quixote, which is read by you and me. {Auster's} argument suggests that Cervantes is generated by the text as much as the characters and that ultimately, he is Quixote. If this argument is itself a meaningful narrative sequence, then the readers of Quixote are themselves Quixote, insofar as their self-constitution is implicated in the texts they read. The New York Trilogy is a work written by Paul Auster, narrated by {Paul Auster} about, among other characters, Paul Auster, which is read by you and me. If this analysis of The New York Trilogy parallels that of {Auster's} of Quixote, then we can close best by echoing the words of {Auster's} child, Daniel: “Goodbye, myself!”


  1. As Michael Holquist notes, the term “metaphysical detective story” was coined by Howard Haycraft in his 1941 book, Murder for Pleasure, to describe G. K. Chesterton's work. (Holquist 154, n.8)

  2. Paul Auster (the real Paul Auster) has been a student of Jean Paul Sartre's works and translated Sartre's Life/Positions. We owe to Sartre's The Transcendence of the Ego the notion that “there is no ego ‘in’ or ‘behind’ consciousness. There is only an ego for consciousness. The ego is ‘out there,’ in the world, an object among objects. … consciousness is a great emptiness, a wind blowing toward objects. Its whole reality is exhausted in intending what is other. It is never ‘self-contained,’ or container; it is always ‘outside itself’” (Williams and Kirkpatrick 22). What distinguishes Sartre and Auster in this respect is Auster's focus on language as constitutive of the self and world, and the rendering problematic of any notion of an originary intentionality, a la Husserl, Auster rejects the autonomy of consciousness Sartre so ardently defends (in The Transcendence of the Ego), and places in between self and world (or other) language. This interposition problematizes the notion of self-knowledge, because if everything is text, the notion of autonomy (which would ground self-knowledge) is suspect.

  3. Of course, the author featuring himself as a character is not new, and is an almost de rigueur trope for postmodern fiction. In this context, Auster is echoing Cervantes, in which a certain Saavedra is featured in the Captive story (1:42), as Robert Alter notes (17). Note also Alter's comments about Cervantes' Brechtean impulse: “… Cervantes' principal means for [drawing the reader into the narrative and then wrenching him away] is to split himself off into a fictional alter ego, the Moorish chronicler who is supposedly the true author of the history; Don Quixote himself is another kind of surrogate for the novelist, being prominent among the characters of the novel as an author manqué, who is impelled to act out the literary impulse in the world of deeds, to be at once the creator and protagonist of his own fictions” (21).

  4. Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room (New York: Penguin, 1985-86), 116. All subsequent references will be to this combined edition of the novels.

  5. Alison Russell's comment on the narrator of The Locked Room is interesting in this context. “Unlike Quinn and Blue, the narrator of The Locked Room has access only to the language, the signifiers, of his counterpart, never to his physical presence” (79-80). In fact, Quinn, as this sentence seems to imply, doesn't narrate City of Glass. The unnamed narrator, who is, as I will suggest {Paul Auster}, has no direct access to the character whose story he tells either.

  6. Here I would disagree with Alison Russell, when she says that “This [Quxitoean] analysis, when applied to City of Glass, raises a number of questions about the book's authorship, and results in endless doublings and mirror images” (74). As I hope to demonstrate, the linguistic quandaries the characters experience imply a notion of selfhood in which the possibility for self-knowledge is endlessly deferred, the doublings and mirror images are themselves not “endless.” One can take the Quixote model and apply it to City of Glass (and other texts-within-the-text as well, such as the film Out of the Past, featured in Ghosts) without the danger of an argumentative mise-en-abyme.

  7. In subsequent references to the narrator, Paul Auster, I will adopt the convention of referring to him as {Auster}, to distinguish him from Paul Auster, author, and Paul Auster, character.

  8. As Robert Alter notes, however. “If the Quixote calls into question the status of fictions and of itself as a fiction, it also affirms a new sense of the autonomy of the artist who has conceived it” (15). As we shall see, The New York Trilogy, far from affirming the autonomy of the artist, calls into question his very selfhood: its origin, constitution, and capacity for originary linguistic intentionality.

  9. “Perception” can be understood here in two senses, in the scientific, biological sense of the activity of light on the eye, optic nerve, and brain; and in the phenomenological sense of that which is present to consciousness. The problems with grounding experience in biological perception are well known. The problems with phenomenology have been amply examined by Jacques Derrida, in his critique of presence. In this context, the problem with phenomenology's account is phenomenology's grounding of the investigation into Dasein's being in consciousness's (presumed) interiority.

  10. If we follow the lessons of the text, we would have to abandon the notion of psychology as the investigation of some “interior,” dimension of a single human subject, and instead focus on how self-construction occurs in the public, narrative arena in which selves, both those of the “individual” and “others,” are constructed.

  11. The studied arbitrariness of these names is emphasized in The Locked Room, when the narrator describes his experiences as a census taker involved in inventing families to fulfill his quota. “When my imagination flagged, there were certain mechanical devices to fall back on: the colors (Brown, White, Black, Green, Gray, Blue)” (Auster 294).

  12. Russell notes the continuity among the three stories: “Daniel Quinn is a writer turned detective, Blue a detective turned writer, and the narrator of The Locked Room a writer turned detective” (79).

  13. The similarity between Quinn and Blue is highlighted by detail: when {Auster} opens the door to Quinn. Quinn finds “In his right hand, fixed between his thumb and first two fingers, he held an uncapped fountain pen, still poised in a writing position” (Auster 111). When Blue, in his Fuller Brush Man disguise, visits Black, Black is “standing in a doorway with an uncapped fountain pen in his right hand, as though interrupted in his work” (Auster 218).

  14. In their final confrontation, Black says to Blue. “I've needed you from the beginning … to remind me of what I was supposed to be doing. … At least I know what I've been doing. I've had my job to do, and I've done it. But you're nowhere, Blue. You've been lost from the first day” (Auster 230).

  15. This mask is the same one “White” wore in the post office when Blue attempted to confront him, suggesting either that White and Black are the same person, or that White has given his mask to Black to wear. In either case, Blue's paranoia is justified.

  16. Internal evidence, such as Mookie Wilson's tenure on the New York Mets, also supports this assumption.

  17. Having spent this much time on the Trilogy, I have reason to believe that 3 February 1947 is author Paul Auster's birthdate.

  18. As we will see below, preceding a term with “anti” establishes a binary opposition that, within the developing argument, is illegitimate.

  19. We should keep in mind, however, that such insights are not equivalent to claims such as “People qua people are merely the consequence of a grammatical reference simpliciter,” or “The World is a fiction,” or “Everything is a text.” Fiction qua fiction relies for its understanding on the distinction, however imprecise, between “reality” and “fiction”. To conflate this important distinction into a comprehensive claim about the fictionality of persons or “reality” would be to empty the term of any meaning. For a traditional and common sense discussion of such issues, see Crittenden 158-174.

  20. Like the binary oppositions, the number and type of triads are dizzying, but here are a few to support the idea. City of Glass—Quinn talks about the three senses of the term “eye,” in “private eye”: “investigator” “I” and “physical eye of the writer.” Quinn had a triad of selves: Quinn, Wilson, and Work. Stillman, Senior, had a wife and child; Quinn had a wife and child; and Auster, the character, has a wife and child. In Peter Stillman's book, The Garden and the Tower: Early Visions of the New World, he refers to the builders of the Tower of Babel: those who wanted to dwell in heaven, those who wanted to wage war against God, and those who wanted to worship idols. Paul Auster occurs as author, narrator, and character. Quinn has three meetings with Stillman: where Quinn is Quinn. Henry Dark, and Peter Stillman, Junior. Ghosts—The three primary characters are White, Blue, and Black. Among the three books Black recurs as Walter J. Black, editor of Walden, black Jackie Robinson, and Black as an arbitrary name. Mr. White occurs in all three books, under differing auspices. Mr. Green occurs in City of Glass; and, in The Locked Room, two characters are called Green: Stuart Green, editor, and Roger Green, Stuart's brother and the narrator's friend. Columbus is mentioned in Peter Stillman's book, and New York's Columbus Square serves as a meeting place in Ghosts, as does Boston's Columbus Square in The Locked Room. In this inquiry I have uncovered two sets of three: first, Paul Auster, author; the narrator {Auster}, and the reader of the Trilogy. Second, myself as the author of this, article, the text, and you, the reader. I'm confident more can be uncovered.

  21. In that final confrontation in The Locked Room, Fanshawe himself (or someone we assume is Fanshawe, hidden behind a door) threatens violence, again either toward {Auster} or toward himself if {Auster} does not do his bidding.

  22. We learn in City of Glass that Henry Dark wasn't a “real” person anyway, but one imagined by Peter Stillman, Senior, for the purposes of his argument.

  23. As Hutcheon observes, “Narrative is what translates knowing into telling, and it is precisely this translation that obsesses postmodern fiction” (121).

  24. See Hutcheon, 62.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre. Berkeley: U of California P. 1975.

Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room. New York: Penguin, 1985, 1986.

Crittenden, Charles. Unreality: The Metaphysics of Fictional Objects. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell UP, 1991.

Holquist, Michael. “Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction.” New Literary History 3 (1971): 135-56.

Huhn, Peter. “The Detective as Reader: Narrativity and Reading Concepts in Detective Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 451-56.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Kerby, Anthony Paul. Narrative and the Self. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Marcus, Steven. Introduction. The Continental Op. By Dashiell Hammett. Ed. Steven Marcus. New York: Vintage Books. 1974. vii-xxix.

Rowen, Norma. “The Detective in Search of the Long Tongue of Ariel: Paul Auster's City of Glass.” Critique 32 (1991): 224-35.

Russell, Alison. “Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Fiction.” Critique 31 (1990): 71-84.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From Detective Story to the Crime Novel. London: Faber & Faber, 1972.

Thiher, Allen. Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1984.

Williams, Forrest, and Robert Kirkpatrick. Introduction. The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Tr. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. New York: Farrar, 1987. 11-27.

Toby Mundy (review date 14 November 1997)

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SOURCE: “What's the Point?,” in New Statesman, November 14, 1997, pp. 54-5.

[In the following review, Mundy offers unfavorable assessment of Hand to Mouth.]

“We're talking about your life,” proclaims a character in Paul Auster's first novel, Squeeze Play. “There's nothing more important than that.”

Hand to Mouth left me with the uneasy feeling that it would have been more enjoyable if I'd shared the speaker's selfless priorities. The book is outwardly about Auster's attempts to become a writer and the travails he suffered in realising this cherished ambition. It concludes with three huge appendices: the first reproduces three sub-Beckettian dramas written by the young Auster; the second comprises colour plates of a card game that he was unable to exploit commercially; the third gives us Squeeze Play, a modestly impressive hard-boiled detective novel. After The Red Notebook and Groundwork, this is Auster's third consecutive collection of his juvenilia.

Indeed it is so crammed with traces of what is to come that at times it reads like an Ur-text for dedicated Auster fans: we learn that the man who blew himself up on the first page of Leviathan resembles Auster's college friend, Ted Gold, who destroyed himself with a home-made bomb; Casey and Teddy, two eloquent tatterdemalions Auster encounters while working in a hotel, remind us of Stone and Flower, the lottery-winning poker players in The Music of Chance; and Quinn, the metaphysical detective in The New York Trilogy, is revealed here to be Auster's alter ego, a pseudonym used for his early articles. I could go on.

In the enigmatic worlds evoked by the novels, characters strive to understand what is happening to them, slowly building up understanding piece by piece, as one would a mosaic. Each snatched fragment of conversation, each serendipitous moment is slotted carefully into place in the hope that an overall pattern will emerge. Usually something then happens that undercuts all that the character thinks is true. At times in this book I felt like one of Auster's characters. Reading it has caused something to crash, rock-like, into my admiration of his writing. Indeed, Hand to Mouth made me wonder what exactly has been quite so pleasing about Auster's work all these years.

His writing seems to have an easy intimacy with the reader—the lightness of tone, the beautifully weighted prose, a sense of relaxed familiarity—but scratch the surface and it reveals itself as rather po-faced and self-important. This book is really not about writing at all but about the mythic status of the writer. Throughout, Auster persistently neglects to connect his attempts to be an artist with the romantic myth of how an American author learns his craft: he goes to live and write in Paris, but doesn't mention the illustrious American literary figures who had done so before him; he goes to sea, like Melville, Poe and, if legend be believed, Pynchon, and yet makes no mention of how often this has served as a literary rite of passage.

Hand to Mouth causes us to reassess the opacity of the previous books. What is enigmatic is its very pointlessness, which leaves one marvelling how such an accomplished writer can be reduced to plundering, yet again, the notebooks in his bottom drawer. The terrible sense at the end is that Auster has run out of things to say and is more interested, for the time being at least, in the type of immortality that comes from giving undergraduates a corpus of work to dissect.

Cressida Connolly (review date 29 November 1997)

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SOURCE: “Get Better Soon,” in The Spectator, November 29, 1997, pp. 46-7.

[In the following review, Connolly offers unfavorable assessment of Hand to Mouth.]

I hope that this book doesn't mean that there's something the matter with Paul Auster. He is the most distinguished American writer of the generation below Updike and Bellow, indeed their only author under 60 with any claim to greatness. Posterity will doubtless smile upon Edmund White, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Mark Doty, but it will positively beam at Paul Auster. Since the publication of his acclaimed New York trilogy almost a decade ago, he has received reviews ranging from the admiring to the ecstatic. Even so, the arrival of this collection of juvenilia—or not quite juvenilia, being mostly the labours of his late twenties—seems premature. Nothing Auster writes could be boring, but some of this material comes perilously close. Notwithstanding its introductory essay and a short crime novel tacked on to the end, the book doesn't amount to a heap of beans. The rest—three short plays and an incomprehensible card game—are the sort of material that irresponsible literary executors might put out after a writer's death. That's why Hand to Mouth made me worry about Auster's health. This is a collection with ‘posthumous’ written all over it.

In my late twenties and early thirties [the book begins] I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure. My marriage ended in divorce, my work as a writer foundered, and I was overwhelmed by money problems.

The memoir goes on to recall the odd jobs which Auster took in attempts to stave off indigence—working on an oil rig, as a translator, a game inventor. He travelled to Paris and Dublin, suffering from poverty, a romantic disposition and ingrowing toenails. But he never wavered in his desire to write, never for a moment considered an alternative profession. As is now known, his doggedness paid off.

Few writers enjoy overnight success; fewer still chronicle their early failures as honestly as Auster has here. Such candour is admirable, and will be encouraging to young, aspiring authors. So too will the inclusion of the early plays: copying Samuel Beckett is a phase that all junior writers go through, and reading Auster's attempts to imitate the master of the meaningful pause will help a new generation to see the folly of their own attempts. The play in which Laurel and Hardy build a stone wall in heaven, with its heavy debt to Waiting for Godot, is especially salutary on this point. But the inclusion of the card game Auster made up as a young man—reproduced in colour—is mystifying. The game is called Action Baseball; misleadingly, since a card game is, by definition, neither a ball game nor an active one. Perhaps American readers, with their understanding of and affection for baseball, would get it, but Faber would surely have done better to have dropped this from the English version. If ephemera are what is on offer, I'd rather read Auster's shopping lists.

Much the best part of the book is saved till last. Squeeze Play is a whydunnit in the Raymond Chandler vein, which deservedly found a publisher in New York in the early 1980s. This being at the tail-end of Auster's run of bad luck, the company folded almost as soon as they had printed it, leaving most of the edition to moulder in a warehouse in Brooklyn. Both Auster fans and thriller-lovers will find much to enjoy here. Using all the tricks in the noir book—the retired mafia boss, the pair of hoods, the mysterious, chain-smoking brunette, wisecracks and pithy one-liners galore—he inverts the usual murder story to create a modern moral fable. In this, Squeeze Play resembles Martin Amis's recent Night Train, the best existential novel since Sartre or Camus (and a lot funnier than either). Both Auster and Amis use the conventions of the genre, its quick wit and slow revelations, to provide a glimpse into the darkness of the human condition. Now that students no longer have to confine themselves to the classics—I met a young man studying contemporary pop lyrics at Leeds the other day—someone can have fun writing a thesis comparing the two.

The rest of the book will be of more interest to Paul Auster's future biographers than anyone else. The introductory essay does contain a few eccentric characters, but characters without a story look very self-conscious. There's a woman who tips beer over her boyfriend's head, a fat Fundamentalist, a sadly eloquent drunk: all grist to the novelist's mill, but insufficient entertainment in themselves. His novels—Moon Palace and Mr Vertigo in particular—are original, touching and funny. Let's hope nothing ails him, so that he can produce more such mature, wise, delightful work.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 23 May 1999)

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SOURCE: “It's a Dog's Life,” in Washington Post Book World, May 23, 1999, pp. 1-2.

[In the following review, Yardley offer positive assessment of Timbuktu.]

To say that Paul Auster's new novel is a departure from his previous work is true but inadequate, for each of his novels has been a departure; he is one of our most inventive and least predictable writers, forever exploring new territories and taking unexpected risks. Still, there is nothing in his other books—nothing, at least, of which I am aware—to prepare us for a novel the protagonist of which is a dog, “a hodgepodge of genetic strains—part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle”: a creature that thinks human thoughts yet remains dog to the core.

His name is Mr. Bones. He is 7 years old and has spent all but a few weeks of his life as companion to William Gurevitch, aka Willy Christmas, “a flawed creature … a man riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies, the tugs of too many impulses,” part “purity of heart, goodness, Santa's loyal helper,” part “loudmouthed crank … nihilist … besotted clown.” Willie is now in his mid-forties, nearing the premature end of a life at once misspent and holy, putting Mr. Bones in a state of “pure ontological terror” because of his apprehension that “subtract Willy from the world, and the odds were that the world itself would cease to exist.” Mr. Bones fears that Willy is soon to leave this world:

Once your soul had been separated from your body, your body was buried in the ground and your soul lit out for the next world. Willy had been harping on this subject for the past several weeks, and by now there was no doubt in the dog's mind that the next world was a real place. It was called Timbuktu, and from everything Mr. Bones could gather, it was located in the middle of a desert somewhere. … It didn't matter how hot it was there. It didn't matter that there was nothing to eat or drink or smell. If that's where Willy was going, that's where he wanted to go too. When the moment came for him to part company with this world, it seemed only right that he should be allowed to dwell in the hereafter with the same person he had loved in the here-before.

As that passage indicates, the novel is told by an omniscient narrator but from the point of view of Mr. Bones. Auster accomplishes this without a trace of the cloying anthropomorphism to which decades of Disney cartoons and animated features have accustomed us. The reader accepts without question that although Mr. Bones cannot speak, save to bark, he can think and understand as keenly as can any human creature; he and Willy are “boon companions,” Mr. Bones is “not just Willy's best friend but his only friend,” and what exists between them is not merely friendship but also love.

As the novel opens the two have made their way from Brooklyn to Baltimore, where Willy hopes before he dies to find a new home for Mr. Bones and to track down his old teacher, Mrs. Swanson, to whom he intends to entrust the several dozen notebooks he has filled with “poems, stories, essays, diary entries, epigrams, autobiographical musings and the first 1800 lines of an epic-in-progress, Vagabond Days,” the unpublished work that constitutes, in sum, the evidence that his life has not been lived in vain. Mr. Bones dreams of a meeting between Willy and Mrs. Swanson, but reality moves faster than dreams; suddenly the ailing Willie has been spirited off the streets of Baltimore in an ambulance and Mr. Bones, knowing that Willy's end has come, is left to fend for himself: “He was on his own, and like it or not, he would have to keep on moving, even if he had nowhere to go.”

For a time he finds affection and protection with an 11-year-old boy, Henry Chow, with whom he briefly enjoys “an exemplary friendship.” Henry is an admirer of the Baltimore Orioles and decides to name the dog in honor of one whose “name was Cal, and although he was no more than a ball-playing oriole, he seemed to embody the attributes of several other creatures as well; the endurance of a workhorse, the courage of a lion, and the strength of a bull.” Baseball being beyond the ken of Mr. Bones, he does not entirely comprehend this honor, but since Henry loves him, he accepts it as being “as good a name as any other.”

The idyll with Henry soon ends, when the boy's dog-hating father discovers the dog, but not before Mr. Bones understands the novel's central theme: “For Mr. Bones, Henry proved that love was not a quantifiable substance. There was always more of it somewhere, and even after one love had been lost, it was by no means impossible to find another.” Mr. Bones is determined to leave Baltimore, “a place of death and despair,” but he heads west into the countryside in the serene belief that he will find love somewhere else, as well as understanding that Willy will be with him forever:

He watched the sun as it continued to sink behind the trees, his eyes struggling to stay open as the darkness gathered around him. He didn't hold out for more than a minute or two, but even before weariness got the better of him, Mr. Bones's head had already begun to fill up with thoughts of Willy, fleeting pictures from the bygone days of smoke rings and Lucky Strikes, the goof-ball antics of their life together in the world of long ago. It was the first time since his master's death that he had been able to think about such things without feeling crushed by sorrow, the first time he had understood that memory was a place, a real place that one could visit, and that to spend a few moments among the dead was not necessarily bad for you, that it could in fact be a source of great comfort and happiness.

Mr. Bones's travels take him to a new family and a new place, a green lawn in the new America “of two-car garages, home-improvement loans, and neo-Renaissance shopping malls.” Willy “had always attacked these things, railing against them in that lopsided, comic way of his,” but “now that Mr. Bones was on the inside, he wondered where his old master had gone wrong and why he had worked so hard to spurn the trappings of the good life.” There, in the plush suburbs of northern Virginia, Mr. Bones has found love once again; though his loyalty to Willy is as deep and strong as ever—Willy tests the dog's love from the beyond, and is pleased with what he finds—he knows that it is not the only love offered to him, and he embraces his new family with gratitude and joy.

One need not be a lover of dogs to be enchanted (for that is the only appropriate word) by the story of Mr. Bones, but it helps. As one who talks to dogs every day and has done so for years, I am confident that they know whereof I speak and that they would reply to me if only they could. Mr. Bones, through Paul Auster's words, confirms me in the conviction that anything they might say would be sensible, wise and compassionate. “If God had sent his son down to earth in the form of a man,” Auster asks, “why shouldn't any angel come down to earth in the form of a dog?” Mr. Bones, “wholly and incorruptibly good,” is just such an angel.

Auster includes no epigraph at the beginning of this lovely novel, but as I read it the words of Konrad Lorenz kept echoing in my mind. “The fidelity of a dog,” he wrote, “is a precious gift demanding no less binding moral responsibilities than the friendship of a human being. The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth can ever be.” It is hard to imagine more touching evidence of the truth of those words than the story Paul Auster tells in Timbuktu.

Jim Shepard (review date 20 June 1999)

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SOURCE: “This Dog's Life,” in New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1999, p. 11.

[In the following review, Shepard offers positive assessment of Timbuktu, though finds fault in lapses of self-consciousness and overstatement in the novel.]

At least since Alexander Pope, literature has been drafting dogs into service as metaphysical guides: “I am his Highness' Dog at Kew; / Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?” The protagonist of Paul Auster's latest novel, Timbuktu, may be a “hodgepodge of genetic strains” who's all burrs and bad smells, with a “perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes,” but he carries on that tradition. Unable to speak (though he can passably render the anapest of his three-syllable name: “woof woof woof”). Mr. Bones opens the novel in a state of near-pure ontological terror, mostly because Willy G. Christmas, the homeless man who has been his boon companion and spiritual adviser, isn't long for this world, and in such a case, what's a poor dog to do? “Every thought, every memory, every particle of the earth and air was saturated with Willy's presence. … Subtract Willy from the world, and the odds were that the world itself would cease to exist.”

Together Willy and Mr. Bones have walked to Baltimore from Brooklyn in the hopes of persuading Willy's high school English teacher, out of touch for 17 years, to provide a new home for Mr. Bones and become the literary executor of Willy's lifework: 74 notebooks crammed into a locker at the bus terminal. Willy considers himself an “outlaw poet prowling the gutters of a ruined world.” Primed by a lifetime of voluntarily ingesting “enough toxic confections to fill a dump site in the Jersey Meadowlands,” he experienced, years earlier, a mystical encounter with blessedness in the form of a television Santa excoriating him and exhorting him to goodness, as if in a Best version of “A Christmas Carol.” Since then, he's been trying to make the world a better place, with Mr. Bones as sidekick.

Now, coughing up blood, Willy is clearly headed for the next world, “an oasis of spirits” where you become “a speck of antimatter lodged in the brain of God.” He names that world Timbuktu, the colloquial site of the unimaginably exotic and distant. To his dog, the word alone seems “a promise, a guarantee of better days ahead.” But will poor Mr. Bones take the trip too, when his time comes? Willy expires before he makes this clear; his friend will have to figure it out for himself. But this is only fitting, given that he's named for the comedian at the end of the line in the minstrel show who gets peppered with questions from the straight man.

Fans of Auster's work will recognize some familiar themes in Timbuktu: the nature of solitude and memory; the lost father and abandoned son; the power of contingency; the confrontation between the individual and the void. Here, as in his New York Trilogy, the forms of popular culture are enlisted in the service of the most weighty sorts of meditations.

At times, the book flaunts the fairy-tale simplicity of its plot. “Thus began an exemplary friendship between dog and boy,” we're told after Willy's death leaves Mr. Bones free to find another companion. A “new chapter in Mr. Bones's life began,” we're informed at another stage in his adventures. Angelic benefactresses appear as needed to shelter both man and dog. It's as if everything that might clutter our perception of the central issues has been pared away or simplified.

Yet this particular fairy tale is also constructed with cultural detritus, since nowadays there's all this gunk gumming up the imaginative works. A little girl, reacting to Mr. Bones's general dilapidation, exclaims, “There's nothing wrong with him that a little soap and water can't fix,” and “We've just got to keep him, Mama. I'll get down on my hands and knees and pray to Jesus for the rest of the day if it'll make Daddy say yes.” In the meantime, we're provided with persistent hints of a self-conscious design at work: “What was true, what was false? It was difficult to know when dealing with a character as complex and fanciful as Willy G. Christmas.” “Pure corn will cure porn,” Willy remarks. Later he confesses that “it feels good to let the purple stuff come pouring out sometimes.”

Mr. Bones becomes an actual fly on the wall to witness an important moment. There are references to dreams within dreams. And Paul Auster as a character peeks out, sometimes half-hidden, sometimes not, from within the machinery of the plot. The book even provides its own operating instructions. “The thing I look like is the thing I am,” the television Santa tells Willy. “This unlikeliest of fictions … this absurd display of hokum,” we learn, “had sprung forth from the depths of Television Land to debunk the certitudes of Willy's skepticism and put his soul back together again. It was as simple as that.”

Unfortunately, gunk is still gunk, and however self-conscious the intent, the reader still must negotiate the occasional sentence like “How could a man of his ilk propose to don the mantle of purity?” or endure the Norman Rockwellish brio of archetypal collisions between boy and dog: “The little fellow howled with laughter, and even though the thrust of Mr. Bones's tongue eventually made him lose his balance, the rough-and-tumble Tiger thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to him, and he went on laughing under the barrage of the dog's kisses even as he thudded to the ground on his wet bottom.”

Things also get thematically insistent for those of us slow to make connections. “Dog as metaphor, if you catch my drift, dog as emblem of the downtrodden,” Willy lectures our hero. And later: “People get treated like dogs too, my friend.” Such moments seem more committed to providing answers than to fully interrogating questions.

Ultimately, though, Timbuktu is much smarter than either of its seekers of wisdom, and there are periodic flashes of gorgeous prose to prove it. For Mr. Bones, we're told, the word “Tucson” bears “the scent of juniper leaves and sagebrush, the sudden, unearthly plenitude of the vacant air.”

On his own, Mr. Bones samples urban, suburban and rural America, and after being partly seduced—especially by the “splendor and well-being” of a yuppie household—he decides to go his own way, understanding that his own health is failing. When the departed Willy suggests in a dream that his friend transmute Sparky, the humiliating new name he's been given in suburbia, into Sparkatus (the dog who sought to free Rome's slaves?), we begin to see where all this is headed. Throughout his story, Mr. Bones has been demonstrating the ways in which we're both haunted by and find solace in memory, and as he comes to understand the uses of memory in the construction of dreams, he begins to move into the presence of a beauty “beyond the boundaries of hard fact,” a place where our solitude is alleviated—the Timbuktu he's been seeking. Its threshold is “a spectacle of pure radiance, a field of overpowering light.”

Mr. Bones has earned his election. He's convinced us that he harbors a divine presence, possibly first and foremost because he is the thing he appears to be: a dog unshakably devoted to his longtime companion. Their connection has allowed them both access to a world beyond themselves, a glimpse of a kind of continuum that puts their own mortality into perspective. Contemplating Willy's death, Mr. Bones is better armed to face his own, and vice versa. Unable actually to speak, he has communicated all he hoped to and more: “He was painfully aware of how far from fluency these noises fell, but Willy always let him have his say, and in the end that was all that mattered.”

Jonathan Levi (review date 27 June 1999)

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SOURCE: “His Master's Voice,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 27, 1999, p. 2.

[In the following review, Levi offers positive assessment of Timbuktu.]

On the cover of Paul Auster's latest novel, Timbuktu, half the face of a dog peers out at the prospective buyer, daring him or her to take it home. The face is blurry, the focus as indistinct as the pedigree—a mutt of a photo. A book about a dog, it seems to say. And yet, there are dog books and there are dog books—hearty canines from Jack London, over-bred varieties like Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush and kennels full of child-friendly puppies, from Eric Hill's Spot to Sheila Burnford's classic The Incredible Journey. Some of the finest writers in the English language have paper-trained their dogs, from Virginia Woolf with her story of Elizabeth Barrett's “Flush” to John Berger and his “King.” Everyone, as Geoffrey Rush's Elizabethan producer says in Shakespeare in Love, likes a bit with a dog.

But Auster's entry is a mixed breed that defies easy categorization.

Timbuktu opens on a gloomy Sunday morning. A mutt who answers to the name of Mr. Bones waits patiently on the edge of a road between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, while his master, Willy, coughs up bloody sputum onto his wild beard. Willy G. Christmas né Willy Gurevitch is a former Columbia University student who, like an unfortunate few in the Leary-sparked '60s, ended a youthful acid trip with a descent into debilitating schizophrenia. Discovered by his roommate (Willy can't remember whether his name was Auster or Omster) “buck naked on the floor—chanting names from the Manhattan phone book and eating a bowl of his own excrement,” Willy was sent to a hospital, from which he was released into the care of his aging mother. Six months later, weaned from drugs to alcohol, Willy had his epiphany. Bleary-eyed from too much TV and bourbon, Willy was flipping through the channels one Christmas Eve when Santa Claus came on and spoke directly to him, to his soul.

Taking on the new surname (and a tricolored tattoo of Mr. Claus on his right arm), Willy set off on the road to preach the gospel of Christmas. After a few seasons of saintly heroism, tempered by the scars of knifings and beatings, Willy adopted a four-legged companion. Thanks to Willy's manic logorrhea, Mr. Bones has not only heard enough of his master's voice to dictate a passable biography but has learned enough “Ingloosh” to understand the human race, if not how to communicate on the level, say, of Doctor Dolittle's canine friend, Jip.

Willy not only speaks to Mr. Bones but believes that his dog understands and that that understanding means he has a soul. Willy reasons that “if, as all philosophers on the subject have noted, art is a human activity that relies on the senses to reach that soul, did it not also stand to reason that dogs—at least dogs of Mr. Bones' caliber—would have it in them to feel a similar aesthetic impulse? … If dogs were beyond the pull of oil paintings and string quartets, who was to say they wouldn't respond to an art based on the sense of smell? Why not an olfactory art? Why not an art for dogs that dealt with the world as dogs knew it?”

And so Willy spends an entire winter constructing a Symphony of Smells for Mr. Bones to perform, painting scents on sequences of cardboard boxes, urine-soaked rags and “a tunnel whose walls had been smeared with the traces of a meatball-and-spaghetti dinner.” Like all Willy's projects, the Symphony of Smells fails to bring in the fame and fortune that Willy expects. “It might not have served any purpose,” the straight-shooting philosophe Mr. Bones opines, “but the truth was that it was fun.”

But Willy's masterwork is words. These words survive in 74 notebooks of writings, including the first 1,800 lines of an epic-in-progress titled “Vagabond Days,” which themselves are living in a rental locker in the Greyhound bus terminal in Baltimore. Within his delusion, Willy understands that his best chance at immortality requires that he deliver the key to the locker to Mrs. Bea Swanson, Willy's former high school English teacher, whom he hasn't seen in 25 years. And it is to find Mrs. Swanson that Willy and Mr. Bones make their hajj to Baltimore.

Willy's pilgrimage finishes short, however, as he collapses only 2 1/2 blocks from the Greyhound station, at 203 N. Amity St., for three years of the 19th century the residence of Edgar Allan Poe. To Mr. Bones' semi-educated ear, there is little difference between the Poland that nurtured Willy's Gurevitch ancestors and the Poe-land where the dying Willy will breathe his last. Yet there is one word that Mr. Bones is certain he understands—Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is the Big Rock Candy Mountain of this late-century breed of hobo, the never-never land to which the tubercular Willy is inevitably bound. Following logic, Mr. Bones reasons that “it seemed only right that he should be allowed to dwell in the hereafter with the same person he had loved in the here-before. … [I]n Timbuktu dogs would be able to speak man's language and converse with him as an equal. That was what logic dictated, but who knew if justice or logic had any more impact on the next world than they did on this one?”

Mr. Bones soon has an opportunity to investigate the justice and logic of this world as he escapes from the police who are bent on evicting the unconscious Willy from his Poe-land stoop. He gallops off on an incredible journey of his own through the suburbs and countryside surrounding the nation's capital. Along the way, Mr. Bones is taken in by the 10-year-old son of a Chinese restaurateur and, later, the 12-year-old daughter of a depressed suburban housewife. As he receives kindnesses and cruelties from his new masters, Mr. Bones comes to learn how complex and dangerous is the highway that separates the lives of the well from the lives of the ill; how wonderful and terrible is the navigation of that road, in that “venerable, time-honored” sport of dogs, dodge-the-car.

Auster has made a big-hearted search throughout his career for the poetry in the lost souls of his contemporaries, from Columbia and other parts, who came of age in the '60s at the cost of their minds. His sense of smell has been matched only by his fearless ear for the sad truths of the fragile—that they ultimately have no greater gift for language than the healthy. And yet, as he shows so simply in Timbuktu, their need for words in their imprisoned monologues and their capacity for love may be as unbounded and unspoken as, say, a dog's.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666


Adams, Robert M. “Cornering the Market.” New York Review of Books (3 December 1992): 14-6.

Offers tempered evaluation of Leviathan and The Art of Hunger.

Alford, Steven E. “Spaced-Out: Signification and Space in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.Contemporary Literature XXXVI, No. 4 (Winter 1995): 613-32.

Examines the function of three categories of space—pedestrian, mapped, and utopian—and their association with the search for selfhood and meaning in The New York Trilogy. Alford contends that such fictive “spaces” in Auster's novels serve as a forum for his characters to explore, confront, and evade their various fears and misunderstandings.

Barone, Dennis. Review of The Art of Hunger, by Paul Auster. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 259-60.

A positive review of The Art of Hunger.

Barone, Dennis. Review of Leviathan, by Paul Auster. Review of Contemporary Fiction, 12, No. 3 (Fall 1992): 193-4.

Summarizes the central themes and concerns of Leviathan.

Bell, Madison Smartt. “Poker and Nothingness.” New York Times Book Review. (4 November 1990): 15-6.

Offers tempered assessment of The Music of Chance, which he concludes “is not Paul Auster's best novel” but “still a very good one.”

Birkerts, Sven. “Reality, Fiction, and In the Country of Last Things.Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 66-9.

Examines the narrative structure and archetypal themes of In the Country of Last Things.

Creeley, Robert. “Austerities.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 35-9.

Discusses associations between author, language, and meaning in Auster's writing and Creeley's personal reaction to Auster's work.

Denby, David. “Curls of Smoke.” New York (19 June 1995): 74-5.

A favorable review of the film Smoke.

Edwards, Thomas E. “Sad Young Men.” New York Review of Books, (17 August 1989): 52-3.

A positive review of Moon Palace.

Kakutani, Michiko. “A Picaresque Search for Father and for Self.” The New York Times (7 March 1989): C19.

A positive review of Moon Palace.

———. “How Ben Sachs Came to Blow Himself Up.” The New York Times (8 September 1992): C14.

Kakutani offers unfavorable assessment of Leviathan, which he concludes is “a disappointing novel by a dextrous and prolific writer.”

———. “My Life as a Dog: In His Master's Death, a Dog Feels Life's Vagaries.” The New York Times (25 June 1999): E39.

Offers tempered praise for Timbuktu.

———. “Shamed by Excess, Then Shamed by Too Little.” The New York Times (2 September 1997): C14.

An unfavorable review of Hand to Mouth.

Lavender, William. “The Novel of Critical Engagement: Paul Auster's City of Glass.Contemporary Literature XXXIV, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 219-39.

Examines Auster's subversion and deconstruction of literary theory, traditional genres, and narrative representation in City of Glass.

Little, William G. “Nothing to Go On: Paul Auster's City of Glass.Contemporary Literature XXXVIII, No. 1 (Spring 1997): 133-63.

Examines Auster's use of detective techniques and minimalist prose in City of Glass to deconstruct and neutralize limited, value-laden representations of reality and experience. “The narrative's ascetic aesthetic,” writes Little, “reflects th[e] desire to construct a perfectly decontextualized text.”

Malin, Irving. Review of The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 315-6.

Summarizes the central themes and narrative features of The Music of Chance.

McCaffery, Larry McCaffery, and Sinda Gregory. “An Interview with Paul Auster.” Contemporary Literature, XXXIII, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 1-23.

Auster discusses the relationship between his fiction and life, the themes and construction of his novels, his artistic and theoretical perspective, and his work as a critic and poet.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. “Work of the Detective, Work of the Writer: Paul Auster's City of Glass.Modern Fiction Studies 42, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 91-110.

Examines metafictional and metaphysical aspects of City of Glass, drawing attention to the limitations, rather than the open-ended possibilities, of language, space, and time in Auster's anti-detective postmodern novel.

Towers, Robert. “Enigma Variations.” New York Review of Books (17 January 1991): 31-3.

A positive review of The Music of Chance.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Above the Fruited Plain.” Washington Post Book World (28 August 1994): 3.

Offers favorable assessment of Mr. Vertigo.

Additional coverage of Auster's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 52, 75; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 1.

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Paul Auster Long Fiction Analysis