Paul Auster Auster, Paul - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


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Carolyn See (review date 17 November 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Dirda (review date 26 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sven Birkerts (review date 27 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alison Russell (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 2 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 22 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Norma Rowen (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Mallon (review date 6 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barry Lewis (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Katharine Washburn (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Phil Edwards (review date 8 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Walton (review date 9 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joanna Scott (review date 31 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 26 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Steven E. Alford (essay date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Toby Mundy (review date 14 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cressida Connolly (review date 29 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 23 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jim Shepard (review date 20 June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Levi (review date 27 June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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