|An Examination of the Identity of Author and Character and Their Relationship Within the Narrative Structure of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy
|News||by Nicholas Dawson
Made up of three short novels, Paul Auster's 'New York Trilogy' examines the changing identity of the main characters in a novel, while also investigating "the imbalance between the physical author of a book, the individual who puts his name onto the cover, and the authentic author who I am not certain is the same person".1 The first part, 'City of Glass', uses the conventions of the crime thriller in a metaphysical apologue about man in relation to subconscious control and solitude. 'Ghosts', the middle section, too uses the detective story in showing a man forced effectively to 'tail' himself. The concluding part, 'The Locked Room', is an autobiography by the unnamed friend of a disappeared literary giant. Though the stories and styles are very contrasting, they are in essence all the same tale, with 'The Locked Room' finally resolving the odyssey.
The trilogy has numerous subliminal references to the 19th Century American authors which have most influenced Auster, and shaded his literary identity. Quinn's nom de plume in 'City of Glass' is William Wilson, also the name of an Edgar Allan Poe short story about doppelgängers. In 'The Locked Room', the narrator says his name is Herman Melville, and Fanshawe mimics the opening line of 'Moby Dick' in his letter starting "Call me Redburn." Thoreau's 'Walden' is a major part of 'Ghosts', with Thoreau mentioned in 'City of Glass', and one Dennis Walden in 'The Locked Room'. Auster immediately thrusts the reader into a maelstrom of multiple and confused identities from the outset. The central character is a reclusive author called Daniel Quinn, a writer of detective fiction, who hides behind the pseudonym of William Wilson. Quinn's books feature the detective Max Work. The information the narrator gives almost perfectly matches Auster, with age, occupation and pastimes being identical. Clearly Quinn is Auster's alter ego. The only named book by Quinn, or 'William Wilson', is 'Suicide Squeeze'; in 1982 Auster wrote a pseudonymous detective novel, 'Squeeze Play', while the same age as Quinn. At the start of the novel, Quinn has just finished a Max Work novel, in which Work's exploits have been very energetic. Quinn is said to be "feeling somewhat exhausted by his efforts"; "his" could refer to either Quinn or Work, either the creator or the creation - his 'work'. Thus the identity of Quinn and Work are blurred, with Wilson being "the bridge that allowed Quinn to pass himself into Work." Work, the private eye, or private 'I', becomes "a presence in Quinn's life, his interior brother" and paradoxically, "his comrade in solitude."
By having Quinn phoned by someone asking to speak to 'Paul Auster', the private detective, Auster establishes an elaborate and complex web of characters and identity. This is further complicated by Quinn, the detective writer, choosing to become 'Paul Auster the detective' and help his 'client', one Peter Stillman. Indeed, although he has "no idea" who 'Auster' is, he gets ready to do what 'Auster' has promised to do, as "in a kind of trance", having "found himself doing a good impression of a man preparing to go out", namely 'Auster'. The transformation continues, as he enters Stillman's flat: "he could feel himself going blank, as if his brain had suddenly shut off."
Used by Auster to explore multiple facets of identity, Peter Stillman is a Kaspar Hauser-like character cut off from all human contact for most of his life by his father - also called Peter Stillman. The younger Stillman is literally a 'still man', someone who has lived a deathly existence. Still is also constant or stationary; Peter is the boy who never grew up. Stillman is very confused about language, words and names, and their validity. He says to Quinn, "My real name is Mr Sad. What is your name, Mr Auster? Perhaps you are the real Mr Sad, and I am no one." In rejecting his name, he can replace it with one of his choosing, depending on his mood. For he states "I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name. My real name is Peter Rabbit." However he further says "Perhaps I am Peter Stillman, and perhaps I am not. My real name is Peter Nobody." Of his wife, he says that Virginia "is not her real name. But that makes no difference. To me." Names may not make a difference to Peter, and by rejecting the name Peter Stillman he is rejecting the name his tyrannical father gave to him, also his father's name. "We are both Peter Stillman. But Peter Stillman is not my real name. So perhaps I am not Peter Stillman, after all." To Peter Stillman his identity is thus not dictated by his name, but by his random and irrational whims. His detachment from human contact was part of his father's experiment on the effect of isolation on the development man's language. Yet this isolation has deprived Stillman of constant and definitive identity. As he says, "I cannot say who I will be tomorrow. Each day is new, and each day I can be born again."
A red notebook is a trademark of both Auster and his characters: not only Quinn, but Peter Stillman Sr. and later on Fanshawe also have one. A recent collection of Auster's prose was called 'The Red Notebook', containing material parallel and referential to the trilogy. In order that "things might not get out of control", Quinn buys one in which to record his notes on the Stillman case. Quinn writes his own name in a book "for the first time in more than five years", thus an attempt to reassert his true identity, though still hiding behind the mask of 'Auster'. His first entry ends by saying "most important of all: remember who I am supposed to be." "All I can say is this: my name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name." Here Auster first presents an idea which recurs throughout the trilogy, of a facet of one person's character being echoed in another, usually the protagonist. Quinn, consciously or not, echoes Peter Stillman's confusion with his true identity, unsurprising as Quinn is trying to be four people simultaneously.
In following Stillman, Auster gives Quinn an 'escapist holiday' as 'Auster' the detective. Although ostensibly the same person, "he felt as though he had somehow been taken out of himself", someone without "the burden of his consciousness". Although it becomes clear to the reader that this situation is not as straightforward or tame as it seems, Quinn sees his state as "a simple trick of intelligence, a deft little twist of naming. "Most importantly, he believes - erroneously - that "He had not really lost himself" and that "he could return to Quinn whenever he wished." Although the notebook bears Quinn's initials, Quinn has denied his true self by becoming people who do not exist, thus making a 'return to being Quinn' an impossibility, as there is no real Quinn. This is underlined as, while waiting for Stillman's train, he sees someone reading 'Suicide Squeeze'. They are identified as "one of his readers", despite being one of the non-existent William Wilson's, not Quinn's. In an audacious leap of imagination, Auster introduces both a shabby Stillman, and a prosperous old man, Stillman's "exact twin", his 'doppelgänger'. The twins represent the two differing paths this man's life could have taken, and place Quinn in an impossible situation: he can only follow one man. In Auster's memoir 'The Invention of Solitude', he quotes St Augustine, who says "the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But where is that part of it which it does not contain?"2 Here he is presenting a possible - surreal - answer. It is as if Stillman is mocking Quinn, the man of many identities, with a double, showing him that he can only have one body. "Quinn craved an amoeba's body, wanting to cut himself in half and run off in two directions at once." Yet this completely destabilises him as "Uncertainty would haunt him to the end", as the double's introduction highlights Quinn's deception: Quinn and the real detective 'Auster' could have followed both men.
The nonentity of Stillman's identity is underlined as Quinn follows him on ostensibly random walks around New York, as he drifts from being one person to another. Although he sees 'Auster' as "no more than a name..., a husk without content" and "a man with no interior, a man with no thoughts", he 'becomes' 'Auster', with it being noted almost immediately after, that "even Auster began to droop from the monotony." Quinn's actions further find him "momentarily confusing himself with Max Work", another lonely 'detective', who also does not truly exist - except inside Quinn. The older Peter Stillman becomes the most powerful character in the second half of the novel. Whereas previously Quinn has been in charge of his actions and thus has 'authorial control', following the elderly Stillman means that Quinn's actions are dictated by Stillman's movements. In Stillman's book on religion and language, he draws on ideas from a book by the elusive 17th century figure Henry Dark - actually Stillman's fictional creation. When Quinn starts writing down Stillman's exact movements as he tails him, he notices that he walks in the shape of letters that seem to spell out 'THE TOWER OF BABEL', a major component of Dark's - and thus Stillman's - philosophy as set out in his book, 'The Garden and the Tower: Early Visions of the New World'. These specific and calculated movements suggest that the ostensibly oblivious Stillman is in fact aware of Quinn's presence. In this way too, Stillman is assuming the authorial role.
Thus Quinn becomes the old man's shadow, a quasi-Stillman through his pursuit. Perversely, as he is supposed to be 'Auster', that is the identity that he hides, and can reveal his own name to Stillman, as "even the truth, would be an invention, a mask to hide behind and keep him safe." A further link between the two men is established when Stillman reveals that he too is "collecting data, gathering evidence", like the detective Quinn is not. In three encounters, the two men meet and converse, each time Stillman meeting him as for the first time. The first time, Quinn - acting as 'Auster' - uses the name Daniel Quinn. The second time he is 'Henry Dark' - a further echo of Stillman. In the third encounter, he is Peter Stillman, Stillman's son. In this last encounter, Stillman says that "people change, don't they? One minute we're one thing, and then another another", suggesting that he may only be allowing Quinn to 'believe' that he is in control, while Stillman still actually holds the reins. This control is exerted, as one day Stillman disappears, leaving Quinn having to revise his view of him being "inside his skin".
The 'real' Paul Auster is introduced, Quinn having lost contact, both mentally and physically, with Stillman. He is confronted with a carbon copy of the author Paul Auster, but not a detective. It soon becomes apparent that this Auster is not the narrator. The reader is teased, Quinn having been told that he has got "the wrong Paul Auster", replies "You're the only one in the book", punning on novel and telephone book. Auster remembers Quinn from his book 'Unfinished Business', and Quinn has come to him to get help to finish Stillman's 'business'. Strangely, Quinn - who is 'Auster' - finds "nothing interesting inside his head", suggesting that there can only be one Auster at a time.
Auster is writing an essay on the complex authorship of Cervantes' 'Don Quixote', whose initials Quinn shares. Indeed, this link provides a clue to authorial power, as Virginia Stillman says that Michael, the husband of Peter's nurse, Mrs Saavedra, recommended 'Paul Auster', giving Quinn's number - in essence thrusting him into the story. Auster's essay suggests 'Don Quixote' has several authors, and similarly in 'City of Glass', Michael Saavedra is one of the authors. The latter's name in Spanish is Miguel Saavedra, Cervantes' Christian names, and indeed Cervantes' complexities are mirrored in Paul Auster's book. Quinn's decline and eventual escape from authorial control are the focus of the last section of the novel. The statement that "He had nothing, he knew nothing, he knew that he had nothing" establishes his descent into being a non-identity. Indeed, in the red notebook he writes a translation of Baudelaire, "wherever I am is the place where I am myself." Similarly in Auster's 'Mr Vertigo', the protagonist is taken "to places of such inwardness that I no longer remembered who I was."3 Establishing a motif for the second part, Quinn is said to go unnoticed, like a ghost, having "melted into the walls of the city." the view of the narrator is that "He had been one thing before, and now he was another", this being neither better nor worse, but "different, and that was all."
The reassertion of Quinn's identity takes place in a darkened room, where food and drink is provided, but the provider is not seen. This has obvious echoes with Peter Stillman's experiences as a child, controlled by his father. The 'power' controlling Quinn seems comparable to what Paul Auster describes about writing: "I always feel that I'm in the hands of an unknown power..., something that forces me to do all that without knowing very well what it is." Quinn's recovery is effected as "he realised that Max Work was dead", and that the baseball player William Wilson, and his own, "cancelled each other out, and that was all." Having shaken 'Auster' and Stillman's control, he can be himself, with Work and Wilson also gone. His departure from the locked room and authorial power results in his freedom and true existence.
The narrator's identity is hinted at, but not divulged, at the book's conclusion, as he is revealed to be a friend of Auster. The latter "had become obsessed by" the case "and wanted my advice about what he should do", just as Quinn had done, the mantle now having passed on. Going to Quinn's room they find that "It was unlocked", signifying Quinn's release and resulting freedom. Yet the narrator's identity is clouded more by him saying that "my thoughts remain with Quinn. He will be with me always."
While 'City of Glass' is expansive and elaborate, 'Ghosts' is sparse in plot and language. Auster sets it in a surreal and symbolic New York, where everyone is a colour, and every thing represents another. Private detective Blue is told to monitor the movements of Black, by a heavily disguised man, White. Blue is given an apartment exactly opposite Black, who seems to do almost nothing but read, write and eat. As time passes, the two men become one and the same, the one affirming the other's existence. As in the first part, the two characters only meet each other under different names and disguises, until Blue finally confronts Black. Authorial power is initially held by White, who hires Blue as Peter Stillman does Quinn. Yet by "thrusting Blue into an empty room, as it were, and then turning off the light off and locking the door", he is doing as Stillman did with his son, and, later, as he does with Quinn. Intriguingly, Auster introduces the latter saying "everything about Peter Stillman was white." In the course of 'Ghosts' we find out that, paradoxically, White is the same person as Black. By forcing Blue to shadow his every move, effectively putting him in a locked room of existence, as Stillman did to his son. Importantly, both men read 'Walden' by Thoreau - who also appears in 'City of Glass' - about his experiment in transcendentalism, in which through self-reliance he sought to find if "the individual spirit might thrive in its detachment from the fractured world of mass society."4 In blending himself and Blue, this is what he is attempting to do (exactly 100 years on) - "exiling himself in order to find out where he was"5 - but ultimately injures himself as a result: he literally becomes 'black and blue'. Adapted from an aborted play 'Blackouts', Auster says that 'Ghosts' is dominated by "the spirit of Thoreau... Walden Pond in the heart of the city."6
The 'fusing' of Black and Blue is the focus of the novel, Auster saying that "the only way for Blue to have a sense of what is happening is to be inside Black's mind." However, although this seems "impossible" to Blue, he, like Quinn, becomes convinced that "anything less than constant surveillance would be no surveillance at all", despite being "only one man". From this point on, as he reciprocates his every movement, he is seeing "through a glass darkly, but then face to face" : "it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself." In 'Mr Vertigo', it is stated that "If you look into someone's face long enough, eventually you're going to feel that you're looking at yourself."7 Blue is in a city of glass where, instead of seeing out, the glass is a mirror and he is forced to look into his own locked room. Being thus placed, he realises that "Little by little, I'm no longer the same." This is manifested in his struggle with words that are usually "transparent" and "have never impeded his view", however as they are Black's words and the 'glass' of Black's life, he is forced to change himself. Yet, it becomes so that he knows what Black's actions will be, and when separated from him, he "begins to lose the sense of who he is." Thus "the more deeply entangled he becomes, the freer he is." In what seems to be a tangential reference, Auster mentions the detective film 'The Lady of the Lake'. However, significantly in the film, "we only see the hero's face when he looks in the mirror",8 much as it is with Blue. Indeed, we only truly see Blue through others, for when he meets his fiancée - who he has not seen in years - "It is as though some spectre has suddenly materialized", with Blue speaking "in a voice that seems strange to him." Not only is Blue now a ghost, but when he confronts his employer White (who is Black) he "feels that the man is not really there" and that he is the only person who can see him. Auster confirms both men's ghost status, as Blue questions whether there is really a man "who does nothing, who merely sits in his room and writes". Yet he too is that man and a mere ghost of the ghostly Black, who is only a "stand-in, a fake, an actor" for White, as Blue sees it.
As in 'City of Glass', knowledge of being under authorial control leads to the protagonist freeing himself from the 'novel'. Blue's realisation that he is being "watched, observed by another in the same way that he has been observing Black" and that "he has never been free" leads to his freedom. Just as Quinn meets Stillman three times, each as a different person, so Blue does with Black, with each talking in riddles. Blue says that every man "has his double somewhere. I don't see why mine can't be a dead man", so that he is a ghost. Black also talks of ghosts, saying that "a writer has no life of his own. Even when he's there, he's not really there." As Blue realises that Black can watch him "with my eyes closed", he intentionally reasserts his individuality so he can return "to a semblance of his former self". Black believes that Blue is "the one thing that doesn't change" for him, but also realises that Blue will kill him, to ultimately reassert his identity and individuality. Like 'City of Glass', the novel's narrator, who shows himself to be of similar age to Auster, leaves us with an open-ended conclusion to the book.
The final part of the triptych, 'The Locked Room', is narrated by an unnamed protagonist, a small-time writer, and tells the tale of how he essentially fills the gap left when his friend when his childhood friend, Fanshawe disappears, presumed dead. Fanshawe had entrusted a cache of literary work to the narrator, who publishes the works, which are acclaimed as masterpieces. He eventually marries Sophie, a carbon-copy of Auster's wife Siri, and adopts Fanshawe's son. However Fanshawe writes to the narrator, revealing that he is alive, and establishing him as the character who is in control in the novel, having set up his friend to 'take his place'.
Fanshawe is the person defining the narrator's identity, as "He is... where everything begins for me, ...without him I would hardly know who I am", and he is "the one who shared my thoughts". The immediate similarities between the men are stressed with them being very close in appearance and age, and both being writers. Indeed, Fanshawe was "a ghost I carried around inside me", when the two are separated. The importance of Fanshawe's cache is great, as it is something hidden from Sophie until his disappearance, and is 'the locked room', the secret and protected side of his identity. The two suitcases containing the notebooks "Together,...were as heavy as a man." That his work is the only trace left of him means that the narrator equates destroying "Fanshawe's work and killing him with my own hands." Indeed, Fanshawe's work is very close to Auster's, the bulk of it being three novels, including 'Neverland' and 'Blackouts'. The former refers to the paradoxical home of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, while a fantastical city of glass is the home of the child-like Peter Stillman. The latter is the name of the play from which 'Ghosts' metamorphosed.
As in 'Ghosts', the protagonist questions "whether or not a writer has a real life", and the narrator believes he would enjoy pseudonymous writing, "to invent a secret identity", as Auster himself had done. In the wake of Fanshawe's letter, names and identity are further explored, with Fanshawe hoping "you will always be who you are. With me it's a different story." The fact that Fanshawe has adopted a new name for his new life leads to the question of whether this has changed him. This conundrum is complemented by the narrator wishing Fanshawe's son to have his own name, to change him into being his, and not Fanshawe's, son.
It is stated that "No one can cross the boundary into another - for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself", despite the fact that Fanshawe "was inside me day and night...unknown to me." When Fanshawe, being absent, is supposed to be only the narrator's pseudonym, he sets out to write Fanshawe's biography, and effectively his autobiography, to disprove this. This is effectively Fanshawe's autobiography in which "he speaks of himself as another in order to tell the story of himself. He must make himself absent in order to find himself there."9 The research involved reveals to him a lot of unknowns about Fanshawe, as well as himself, but brings him to desire "to kill Fanshawe...to track him down and kill him." His quest for Fanshawe literally and figuratively leads him astray as, in Paris, he 'becomes' other people, and Fanshawe becomes anyone but himself - "if he's no one,...he must be Fanshawe." This situation leads to a head-to-head with one of these 'Fanshawes', akin to Blue's confrontation with Black, and (like Blue) he survives, seemingly defying fate: "I was alive... It did not seem possible that I had been spared." The novel concludes with the two men finally meeting, with an ostensibly dying Fanshawe handing over the red notebook (the same as in 'City of Glass'?) from his hide-out in a locked room. The narrator reads the notebook, in which "Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible." As he tears each page out and throws them away, crumpled, he is freeing himself of Fanshawe and his control, able to return to the life Fanshawe left for him.
The most fascinating progression in 'The Locked Room' is the protagonists's knowledge of their own status. Quinn, Blue and the narrator are the primary characters who are caught in the novel, a city of glass or locked room that pens them in, constrained by others' control of them. Early in 'The Locked Room', it is said "No one wants to be part of a fiction, and even less so if that is real." Ultimately, the narrator recognises outside events: "The entire story comes down to what happened at the end", he says. He mentions and is aware of 'City of Glass' and 'Ghosts', saying that "these three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about." Yet, despite presenting himself here as the trilogy's author, we only have his word for it, while ultimately names and times are irrelevant, while the story is important. In light of this, the fact that the last 'version' of the story is autobiographical shows the progression from the teller being a person completely unconnected to the story, to someone who tells their story in the first person, showing their self-cognition.
'The Locked Room' is closer to 'City of Glass' than 'Ghosts', with Quinn being one of the minor but essentially insignificant characters, references to Don Quixote, and Henry Dark and Peter Stillman appearing in different guises in Paris. Yet Auster is almost a bigger character in the novel than any, being extremely close to both the narrator and Fanshawe. Auster claims that "I am neither Fanshawe nor the narrator. Maybe I am both."10
While Poe, Thoreau and Melville are authors whose work is an influence, Nathaniel Hawthorne's work is the major influence on the trilogy. 'Fanshawe' is the title of Hawthorne's first novel, which, like Auster's, is semi-autobiographical. Described by Black in 'Ghosts', his story 'Wakefield' has many parallels with all three parts of the trilogy. It is about a man who randomly walks out on a happy married life for over 20 years only to return. According to Black, he is not "sure why he's doing it, but he does it just the same," just like the protagonists in the trilogy. Like Wakefield, all three leave contended and ostensibly settled lives, and have to fight to return to 'normality'.
As the conventions of the detective story are utilised, the novels - and 'City of Glass' in particular - are full of Auster's 'red herrings'. The editor of 'Contemporary Novelists' views the books as full of "intellectual puzzles that have little or no relation to a reality beyond the texts themselves". It is also suggested that the book is "too clever for its own good, that Auster engages knotty intellectual issues partly to evade more troubling emotional ones."11 Yet in his thesis on the trilogy, Chris Pace states that the book must not be interpreted as a series of riddles from which answers must be derived, but that, as Auster says, the books must be a "springboard for the imagination".12 Interestingly, the traditional male domination of the detective yarn is replicated in the trilogy. The books are inherently masculine, with very few female characters appearing. Indeed, these women are either facsimiles of Auster's wife, Siri Hustvedt, or one-dimensional sex objects, who appear only to immediately disappear.
The narrator's status in 'The Locked Room' as the teller of his and Fanshawe's story offers him more control over the proceedings and our perception of them than Blue or Quinn, despite the fact that he is nameless. As the trilogy progresses, the protagonist becomes more powerful. Quinn is in conflict with many characters, while by the end, the narrator has only one windmill with which to joust, as Don Quixote would see it. Auster shows that we the reader inject each book with our understanding and experiences, meaning that ultimately, of all the authors, we, with our 'springboard of imagination', are the most prominent. Pace views the books as changing "even day to day, to fit the experiences, the mood, and the personality of the reader".13 Auster believes no one truly knows himself, and each protagonist uses the identity of others to get closer to finding resolution, as Fanshawe finally does in 'The Locked Room.' Yet ultimately, the nature of the trilogy means that this is merely one interpretation: "It's not a mathematical equation to solve. One hope's it's exhaustible, and that you're going to keep thinking about it and keep testing your reaction and come up with new things."14
Auster, Paul, 'Mr Vertigo', (Faber and Faber, 1995)
Auster, Paul, 'The New York Trilogy', (Faber and Faber, 1992)
"The Compass with the Flickering Rhythm - An Interview with Paul Auster", 'Untitled' web site, http://www.rrz.uni-hamburg.de/springer/int-rey.htm, (March 15, 1999)
Henderson, Lesley (ed.), 'Contemporary Novelists', Fifth Edition, (St James Press, 1991)
"The Locked Room" web site, http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/books/locked.html, (March 15, 1999)
Ousby, Ian (ed.), 'The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English', (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Pace, Chris, "Escaping from the Locked Room: Overthrowing the Tyranny of Artifice in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy", 'Chris Pace's thesis' web site, http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/articles/thesis.html, (March 15, 1999)
"Paul Auster: A Brief Biography", 'Paul Auster - Part 3: The Prose Years (1980-1990)' web site, http://member.aol.com/knkreutzer/auster/austbiog.htm, (March 15, 1999)
Walker, John (ed.), 'Halliwell's Film Guide', (Harper Collins, 1992)
1 "The Compass with the Flickering Rhythm - An Interview with Paul Auster", 'Untitled' web site, http://www.rrz.uni-hamburg.de/springer/int-rey.htm, (March 15, 1999)
6 "Paul Auster: A Brief Biography", 'Paul Auster - Part 3: The Prose Years (1980-1990)' web site, http://member.aol.com/knkreutzer/auster/austbiog.htm, (March 15, 1999)
12 "Escaping from the Locked Room: Overthrowing the Tyranny of Artifice in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy", 'Chris Pace's thesis' web site, http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/articles/thesis.html, (March 15, 1999)
13 "The Locked Room" web site, http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/books/locked.html, (March 15, 1999)