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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 (1986). In these novels and others he combines elements of hard-boiled detective fiction, film noir, dystopian fantasy, and postmodern narratives to address the nature of knowledge, human redemption, and the function of language. His ambitious work is distinguished for challenging the limits of the novel form and tackling difficult philosophical concepts.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
New York in the 1960s
Born on the outskirts of New York City, in Newark, New Jersey, Paul Auster was raised in a middle-class Jewish family by his parents, Samuel, a landlord, and Queenie. His early experiences and observations of life in the city and its suburbs would later figure largely in his famed New York Trilogy. The teenaged Auster became an avid reader and soon resolved to become a writer. Upon graduating from high school, he attended Columbia University, where he earned a BA in English in 1969 and an MA in 1970. Auster developed an interest in the American Transcendental writers of the nineteenth century, who emphasized individualism, universal human rights, and harmony with nature. Auster read such authors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, and would later model many of his characters on those from their works. During this period, Auster also became involved with the Civil Rights Movement, which emphasized racial and gender equality, and encouraged young people to break with traditional thinking. Auster adopted these ideas, and began experimenting with literary forms that veered away from accepted models of plot and dialogue. While still in college, he wrote both poetry and prose and participated in campus protests against the Vietnam War.
The Influence of French Philosophy
After receiving his degrees from Columbia University, Auster 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 France, Auster was heavily influenced by philosophers and psychoanalysts such as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, who argued that man’s whole universe is created and maintained through language, and because each individual is trapped in this network of language man experiences the frustration of never being able to obtain truth and meaning. Language, itself largely arbitrary, keeps the individual from finding their true identity. Derrida and Lacan, who applied psychoanalysis to literary criticism, spearheaded the school of thought known as Post-structuralism. The ideas put forward by these French thinkers would encourage Auster to experiment with different varieties of language and voices, and to examine the role of chance and accident throughout his works.
Experiments in Poetry and Prose
Auster returned to New York, and continued to support himself by translating French poets into English. In 1974, he married writer and translator Lydia Davis, with whom he shares a son. They divorced in 1979 and Auster married Siri Hustvedt in 1981. After returning to New York, Auster published his first two books—the poetry collections Unearth (1974) and Wall Writing (1976). The books were well-received and Auster gained a name for himself as a new “post-modern” writer. Postmodern writers, influenced by poststructuralist philosophy, were known for their experimentation, wordplay, self-awareness, irony, and sense of the absurd.
Following the favorable reviews of his first two books of poetry, Auster was awarded Ingram Merrill Foundation grants in 1975 and 1982, as well as National Endowment of the Arts fellowships in 1979 and 1985. He 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. That work, which had been rejected by seventeen other publishers, was finally issued by Sun & Moon Press in 1985. The novel, which fused postmodern techniques with the traditional detective novel, received high critical acclaim, and was nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 1986. Auster followed this novel with Ghosts, which also received favorable criticism. The third volume of his New York Trilogy, The Locked Room, was nominated for several awards and is considered by critics as the strongest work of the trilogy. After the success of his trilogy, Auster continued to investigate philosophical concepts of knowledge and language in such novels as In the Country of Last Things (1987), The Music of Chance (1990), and Levia than (1992). 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 et des Lettres in 1993.
Auster has continued his success as a novelist, publishing Travelsin the Scriptorium in 2007 and Man in the Dark in 2008.
Works in Literary Context
”Paul Auster’s books are dominated by the twin themes of chance and mortality and revolve around writers, even drawing on himself,” London Guardian contributor James Campbell noted. ”Writing is a potent strength in the world created by Auster. His characters constantly stress the force of the word set free.”
The Mystery Genre
Though Auster is generally considered a postmodern experimental writer rather than a genre writer, he often adopts certain genres such as the detective novel to underscore 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 con temporary urban life in his New York Trilogy, deliberately blurring the distinction between author and text. For example, City of Glass, a grim and intellectually puzzling story, superficially resembles a mystery novel that exploits the conventions of the detective genre. ”The real mystery, however, is one of confused character identity,” suggested New York Times Book Review contributor Toby Olson, ”the descent of a writer into a labyrinth in which fact and fiction become increasingly difficult to separate.” 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. 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 theoretical context disconnected from reality, forcing the reader to solve the ”mystery” of Auster’s narrative technique.
Auster pursues his philosophical interest in the nature of language and reality not just through the content of his novels, but in the forms of their narratives. Thus, Auster’s novels frequently shift speakers and points of view, address the reader directly, and sometimes, as in City of Glass, incorporate Auster himself as a character. Thus, the reader is forced to evaluate his or her own role in the reading of the novel, as well as Auster’s role in the writing of it.
Chance and Accident
Throughout his works, Auster has pursued the theme of chance, encouraging the reader to regard life itself to be as arbitrary as the language with which we describe and experience it. Auster, therefore, often uses irony to explore the idea of an individual having a set destiny. Auster’s novel, The Music of Chance, for example, is the story of 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. Soon, however, he falls in with gamblers, loses his money, and must adapt to conditions that affect him in an arbitrary manner. He does not learn any concrete truth about himself, but instead learns to respond to the ever-changing world around him.
Works in Critical Context
Though generally regarded as a postmodern writer because of his narrative experimentation and ironic posturing, reviewers repeatedly note that Paul Auster’s idiosyncratic work resists simple categorization. His critical reputation rests largely upon his New York Trilogy, which was enthusiastically received by reviewers, and which won him respect as a formidable new literary talent during the mid-1980s. The Locked Room is widely judged to be the richest and by far the most compelling book of the trilogy, yet 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. Though some commentators have dismissed Auster’s intellectual game-playing as unconvincing and gratuitous, most critics praise his sophisticated narrative structures, lucid prose, and daring forays into the philosophical paradoxes surrounding issues of linguistic self-invention and spiritual doubt. His innovative work is appreciated by many critics for reclaiming the vitality of contemporary experimental literature.
City of Glass
Critical response to City of Glass was highly enthusiastic. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Carolyn See described the book’s main themes as ”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.” She deemed the book ”an experimental novel that wanders and digresses and loses its own narrative thread, but with all that . . . thoughtfully and cleverly draws our attention to these questions of self.” The way the novel subtly shifts from a standard mystery story to an existential quest for identity also captured Toby Olson’s attention in the New York Times Book Review: ”Each detail, each small revelation must be attended to as significant. And such attention brings ambiguity, confusion, and paranoia.” Despite its challenges, Olson believed that ”the book is a pleasure to read, full of suspense and action.”
In Ghosts, the second volume of the trilogy, Auster continues his investigation of lost identity on a more abstract plane. ”A client named White hires a detective named Blue to follow a man named Black,” Dennis Drabelle explained in Washington Post Book World. ”Gradually Blue realizes he’s been ruined. All he can do is stare at Black, eternally writing a book in the rented room across the street, and draw a weekly paycheck.” Auster’s choice of names for his protagonists coupled with his coy and knowing tone throughout the book suggest that he is playing mind games with the reader. The real mystery, he implies, is not within the story but ”on some higher level,” as Rebecca Goldstein observed in the New York Times Book Review, acknowledging that Ghosts solves the internal mystery, but leaves the larger questions unanswered. Nonetheless, she judged the work ”nearly perfect.”
The Locked Room
The trilogy’s concluding volume, The Locked Room, was widely judged to be the richest and by far the most compelling volume in the trilogy. Less abstract and more accessible than the previous books, this story features fesh-and-blood characters with whom readers can easily identify. Several reviewers suggested that Auster’s use of a first-person narrator enhances the book. ”When Auster finally allows himself the luxury of character, what a delicious treat he serves up for the reader!” Carolyn See wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Though The Locked Room is a mystery like the first two installments, this novel is narrated by ”a genuine character who feels love and pain and envy.” Because of the first-person narration, ”Mr. Auster’s philosophical asides now sound heartfelt instead of stentorian and his descents into semiological Angst feel genuinely anguished and near,” Steven Schiff suggested in the New York Times Book Review. He and other critics hypothesized that the nameless narrator represents Auster himself.
- Handler, Nina. Drawn into the Circle of Its Repetitions: Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1996.
- Holzapfel, Anne M. The New York Trilogy: Whodunit?: Tracking the Structure of Paul Auster’s Anti-Detective Novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
- Drabelle, Dennis. Review of The Locked Room. Washington Post Book World (March 29, 1987): 3.
- Goldstein, Rebecca. Review of Ghosts. New York Times Book Review (June 29, 1986): 13.
- Olson, Toby. Review of City of Glass. New York Times Book Review (November 3, 1985): 31.
- Schiff, Steven. Review of The Locked Room. New York Times Book Review (January 4, 1987): 14.
- See, Carolyn. Review of City of Glass. Los Angeles Times Book Review (November 17, 1985): 3.
- ———. Review of The Locked Room. Los Angeles Times (March 2, 1987): V4.
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