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

January 4, 2011

“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.


Ghosts (The New York Trilogy, Volume 2) by Paul Auster

September 14, 2010

I have been slightly delayed in posting about this second volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy for no entirely discernible reason. I could say that the fact that I was on the wait list for the third volume, The Locked Room, at the library and, then, for no apparent reason, The Locked Room has disappeared from the library’s catalogue, dampened my enthusiasm. What to say about a trilogy when you only have the first two books? Then I have a dilemma. Do I buy the whole trilogy? My library has done this to me before. It has two of the three books in Coetzee’s semi-autobiography “trilogy”. I did buy the missing one that time. It’s Coetzee, after all. But Auster? I have not been blown away, though I probably should have been. Is Auster shelf-worthy?

Ghosts is a very interesting book. It was Sasha’s least favorite of the three. Perhaps that will ultimately prove to be so with me, but I sort of liked it. It felt less ephemeral than the last. The pages did not crumble to nothingness like a library hold. And, yet, it is weird.

First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown.

These are the characters. Blue is our guy, the one over whose shoulder and through whose eyes we peek. White hires Blue to watch Black. So, the second in the trilogy again has a private eye (this time a real detective) following and watching a subject. In the first book, it was not clear whether our man, Daniel Quinn, had followed the right man out of the train station. He could have spent most of the book watching a man unrelated to “the case”. Blue, though, is watching the right person we know. Only, we know less about why he is watching Black than we knew why Quinn was watching the elder Stillman. Blue watches Black and writes reports to White, hoping that he is focusing on the most relevant information.

The problem for Blue is that Black simply reads and writes and, occasionally, goes to get something to eat. Black’s routine is predictable and, seemingly, interminable.

For to watch someone read and write is in effect to do nothing. The only way for Blue to have a sense of what is happening is to be inside Black’s mind, to see what he is thinking, and that of course is impossible.

Blue had always been a man of action, so doing nothing is difficult for him.

He has never given much thought to the world inside him, and though he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself. He has moved rapidly along the surface of things for as long as he can remember, fixing his attention on these surfaces only in order to perceive them, sizing up one and then passing on the the next, and he has always taken pleasure in the world as such, asking no more of things than that they be there.

Blue has plenty of time, however, so he does start examining the world inside him. He discovers, among other things, stories.

More than just helping to pass the time, he discovers that making up stories can be a pleasure in itself…Murder plots, for instance, and kidnapping schemes for giant ransoms. As the days go on, Blue realizes there is no end to the stories he can tell. For Black is no more than a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.

Blue’s discovery of stories distracts him from his mission. He becomes more intrigued by the stories he imagines for Black than the activities of Black himself. Blue often pulls himself back from fantasy to the reality of his mission, but it becomes more and more difficult for him to separate the false from the true. His stories, he realizes, are more about him than they are about Black.

This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says, I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.

This realization does not make things easier for him. He still struggles, discovers that he inserts himself into the story even when he does not mean to do so. Blue then becomes meticulous about writing down only facts, facts about Black, so that his reports become very difficult for him to write. His earlier surety in the world around him has been shaken, so he grasps on, again to the surface of the world, naming objects in his room in an attempt to tether himself to reality. But he has a problem, once you dive below the surface of things, you can swim as deep as you like without reaching the bottom.

Auster is writing, on the one hand, about storytelling and writing. On the other, he is writing about life. He does an excellent job weaving together the intersection of life and writing and how the one, in many ways, interferes with the other. One can either live or write about living. And, also, there is the problem of understanding another person, writer or otherwise. You can see what the person does, but to have true understanding, you need to know what they think. This is impossible, because, when you begin speculating what is in another’s mind, you cannot help but creep into the story you write for them.

We are not where we are, he finds, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.

This is an excellently philosophical work. The story, too, is intriguing as fables and allegories should be. I have not doubt that writers will pass this book along to other writers for generations. And, too, will readers. Readers, after all, are haunted by the ghosts of writers. Readers, when they attempt to delve below the surface of a novel, into the mind of the author, they insert themselves and become hopelessly confused regarding what parts belong to the author and what parts are their own. Auster has made a beautifully postmodern statement and I look forward to the last of the series, whereever I find it. Sasha enjoyed it most, and I have heard the same from others.

Perhaps I have made no sense at all. Merely doubling myself as Auster’s characters do so frequently. I can only say with certainty that there is more to this installment of the trilogy than I can convey and, to be fair, more than it would be possible to convey. All the same, I’ve undoubtedly made a hash of it, so I encourage you to read it yourself and come back to explain the big and little things I have missed.


City of Glass (The New York Trilogy, Volume 1) by Paul Auster

July 19, 2010

I had been intending to read Paul Auster for some time when Sasha, in the comments to my review of What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Auter’s wife, suggested several of us read The New York Trilogy at the same time. I thought it was a great idea and, so, have started with City of Glass. I will be picking up the second in the trilogy, Ghosts, from the library within the next couple days. It is getting on two weeks since I fiished it and since Sasha posted her reaction.

The book began by promising me it would be one of my favorites, at least of the year. It ended leaving me confused and wondering whether I had been taken advantage of.

Much later, when he was able to think about things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance.

My understanding is that Paul Auster has an continuing interest in this idea of chance. Another of his novels is, after all, named The Music of Chance. Sarah, of A Rat in the Book Pile, reviewed that one and was, in a sense, my first introduction to Auster. With that review and this first of The New York Trilogy, I am certain I have too little to say or add to a conversation about Auster.

That theme of chance definitely suffuses his work. Sarah used this quote from The Music of Chance regarding a character’s choice of ramps on a highway:

It was a sudden, unpremeditated decision, but in the brief time that elapsed between the two ramps, Nashe understood that there was no difference, that both ramps were finally the same.

In City of Glass, the ostensible protagonist, Daniel Quinn, has been hired to keep Peter Stillman the son safe from Peter Stillman the father. His plan is to intercept Stillman the elder at the train station. He has an outdated picture of the man and knows on which train the man will arrive. Of course, two candidates show up and Quinn, on impulse, chooses to follow the poor and broken one rather than the wealthy and assured one.

There was no way to know: not this, not anything.

These two scenes are strikingly similar. In both, the character is faced with a split-second choice. In both, the character decides the choice makes little difference.

And, finally, that is my impression of the book. There are multiple available interpretations of the storyline, who is real, who is not, what happens, what does not. I do not have the tools I should to achieve any depth in this analysis because I have not read Don Quixote. This book relies heavily on Don Quixote. To the extent I am supposed to say whether you should read this work or not: You should. The exegesis on Don Quixote is worth the trouble to find and read the book. Quinn and Stillman have a conversation about Don Quixote and Cervantes. They discuss how Cervantes “goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author” of Don Quixote when, in fact, close examination of the novel demonstrates he must be. Part of Cervantes’s scheme is to insist that everything in the book really happened, when, really, it is a work of imagination that is “an attack on the dangers of make-believe.”

Paul Auster does a very similar thing in this work. Late in the book, our narrator tells us:

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.

The parallel is not a result of my imagining. Quinn/Auster makes the connection explicitly. Daniel Quinn shares initials with Don Quixote.

He picked up his pen and wrote his initials, D.Q. (for Daniel Quinn), on the first page. It was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks. He stopped to consider this fact for a moment but then dismissed it as irrelevant.

Yet, this novel is presented in the form of a mystery and the astute reader will have noticed Quinn’s earlier observation:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.

For the less astute, Quinn makes the connection explicitly shortly after putting his initials in the notebook.

This comparatively slight book is packed with ideas. In addition to the rabbit-hole of reality vs. unreality, fate vs. chance, and chance as fate, there is the theme of doubling. Siri Hustvedt, in What I Loved, gave us the artist Bill Wechsler who was preoccupied with self-portraits, doubling, and ambiguity. Bill even says: “In my work, I want to create doubt. Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Bill is Paul who is Quinn who is William Wilson and Don Quixote and Cervantes and Paul Auster.

He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real.

Yes, and I did too. And, again, my central problem with this novel is that there is too much. I am not up to the task. I have to read more. There is a map of Daniel Quinn’s wanderings that I need to sketch. I will read it again. It is entertaining. It is amusing.

And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book – to be amused.

P.S. Many, many thanks to Sasha for reading it at the same time, making me feel less alone in my confusion, and for posting first. I am sorry I have not been much help with the confuzzlement (nice word), but I can give you the condolence that I am terribly confuzzled too.

[Fixed a broken link and corrected a “the” to “they”. 19-Jul-2010]