The Strange Case of Paul Auster

By Lewis, Barry | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

The Strange Case of Paul Auster


Lewis, Barry, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


THE MYSTERY IS THIS: How can we best classify the works of Paul Auster? Exhibit I 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 history of American literature and his own back catalog, and this makes it difficult to untangle the many different intertextual threads which stitch his stories together. One consistent theme is that of the detective's search for a missing person, so in this inspection I too shall turn detective and search for the person who is most conspicuously absent from the texts of Paul Auster: Paul Auster himself.

The typical detective story can be divided into three basic components: the presentation of the mystery, the process of detection, and the solution towards which the whole of the narrative moves. The invariability of this formula accounts in large part for the continued popularity of such writers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their rituals of ratiocination. Each of the novels in Auster's The New York Trilogy follows the pattern by introducing the detective figure and the case he has to solve.(2) In City of Glass Daniel Quinn is hired by Virginia Stillman to follow her father-in-law, Peter Stillman, who has been in a mental hospital for fifteen years for keeping his son locked up in solitary confinement throughout his childhood. The mystery centers on Stillman's motives for his bizarre behavior. Ghosts, the second novel, introduces the ground situation in a more schematic fashion: "The case seems simple enough. White wants Blue to follow a man named Black and to keep an eye on him for as long as necessary" (161). Unfortunately, Blue is not told why he has to shadow Black, and the case drags on for several months. The third novel, The Locked Room, revolves around the unnamed narrator's attempts to find out why his best friend, Fanshawe, has abandoned his wife and child.(3) A series of manuscripts is the only trace which has been left behind for the narrator to investigate Fanshawe's sudden disappearance.

At the beginning of an investigation everything is a potential clue, and both the detective and the reader operate at their height of attentiveness. This is an important lead towards understanding Auster's use of the detective genre, and Exhibit 2 is another comment from City of Glass which sheds light on his own methods:

In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so--which amounts to the same thing. The world of the book comes to life, seething with possibilities, with secrets and contradictions. Since everything seen or said, even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence; the center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward. The center, then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to its end. (9)

The process of detection is initiated when the detective assesses the situation and amasses clues, usually by a combination of patient observation and logical deduction. Auster's protagonists are all reluctant detectives who are drawn into the case against their inclination, and in this respect they resemble the second generation of cynical sleuths, such as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, who obtain financial rather than intellectual satisfaction from their work. Nevertheless, it is to Edgar Allan Poe's character August Dupin--the prototype of the old school of detectives--that Quinn turns to for advice in City of Glass. He copies Dupin's dictum that there must be "an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent"(4) into his notebook, and follows Stillman for several days as he wanders aimlessly around the city, picking up broken or discarded objects. …

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