The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy, Volume 3) by Paul Auster

“And death…happens to us every day.”

by Paul Auster

The final installment of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy begins with the above quote and attribution. The quote does not appear, other than at this point, anywhere in The New York Trilogy. Google was of no immediate help in locating a separate writing of Auster’s in which this quote appears. It seems that the quote is Auster’s own, but written solely for the beginning of this work. This enigmatic choice is typical of the oddities within this work.

Unlike City of Glass which seemed to unravel rather than spin a plot and unlike Ghosts which seemed more allegorical than realist, The Locked Room has a realistic plot which pulls together some of the loose threads of City of Glass. For instance, the detective Quinn and Peter Stillman both make appearances in this story of a writer gone missing.

Fanshawe has left his six-months pregnant wife, Sophie, and has not returned. After he has been gone for some time, Sophie presumes him dead. The unnamed narrator, a failed novelist but successful writer of articles, was Fanshawe’s best friend in childhood and was named as his literary executor. Sophie approaches the narrator with Fanshawe’s writings, none of which has ever been published. The narrator is to determine whether any of it is publishable. He is daunted.

How could I be expected to take on such a responsibility – to stand in judgment of a man and say whether his life had been worth living?…He admired what I did, Sophie said; he was proud of me, and he felt that I had it in me to do something great.

Upon review of Fanshawe’s work, the narrator determines that it is Fanshawe who has achieved something great. The literary community agrees and Fanshawe’s work sells very well. During all of this, Sophie and the narrator fall in love. At first, they embrace this common element of their lives but, soon enough, they both wish to move past Fanshawe and his influence.

The narrator eventually decides that the only way to purge Fanshawe from their lives is to find him. His decision is made despite having received a death threat purportedly from Fanshawe in which Fanshawe warns the narrator not to search for Fanshawe. The narrator becomes the third detective-protagonist in the New York Trilogy.

The three installments of The New York Trilogy are less about detective work than about writing. This last installment, The Locked Room, continues some of the themes of twinning and identity. Fanshawe and the narrator seem, at times, to be different aspects of the a single person, though “there are photographs to document” that they spent their boyhood together. This assurance of photographs and other seemingly unassailable evidence of separateness is hardly dispositive given that the ability of words, or even facts, to convey truth is questioned.

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, 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.

Whether Fanshawe is the narrator’s creation or another aspect of the narrator, the reader must conflate, to some extent, Fanshawe and the narrator. The narrator can only write of Fanshawe by putting himself into Fanshawe’s story and we can only read the narrator’s story by inhabiting first the narrator and then Fanshawe. The doubling inherent in storytelling is unavoidable Auster reminds us.

The effect is brilliantly boggling because we readers are primed as humans or readers to look for meaning though, in Auster’s view (or at least in his narrator’s view), sense cannot be made of the story of anyone’s life.

The point being that, in the end, each life is irreducible to anything other than itself.

The skill with which Paul Auster simultaneously gives us a compelling detective story and circumvents the concept of sensible narration is dazzling. This third of the series is perhaps the most narratively conventional but, at the same time, it reveals the full extent and purpose of Auster’s earlier playfulness. Auster manages an ambiguity that would merely frustrate in the hands of a lesser writer. The ambiguity can be frustrating, but this is essential to Auster’s purpose.

Not unlike Nabokov’s Kinbote in Pale Fire who tries to extract meaning from his neighbor’s poem, the narrator here searches Fanshawe’s works for clues and, in the end, both Nabokov and Auster leave us with an open-ended finale. Both are masterpieces because this indeterminateness amplifies the central thesis of the texts without any resort to cheap tricks. The setup may be elaborate, but both authors manage to leave the reader with a satisfying catharsis that is only more pleasant because of the prick of doubt.

Perhaps the best summary of Auster’s accomplishment in The Locked Room is the narrator’s synopsis of Fanshawe’s work:

It is as if Fanshawe knew his final work had to subvert every expectation [the reader has] for it.

I will be re-reading the entire trilogy. This is a beautiful and demanding work.

7 Responses to The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy, Volume 3) by Paul Auster

  1. Hm, it sounds curiously similar to his Leviathan, which features a missing novelist and his friend’s attempts to locate him following an affair with his wife.

    There’s a scathing review of that later book in the Independent here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/book-review–trying-on-terrorist-chic-for-size-leviathan–paul-auster-faber-1499-pounds-1559269.html I liked it more than that, but it’s interesting how there’s something of a critical backlash against Auster.

    I am slightly concerned at how similar this sounds. Authors do revisit themes, but even the plot sounds much the same. But then your final line is glowing.

    Perhaps this is just better than Leviathan (which James Woods singles out a bit in his infamous kicking in the New Yorker here: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/30/091130crbo_books_wood?currentPage=all).

  2. Kerry says:

    Max,

    You are right. That Leviathan capsule sounds quite the same. And James Wood seems to have pegged Paul Auster as a one-trick pony. I still thought the trilogy was very good, but maybe I am too sheltered from seeing all his work to realize the true depth (or lack thereof) of his profundity.

    I had avoided that James Wood interview because I have a copy of Invisible and wanted to read without preconceptions. But now I’ve gone and read the New York Trilogy and read others’ takes on that, so I went ahead an clicked through. Perhaps Auster had a good idea the first time around, but now just keeps writing the same book over and over? Or maybe I overestimate the beauty of the trilogy?

    I will re-read the trilogy and I will read Invisible for my own take. But you raise some interesting concerns about Auster’s output. I certainly do not find it fun to re-read the same novel with minor details changed. I would rather read someone with something new to say (or a new way to say something old).

  3. I’ve seen it said that everyone loves their first DeLillo, but few love their second.

    Perhaps there’s some of that with Auster too? I liked Leviathan. The criticisms I linked to interest me in part because I liked it (though with hindsight I suspect they’re right).

    My impression is that you’ve read the better Auster. Leviathan seems a retread, but the New York Trilogy wasn’t and it seems to have a greater freshness. I imagine they are beautiful (Auster can write and I trust your judgement), but there may be diminishing returns.

    Sometimes authors do repeat themes. JG Ballard often seemed to work in three book cycles, where he’d keep exploring the same idea writing essentially the same book before moving on. Then again, I know that his Kingdom Come which I liked was heavily criticised for being a pure retread of his previous two novels (which I hadn’t read, perhaps to my benefit).

    I must admit, I find the notion of rereading a good book more tempting than the idea of reading a new book which is a repeat of that good book. Anyway, interesting stuff and thanks for the as ever fascinating review.

    • Kerry says:

      I have only read one DeLillo (Libra), so maybe I should stop there. Or at least wait a sufficiently long time that the next one at least seems new again.

      But, that conflicts with your final preference, with which I agree: Re-reading a very good book is better than reading a new book which merely repeats that book.

      Because I have it, and now want to explore this phenomenon myself, I will read Invisible.

      Even Mitchell, who seems to try very hard to be original with each new work tiptoed close to the line of some re-treading in The Thousand Autumns The nuns on Mount Shiranui reminded me quite a bit of the womb tanks in Cloud Atlas, there was “soap” for Somni-451 and “solace” for the nuns, the fake letters from children to the nuns on Mount Shiranui parallel the fake letters from the fabricants who have reached the ninth level or whatever its called, etc.

  4. I second Max’s comparison to DeLillo, if only because it reflects my own experience. Underworld was my first DeLillo, the Trilogy my first Auster and further explorations of the work of both has not produced a read equal to the first one.

    Having said that, when I finished the Trilogy (and found that the third volume made concrete ideas that were rather ephemeral in the first two) I immediately went back and started it again.

    • Kerry says:

      I will take both your words for it and the implicit advice to focus on pulling what I can out of the Trilogy before moving on. And, with DeLillo, I will wait awhile before reading another of his.

      Thanks for the added input, Kevin. I am encouraged to re-read the Trilogy sooner rather than later.

  5. Toby Simmons says:

    Fascinating! It is truly a great novel.
    Great blog all-round, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/
    Keep on posting!

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