Paul Auster

The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy part III)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The third installment of this book is The Locked Room. I do not think this third “part” is on par with the previous two works. I can appreciate the twists of the storylines, the exploration of various themes, and the deconstruction of characters in the previous two pieces in this book, but this last was tedious.  Beyond that, the self-referential circling back with little hints or names seemed forced and pointless.

Like the other two pieces, The Locked Room is postmodern metafiction wearing the costume of a noir detective story.  Overall, the story explores the psychological control that a memory/character has over another character. Both characters are, in some way, authors. So, just like the previous pieces, the novel attempts to look at facets of the act of writing and of being an author. Again, we see that an author is comparable to a detective.

In this novel, the meta parts of the metafiction play with concepts of identity, transference, and despair.  The main character is again isolated.  Through this isolation, we see how the effects of searching for the identity of the other causes the loss of identity of self. The narrator instantiates himself in the character Fanshawe’s life at the behest of Fanshawe.  This definitely improves the narrator’s life in several ways (a ready-made family, significant monetary income, a modicum of fame).  However, this also causes the narrator to slip further away from himself as the hero-worship he had for Fanshawe develops into resentment.

I didn’t like much of this novel. It definitely goes on too long. About one hundred pages could be chopped from this thing without any damage really being done. Furthermore, the little inclusions of “Henry Dark” and “Quinn” and the “red notebook” are interesting because authors do tend to fixate on certain concepts/names.  They work them and rewrite them and wrestle with them until they finally get to the story intended for them.  However, until the story is “great,” authors use and re-use little things like this. So if Auster has thrown in these tidbits to portray another aspect of the art of writing and of authorship, it seems acceptable. If he has thrown them into the novel just to reference the previous segments and to make the novel seem edgy and circular, then it is a complete failure.  The tactic is too obvious and stupid.

The novel drags on.  Noir detective fiction should be very suspenseful, mysterious, and psychological.  But by that last term I mean that there ought to be building tension from the unknowns.  The unknown parts of the story are the parts that make such stories noir. Instead, most of this novel is hero-worship and drooling slobber over the flat, uninteresting female character. The “psychological factor” in this novel is, then, the obsession that develops between the two authors. To me, this only made the narrator insufferable and ridiculous.

At the end of the novel, we do not really have any clue why any of this happened. If this was an attempt to explore the identity/transference between authors and characters, it was no big thing. There was no huge exploration, only a few steps taken in that direction. I feel this could have been done a lot better with a lot more potency. But instead, honestly, it just came out wimpy and morose.

As in the previous parts, the main character is isolated and he deconstucts. He loses everything, seemingly even his mind. He turns to a less clean-cut lifestyle for a month as he roams France like a vagabond. He spends his time in seedy places with people of ill-repute. We are led to believe this is because his efforts in author-detecting about Fanshawe have come to naught.  However, throughout the novel, we are given hints and glimpses that this darkness and wretchedness already lies inside the narrator and Fanshawe and Paris are what finally cause these characteristics to appear. The key point for me was that I did not care. It felt like a setup and a forced shift in the novel. And at the end, it changes nothing, the outcome is as bland and mundane as could be.

Honestly, this part heavily reminded me of things that Nabokov was doing in his novel Despair.  And at some points, I felt like Auster was basically ripping off Nabokov.  Now, Despair is not my favorite novel, but it certainly does all of this stuff better and stronger than Auster’s third segment here.  Definitely recommend to readers who are interested in this to compare these two works.

So, this final part can only be given two stars.  But, averaged with the previous parts, that still gives this whole “trilogy” a 3 star rating.  Totally acceptable reading.  I would probably tell folks the first two parts are recommended while the third is entirely optional. I do not feel it added anything to what Auster was trying to accomplish or added any new ideas to the themes he was exploring.

2 stars

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Ghosts (The New York Trilogy part II)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

Ghosts is the second part of The New York Trilogy.  It was published in 1986.  It runs to a mere seventy pages in length, so I feel we would be better off calling it a novella. To be clear, when it is referred to as the “second part” of the trilogy, the reader must not think that these are interconnected storylines or continuations of plots/characters.

Its been said that these novels are detective story metafiction. That description is even more accurate of this second part than the first. However, calling it detective fiction conjures up examples of all kinds of gumshoes and private investigators. Literary thinking folks might immediately associate “detective fiction” with Poirot, Holmes, Sam Spade, and Henry Merrivale. None of those associations are incorrect, but the pulp/noir style novel wherein the detective traces the clues and catches a criminal are absent in Auster’s novels.

Again, like in City of Glass, the setting and location is very important to the story.  Auster seems to enjoy locating his characters in rooms. A lot of the scenery and storyline are guided by the presence of the four-walled room(s) that the characters inhabit. There is a sense of being enclosed, imprisoned, isolated, and contained.

In this story, Blue is the main character – he is the one that will face the existential crisis and the identity struggles as the story moves along.  Without being told why or being given any background, we are told that Blue is hired by White to watch Black. (The characters have colors for surnames.  And yes, there is plenty of symbolism and playing with words, too.) Black is staying in Brooklyn Heights on Orange Street. White has rented an apartment for Blue to stay in that is directly across from Black’s location. Blue collects his “detective gear” and goes directly to that location.

The story begins on February 3, 1947. Blue is excited about his job – he settles in to do it to the best of his ability. However, after some time, Blue becomes bored, restless, and then frustrated.  The man he has been hired to watch does nothing of interest.  Nothing really happens. In fact, most days, it seems that Black is mirroring what Blue does.  At one point, Black is found reading a book. Naturally, Blue buys a copy as well.  However, it is not until he is thoroughly bored and at wit’s end that Blue decides to read the book.

Blue ends up reading the book twice.  Mainly because the first time he felt ripped off and annoyed by it so he decided to re-read it in an effort to see what he had missed.  Frankly, I hate the book, so I totally understand Blue’s reaction.  The book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Most folk have read the book and therefore know it is about a hermit-like existence. Thoreau wrote about his attempt to return to a simple life wherein he could contemplate society, ethics, and the nature of man.  It is full of introspection and reverence for nature.

Some vague parallels can be drawn from all of this.  As time progresses, Blue loses most of his “life,” thereby returning to a simple existence – contained within the apartment.  He loses contact with his girlfriend, his former employer, his personal aspirations, etc.  He turns into a brooding, empty shell of his former self.

Now, suddenly, with the world as it were removed from him, with nothing much to see but a vague shadow by the name of Black, he finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before, and this, too, has begun to trouble him.  If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a slightly more modest term – speculation, for example – would not be far from the mark. To speculate, from the Latin speculatus, meaning to spy out, to observe, and linked to the word speculum, meaning mirror or looking glass.  For looking 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. – pg. 171

This is really quite insightful and skillful of Auster.  The subtle layering and connections between Walden and mirrors and spying and speculating are well done.  An excellent example of metafiction’s capacity to layer reality and characters.

Obviously, there are questions of identity here.  Auster really lays these on heavily for the entire piece.  Along with Blue, the reader is questioning just WHO IS Black, White, etc.  Is this a wild goose chase? WHO IS the one who started this whole circle of identity confusion?  These questions are particularly poignant when Blue uses disguises to interact with Black.

Secondly, but quieter, is the process of transference that also runs through the work. Blue kills time by creating possible backstories to the case. Blue also finds that eventually he does not need to constantly watch Black because they have gotten so “close” that he knows (instinctively? internally?) what Black is feeling, doing, thinking.

Well, like most metafiction, the reader is not given detailed and specific answers. The case falls apart (as do the characters) a la PKD.  In fact, since PKD, I doubt I have read anything besides Ghosts in which the characters have such an existential crisis which so disassembles them. The lack of information is frustrating because one does want closure and resolution.  However, because there are so many questions and layers, the interpretations are endless. For example, I feel like if one were to write a Reader’s Guide to this piece, it would be one possible interpretation after another after another….  After finishing it, one ought to ask:  and then what? what was the point?

This novelette can be boring. I mean, ultimately, nothing really happens. We sit alongside the main character in a small apartment for about a year and a half, during which he reads Walden, sometimes paces Black around the city, and otherwise lives a droll and dull routine. In order to appreciate this work, the reader must have some care and interest in the concepts of identity/transference/isolation.

In many ways, Auster took the section of City of Glass wherein Quinn becomes an alley-dwelling ascetic outside of the apartment he was originally hired to conduct surveillance upon, and magnified those elements.  It seems as if Auster really wanted to explore just that particular chunk of the first story.  And so, in a much shorter fashion, we have this layered noir tale that deconstructs another couple of characters.

Not to say that there are not moments of suspense and eerie weirdness.  Nevertheless, those are not breath-taking enough or sustained for this to engender being anything thrilling or exciting.  And maybe those feelings of suspense/eeriness are just more transference from reader to character/scene?

4 stars

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy Part I)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

I was uncertain if it would be best for me to write a review on each individual part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy or if I should just write one big glopping whole. I decided to write individual reviews because a single review would probably be too long for a blog post and it remains true to the manner in which Auster originally published these works. City of Glass was originally published in 1985 and there has been a great deal of critical work regarding it proliferated. Everyone from Derrida-fans to Lacan-fans to Raymond Chandler-fans has felt the need to dig into the text. Deconstruct the text. Analyze the text. Etc. You know what I mean. I do not know that I have much in the way of original theory to add to all that has been said, but I can still share my thoughts.

This work is metafiction, I guess. Or postmodern. Or post-postmodern. It has been interpreted a hundred different ways. There are Freudian interpretations and ones that rely on Maurice Blanchot, etc. What is this book about? Is it a metafictional account exploring identity? Literature? Intertextual relationships? Cityscape architecture? Can one remain thoroughly neutral regarding this work and just comment on it – without, that is, seeming simple?  Well, sure, I guess it is all of the aforementioned. One of my biggest complaints about works that are so-called metafiction is that they always seem forced. Always, these works seem exaggeratedly wrangled to fit into a category dubbed “edgy” or “counter-cultural” by the intellectual debutantes or the created media industry.  If you force a work to match some presupposed concept, how can you then tell me that it escapes the boundaries that are supposedly “artificial” and imposed by the Establishment? Etc. Anyway, this story, while slightly forced into being metafiction, isn’t terrible. It is obvious and rather experimental-feeling, but I have read worse examples of the pseudo-genre.

First point:  I believe that this novel being situated in NYC is significant. Readers who are familiar with NYC (I am from NY) will have a better relationship with the context than readers who live in Iowa and have never left Iowa.  If I am asked why I believe this, I know I ought to be able to support my claim, but like many things in NYC, I can only say that “it is simply an understanding that is earned through experience.” Auster’s writing is spare and even. The fact that he spends several paragraphs just describing routes through the City, naming streets, pinpointing directions, is a fact that should not be dismissed.

Second point:  The plot, as in most metafiction, is secondary to all of the other elements of the story.  So, readers who are enthused to read this novel need to understand that this is not a plot-driven story like most traditional fiction.  The plot is vague and unimportant. There isn’t a set up, climax, resolution. There isn’t, really, an “ah-hah!” moment. Any details given are not about the plot. Therefore, there are a whole heap of readers out there who will dislike this novel and/or misunderstand it.

Those points being stated, I want to assure readers that if you like metafiction, you will probably enjoy this novel. Just like the best examples of the pseudo-genre, it has that noticeable ouroboros structure. Or, if you like, it feels like it is devolving and evolving – being deconstructed and then reconstructed throughout. This is what turns off most of the general readership; the layered, self-referential style that the novel uses.

In the first paragraph we read:  “In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences.”  And this is largely how this novel will operate.  Backstory and careful development of the background are absent – because they are not the important part of this style of writing. We meet the main character (and even calling him that is arguable, I realize) in the second paragraph:

As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance. We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old. We know that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both his wife and son were now dead.  We also know that he wrote books.  To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels.” – pg. 12

Basically, this is information will remain the extent of our knowledge of Quinn. Quinn writes mystery novels (think serial/house name style detective novels) under the pseudonym William Wilson. By page 12, Quinn adopts another persona (but mainly the name), viz. Paul Auster [sic].  To keep it clear at the start:  Daniel Quinn is a mystery novelist. He writes under the name William Wilson. In the first chapter of Paul Auster’s work City of Glass, the main character, Quinn, assumes the name Paul Auster.   There are several other name-changes and references that occur, but I do not want to spoil the book for readers. Needless to say, this is partially why it is so often said that this book’s theme is one of identity.

Auster [real author] wants to shake the reader’s reality up. So, like PKD and Italo Calvino, the linear and the standard are tossed out. Auster wants you on unsteady ground and wants the reader to question WHO is the character, WHO is the author, WHO is real, WHO is just a nickname?  The everlasting job of postmodernism:  to deconstruct, shatter, and disturb conceptions of reality/identity.

It was a woman who opened the apartment door.  For some reason, Quinn had not been expecting this, and it threw him off track.  Already, things were happening too fast.  Before he had a chance to absorb the woman’s presence, to describe her to himself and form his impressions, she was talking to him, forcing him to respond.  Therefore, even in those first moments, he had lost ground, was starting to fall behind himself.  Later, when he had time to reflect on these events, he would manage to piece together his encounter with the woman.  But that was the work of memory, and remembered things, he knew, had a tendency to subvert the things remembered. As a consequence, he could never be sure of any of it. – pg. 15

This paragraph, early in the book, is my favorite paragraph.  It is magnificent, really. I could talk about it for a long time. It is totally packed with concepts and ideas, feelings and memories, etc. If the writing of the whole novel was on this level, I would have unreservedly given it five-stars. This paragraph resonated with me on a personal level as-well-as on an intellectual, conceptual level. I love the phrases: “he had lost ground” and “was starting to fall behind himself.”  I really like the comments on memory versus things remembered. And above all, I appreciate “Already, things were happening too fast” – because this refers to both the plot and the actual structure of Auster’s novel.

This novel is also, heavily, about language/linguistics.  The whole “detective story” revolves around the theory of a pure, pre-Tower of Babel language. A divine language, so to speak. The chapters that elucidate this part of the story are interesting and creepy, and definitely show us another layer of this wrap-around novel.  For those who like word play (who doesn’t?), I particularly enjoyed a quote on page 90 wherein another character is speaking to Quinn:

“Hmmm. Very interesting. I see many possibilities for this word, this Quinn, this . . . quintessence. . .  of quiddity. Quick, for example. And quill. And quack. And quirk. Hmmm. Rhymes with grin. Not to speak of kin. Hmmm. Very interesting. And win. And fin. And din. And gin. And pin. And tin. And bin. Hmmmm. Even rhymes with djinn.  Hmmm. And if you say it right, with been.  Hmmm. Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr. Quinn.  It flies off in so many little directions at once.” – pg. 90

There is also a very famous deconstruction/re-construction involving the classic novel (and character) Don Quixote. It is worthwhile and interesting reading, but it is also one of the more frequently commented on parts of Auster’s novel. I was able to appreciate it, but I am not sure I was thoroughly impressed. Interested readers, though, should probably pay it more mind than I did.

Well, there is a lot more to this novel and not, all at once. I mean to say, there are usages/re-usages of names and elements and so forth. Found objects, red notebooks, baseball. Subtle twists and turns and even quite a dose of existential angst (Cp. chapter 12).  A lot more could be extrapolated from the text and commented on.  However, I find the work lacking the heart and soul needed to make this sort of entry fully established. Done correctly (Nabokov and Calvino) these works are unbelievably masterful.  Done poorly, they end up like parlor tricks (e.g. S. King’s The Colorado Kid).  Luckily, Auster does not kill the work, so I would rank it between the two groups I just mentioned. And then, in his defense, we haven’t quite finished the story – it is The New York Trilogy, so there may be a re-evaluation needed. But fragmentary deconstruction is not illicit in this case, I think.

4 stars