The Locked Room: Meaning It This Time

New York TrilogyTitle: The Locked Room (Book Three of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1984

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Okay, so I’ve fallen way behind here, but I think it would be a good idea to finish up with the New York Trilogy so I can move on with my life, yes? I have plenty of other books waiting for their posts.

So. The third book in the trilogy is The Locked Room.  I’m still not sure of the reason for the title.  The plot shouldn’t surprise anybody who has read the first two books in the trilogy, but it manifests itself a little differently here.  A nameless, first-persoon narrator is asked to act as the literary executive of Fanshawe, who is his vanished childhood friend, and whom he hadn’t spoken to in many years.  Fanshawe’s wife presents him with this decision and ultimately, for some reason, falls in love with him.  So this sounds like a very different setup from the weird surveillance/detective stuff of the other two books, but it really isn’t.  The narrator is the bewildered detective, tailing Fanshawe and using his writing and everything he’s left to try to come to a better understanding of him. Fanshawe, like Black/White in Ghosts is actually watching the narrator and has set up this weird constructed situation in which the narrator is forced to live.  The real difference between this book and the other two is that it’s more detailed and more—maybe not more realistic but more twentieth-century novel realistic.  If you know what I mean.  The characters in this book are people with pasts rather than ciphers representing the idea of a character and the position that character is in.  They still don’t have futures, really, but, you know, one thing at a time.

Despite having a slightly better-defined personality, the narrator of The Locked Room  is just like the protagonists in the other two books in that he comes to identify with Fanshawe, to be overshadowed by his presence, and to resent both that overshadowing and the way that Fanshawe’s existence seems to determine his, the narrator’s, possible actions.  Just like the other two protagonists, he insists on a final confrontation, which results in destruction.

So this book is where the things that seem mysterious in the other books are somewhat explained.  It almost feels as if the first two books were written by the narrator of this one, as drafts for this book in which he was not yet able to articulate the entire story.  Finally, in this book, he is somewhat more explicit.  That is not to say that this is the book in which characters (or readers) break free of their existence as text-bound beings. When the narrator picks up Fanshawe’s manuscripts to examine them for potential publication, he has the strange impression that he is, in fact, carrying Fanshawe’s corpse: “I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street.  Together, they were as heavy as a man.”   He is to evaluate whether the work is worth publishing, and to destroy it if it is not.  Because he identifies Fanshaw with his work, he is uneasy about the latter possibility:

There was no difference in my mind between giving the order to destroy Fanshawe’s work and killing him with my own hands. I had been given the power to obliterate, to steal a body from its grave and tear it to pieces.

If they narrator, who knew Fanshawe before he had begun writing anything, cannot draw this distinction between author and work, then the public, who is also the fictive audience for this work, is certainly not able to do so. Because Fanshawe’s work only comes to light when his body has vanished, he cannot be known other than as the author of these works.  The narrator is careful to push us into this position, alluding repeatedly to our supposed familiarity with Fanshawe’s imaginary oeuvre.  (“Everyone knows what Fanshawe’s work is like.”)  Even Fanshawe’s wife/supposed widow, Sophie, who was never allowed to read the work prior to his disappearance, realizes that the pile of papers in the closet represents him and feels that it is interfering with her relationship with the narrator.

If Fanshawe is explicitly text, so is the narrator; the book we are reading is presumably the book that he writes about throughout, the biography of Fanshawe. So he’s not just a text, he’s a derivative text.  And of course, there’s the same identification with his target that we saw in the two other books of this trilogy.  Ultimately, the narrator publishes Fanshawe’s books, marries Fanshawe’s wife, parents Fanshawe’s child, lives on Fanshawe’s money, and is known for his relationship with Fanshawe.  And, just as in the other books, he develops a resentment toward his doppelganger that can only be resolved in seemingly arbitrary violence.  There is physical violence carried out against someone who is not actually Fanshawe but, you know, good enough, and there’s the violence of the destruction of a text, the very text which appears to hold the answers.

But there are differences between this and the other two works.

First, there’s Sophie. She’s not actually unprecedented, but there are differences.  The closest character is Virginia in City of Glass, who is married to the younger Peter Stillman but does not have sex with him. She does, however, kiss Quinn.  If we consider Peter as one of Quinn’s many doubles, then there’s a similar dynamic—becoming the romantic rival of someone that one almost is.  In this book, of course, it goes further.  The narrator immediately falls into a relationship with Sophie and marries her, at about the same time that he assumes all other parts of Fanshawe’s life.  The book strongly implies that this is intentional on Fanshawe’s part—that, in essence, he has made the narrator a gift of her.  There is an anecdote early on in this book in which Fanshawe, the narrator, and Dennis, a boy from a poor family attend a birthday party. Dennis has not been able to bring a present, so Fanshawe gives Dennis his present to give to the birthday boy.  In the end, of course, this result is the same.  This is presented as the key to Fanshawe’s personality.  There’s an uncomfortable—no, an outright creepy—resonance between that moment and the way that Sophie is handed off.  She’s not the only sexual connection between them—there’s also a scene in which they take turns with the same woman in a brothel, and a throwaway moment in which, as children, they want to spend so much time together that they ask if it is possible for them to be married when they grow up (is this the transitive property of Sophie?).  The thing is, Sophie is a character with at least a little personality of her own, less flat than most in this series, but she’s still a pawn in the larger game.  This bothered me, and it’s my least favorite part of this series.

Then, there’s the appearance of characters with the same name as the characters in the prior works. Sophie’s grandfather is Paul—is that Paul Auster, or just a coincidence?The detective hired to track Fanshawe is Quinn, and he suffers a similar fate as the Quinn of City of Glass, disappearing.  Later, when the narrator is in search of Fanshawe, he ends up tracking a man named Peter Stillman, having decided that Stillman is in fact Fanshawe.  When he catches up with Stillman, he  tells him that he, Stillman, is actually Fanshawe and that names don’t matter, and proceeds to attack him (the narrator loses this fight).  So Stillman has a similar bundle of functions to those seen in City of Glass; he represents a blurring of identities among people outside the narrator’s consciousness, and the arbitrariness of language to separate these identities, but he nonetheless continues to insist that he is not Fanshawe.  That these characters turn up again is significant mostly insofar as it helps to create the feeling I referenced above, that The Locked Room can be read as the narrator’s final draft of the story told in the other two books, the one in which he is finally able to bring himself to tell this story in a less abstract way.  So the odd role that Stillman played in the earlier novel, for instance, can be attributed to his experience with the narrator here, and many of the other things and people that continue to appear can be understood in that way.

And then there’s the ending.  In City of Glass and in Ghosts, the protagonist seeks a truth which, in true postmodern fashion, he is not able to reach.  In The Locked Room, the answer to his questions is in a notebook (a red notebook, of course) which is is given at the end of the book. Perhaps, then, in this more realistic setting, the answer can be found and revealed! It’s here before him! But no. He destroys it.  So the reader is of course denied the answer as usual, but for a different reason. Here, it’s not because the answer doesn’t exist but because the narrator does not want the reader to know.  So we end, not with the sense that we are lost in an unresolvable world of words, but with this rather violent reminder that the narrator (or the author?) is all-powerful and decides exactly what we see.

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