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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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Ghosts: Try It Again, with Less Reality

New York TrilogyTitle: Ghosts (Book Two of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Ghosts is the second book of the New York Trilogy, and at around seventy pages, it’s the shortest of the three.  In many ways, it resembles City of Glass.  Each book has as its protagonist a detective/writer who is assigned to follow another man, whom he does not understand.  In each case, those who assign the case are shadowy and impossible to contact, and in each case, this task of watching someone else ends up being the protagonist’s undoing.

Ghosts has a somewhat different denouement, but the most obvious difference between the two works is really stylistic.  City of Glass featured a set of characters whose names change hands  over the course of the novel and don’t clearly belong to anyone. The characters in Ghosts get to keep their names (with a few exceptions), but the names they are given are somewhat interchangeable.  The detective protagonist, Blue, is observing a man named Black on the orders of the mysterious White.  Blue was trained by Brown, who is now retired, and has come to this point in his career after capturing the embezzler Redman, and solving a case involving the amnesiac Gray, who after losing his memory took on the name of Green and remarried his original wife, who also changed her name from Mrs. Gray to Mrs. Green. Blue would like to be more like Gold, who has pursued the case of a mysterious dead child for years, even after his own retirement, but is instead stuck tailing Black on this meaningless mission he has been given.

What is this, I said to myself, a game of Clue?

Well… not exactly, because after all a game has an unambiguous ending with clear winners and losers, and yet it does almost feel like a game.  Auster does make more of colors than simply using them in the names, pointing them out at odd moments that made me wonder whether it was specific to this work or whether colors are always mentioned in this way but I am simply more sensitive to them because the naming scheme is so odd.  But, maybe because I spend, ahem, a non-trivial amount of time playing and thinking about board games, it was difficult for me to stop thinking of it in this way once I had begun. It’s fairly common when discussing sessions of games to refer to players by their player color, especially when one does not know them well or is not interested in them as people so much as a series of moves on a board.  As far as this goes, it is a somewhat reasonable way of considering the relationship between the reader and the characters in this book.  Of course, if you think about it carefully, all fictional characters consist of a series of actions performed in a space with clear boundaries, but the naming conventions of Ghosts underlines this reality. We have insight into only one position, Blue’s; that is the one which we are, figuratively, “playing.” We get to know Blue fairly well, because we live in his head, but our main concern for him isn’t exactly his fragile psyche so much as  what he should do next.  All around him are characters who take certain actions which he needs to predict so that he can react properly, but he’s rather bad at that.  To be fair, of course, some of them behave in ways that are also surprising to the reader. There are no clear victory conditions that we can understand, so of course their actions remain obscure to us. What is clear, however, is that Blue does not win.

Of course, there are some limitations to this reading. The characters are not competing for the same goals but all seem to have distinct victory conditions.  Some are allotted more moves than others, and some seem already to have left the game.  Blue appeals to Brown for assistance, but is refused because Brown will  no longer participate.  Gold has decided on his own that he only cares for this one case.  And by the end of the game, we learn that there is collusion between two of the players, or rather, that one player is controlling two “pieces.”

Still, if that doesn’t quite work, it does point out the reader’s distance from the story. City of Glass gave us a protagonist whose psychology we could consider, even if we didn’t fully understand it. It felt like something that, strange as it was, was happening to people in the world.  Ghosts takes almost the same story, with some trivial differences (Blue is a detective turned writer rather than a writer turned detective, the ending is different and more detective-y, etc.), but removes some of the plot complexity, turns the characters into ciphers, and generally flattens it out into an  example of the genre. Meanwhile, the story adds things like Blue’s reflection on the meanings of colors.  So, although the earlier story was already fairly unsettling, this one makes it even more so by stepping back. The relationship to other texts is still there, but now it’s all about Walden.  Blue’s character arc is at least partially about learning to read Thoreau.  I haven’t read Walden, so it’s difficult for me to comment on the work it’s doing in this text, but… certainly it can be said to simplify?

In any case, there’s a refusal to get under the surface of the characters.  As Blue doggedly tries to plumb the depths of Black’s character, he spends most of his time watching Black reading, and reflects that this is essentially the same as doing nothing, until eventually he begins reading himself.  In a way, watching someone read is the ultimate experience of alterity; the person that you are observing is having an experience of which you absolutely can know nothing. Strangely, and much like Quinn in City of Glass, Blue is for some reason unable to simply give up and go home.  There is no obvious reason he should stay; he’s getting paid, but he could just as easily get paid for doing the type of work he prefers. There’s no coercion, either. Instead, he stays at his post, long after he’s realized that he is the victim here.  He comes to identify with Black, because he is trying so hard to get inside his mind, by doing the same reading and by watching him, and finally, by breaking in and reading the notebook in which Black has been writing with a red pen (there must always be a red notebook of one type or another). In the end, all he really learns is that Black and White are the same. He’ll never understand either one of them, and his only recourse is to violence. Even reading the notebook doesn’t help—he recognizes that he already knows what it contains.

At the end, the story dissolves, and the narrator simply shrugs: “I like to think of Blue booking passage on some ship and sailing to China. Let it be China, then, and we’ll leave it at that.”

To like or dislike such a book really seems beside the point; the most I can really say about it is that it adds something to the possible readings of City of Glass.  How separate are the three books of this trilogy?

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City of Glass: Not My Real Name

New York TrilogyTitle: City of Glass (Book One of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

“My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.”

Oh, postmodernism, you are so simultaneously inarticulate and hyperarticulate.

City of Glass is the first book of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which seem to be concerned with postmodernism and mysteries; I’ll be writing about the other two shortly.  The story is told from the point of view of Daniel Quinn, a mystery writer who decides to try his hand at actual detective work (no, this is not a good idea). The book really is about Quinn, whose identity is strange and confusing, and about how it intersects with language and writing and his interpretation of the world.

Quinn is unusual in a few ways. First, he lives in a state of almost complete isolation. The book mentions early on that his wife and son have died. This fact is not fully addressed, even though allusions to in surface at unexpected moments throughout the text, and it seems to profoundly influence Quinn’s behavior in ways that are not analyzed or acknowledged.  His total willingness to give up on everything in his life, as well as his reaction to the families he encounters in the book, can be read as the manifestations of grief, but this is never made explicit.  But his isolation goes beyond the loss of his family. He has cut off contact with all his friends, abandoned his initial aspirations of writing poetry and essays, and instead writes mystery novels under a pseudonym which is arranged in such a way that he does not need to have any contact with his publisher.  He lives, therefore, under conditions of almost complete anonymity. He has no connection to any human being nor to the place where he lives.  He lives in New York and goes out to walk in the city in order to empty his mind: “By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere.  And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.”  Oddly, the geography of the book is actually quite specific; the thing that makes it nowhere is just Quinn’s perception that it does not really matter where it is.  The same thing applies to people, however—it does not matter who anyone is, including Quinn himself.  This becomes clear when one considers his relationship to his many pseudonyms.

This is the second, and perhaps the most important, notable characteristic of Quinn.  He experiments with pseudonyms as if they were drugs.  He writes mystery novels under the name of William Wilson, with a hero named Max Work, and early on, the novel plays a little bit with Quinn’s relationship with these two characters.  He believes that he does not closely identify with either of them; he regards Wilson “with deference, at times even admiration” while not getting to close to him.  Work, on the other hand, seems to be in some ways a replacement for Quinn.  He is the one who actually interacts with the world, while Quinn withdraws further and further into his solitude. He sees Work in some ways as an avatar: “It was not precisely that Quinn wanted to be Work, or even to be like him, but it reassured him to pretend to be Work as he was writing his books, to know he had it in him to be Work if he ever chose to be, even if only in his mind.”  At the beginning of the book, Quinn seems on an explicit level to understand that he is not either of these people, but as the narrative progresses, he becomes very angry with a woman who feels indifferent toward one of the mystery novels with Wilson’s name on the cover.  In the meantime, he is taking the activity of pretending to be Work to an entirely new level by going so far as to take on a case.

But these are not his only pseudonyms. Rather, as the book goes on, he takes on more and more.  Above, I compared the pseudonyms to drugs; this is becomes the effect of each one on his consciousness is described, and they seem to influence his admittedly bizarre behavior. One of the first to appear is Paul Auster.

…okay, yes, this is very strange.  It’s pretty common to think about the character as a stand-in for the author (just as Work seems to be), but for a character to pretend to be the author by falsely assuming his name is strange and somewhat unsettling.  This gets even stranger, as a character named Paul Auster actually does exist in this novel, and is probably distinct from Paul Auster the novelist. I think.

Anyway, Paul Auster is a pseudonym which Quinn has thrust upon him; he receives several phone calls for a detective by that name and eventually agrees to take on the case.  (Strangely, the Paul Auster who appears in the novel turns out not to be a detective at all; this is part of the novel’s refusal to answer any questions about what is really going on in the plot.)  Quinn feels that he gets to know the Paul Auster that he is more as time goes on; he notes early on that he does not know who Paul Auster is, but after the appointment with people who expect him to be Paul Auster, he begins to recognize the effects of this name upon him: “The effect of being Paul Auster, he had begun to learn, was not altogether unpleasant.  … he no longer had to walk around with the burden of his own consciousness. By a simple trick of the intelligence, a deft little twist of naming, he felt incomparably lighter and freer.”  Assuming a different identity with different expectations attached to to is very freeing for Quinn—this is not surprising, but it seems that what he is trying to escape is not necessarily the painful identity of Daniel Quinn, widower, but the very fact of stable identity in the first place. He assumes more pseudonyms later in the book. In the later chapters, he sits down to talk to the elder Peter Stillman and uses a different name each time. In the first encounter, he uses his actual name of Quinn, which is reduced to a rhyming game.  Later, he calls himself Henry Dark, which is the name of a fictitious source Stillman fabricated for the purposes of his academic writing (!), and finally, he uses Stillman’s own name, or perhaps his son’s. Of course, since both Stillman and his son are named Peter Stillman, this is ambiguous, but Henry Dark is also ambiguous—Quinn suggests that he might be a different Henry Dark, other than the one who does not exist.

But in fact, all names are ambiguous.  Quinn’s encounter with Peter, the younger Stillman, is disturbing partly because Quinn’s dead son had been named Peter.  Peter tells him that he is the last of the Stillmans, but also insists repeatedly that, “I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name.”  As it turns out, though, nobody has a real name.  Names and identities are exposed as completely arbitrary because they are interchangeable from one character to another.  Ultimately, Quinn sheds all names and all public recognition of his identity to live in an alley. Ostensibly, this is because he is not getting a response from Peter and Peter’s wife/guardian Virginia, but his response seems totally disproportionate to his experiences.  He does not actually pay attention to the building which he is theoretically staking out; instead, he focuses on other matters, like the color of the sky, or his need to train himself to live without eating.  This is where Quinn’s identity totally dissolves.  He cannot reclaim his apartment, he cannot cash his check, and eventually he simply disappears, just as Peter and Virginia Stillman have before him.

So experimentation with alternate identities and different names seems to be a destructive life choice. But it’s not only Quinn’s name.  Nobody, as I mentioned above, has a real name.  The production of Henry Dark has already been discussed, but this idea shows up in the book in several other ways. Because Stillman apparently locked Peter up in the dark as a child, in order to see whether he would develop some kind of natural, human language, there are many references to wild children, and to the Tower of Babel, which was the subject of conspiracy theories by the fictitious Dark. Note that this means that Stillman invented Dark as a writer, so that he could put forth some conspiracy theories without claiming to believe them or taking responsibility for them in any way.  This gets tangled up with his theory about Don Quixote, who he claims was actually the author of his own story, but who behaved bizarrely in order to convince other people to write it down and promote it.  Oh, and of course Humpty Dumpty, that emblem of the arbitrary nature of language also shows up.

So what does this all add up to? Well, in good old postmodern fashion, it’s difficult to make it add up to anything.  It’s very clear that names do not identify nor do they distinguish people, which suggests that language is a muddle.  The Tower of Babel part of this is a desperate attempt to make language mean something and is shown to have a really high human cost.  The argument here isn’t so much that language is confusing and ultimately just a toy, but rather that language is very dangerous and if you mess around with it, you might lose your ability to interact with reality.

If you think about it, this is an odd argument for a book to make, but City of Glass is very conscious of this.  The Quixote matter shows this. The most important artifact in the book is Quinn’s red notebook, in which he records his observations. At the end of the book, the notebook is revealed to be the source of the narrative, but by bringing up this conspiracy theory about Don Quixote, the narrative induces the reader to be suspicious about such claims.  Who is the narrator? There is a narrator, who is separate from Quinn, and actually reveals him(?)self at the end in a conversation with Auster-the-character, in which the latter’s failure to take action on Quinn’s behalf is condemned.  “He will be with me always,” remarks this narrator.  This is a curious outcome in a story in which Auster-the-character looks a lot like a less tragic version of Quinn, with a surviving wife and son and an ability to resist getting sucked into these strange experiences, especially where characters and authors are both conflated and kept separate in such a strange way.

What does it all mean? Nobody knows, nobody can knows, and those who try to find out are punished.

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