Paul Auster

Why the novelist’s brand of postmodern detective fiction still matters

Ben Libman

Paul Auster, the American novelist who died on April 30, was interested in the problem of the detective as writer. Getty Images

I saw Paul Auster in person only once. He was bending over to pick up a scrap of paper from the sidewalk on Broadway near Columbia University. He straightened, inspected the paper closely, pocketed it, and went on his way. I still don’t know whether he had dropped the scrap or had stumbled upon it. I hadn’t been paying attention to him, because I had not registered that the person I was looking at was Paul Auster, the famous American novelist and poet, widely celebrated for his work’s particular blend of European surrealism and playful American postmodernism. As soon as I did, however, I realized that he had acted the way he might have as a character in one of his own novels: mysteriously odd one moment, oddly mysterious the next. What was on that scrap of paper? If it belonged to him, why peruse it? If it didn’t, why pocket it?

It could be said that I owed this very kind of wondering to him—to the metaphysical ambiguities and bewildering turns of novels like Moon Palace (1989), in which an orphan resembling Auster accidentally discovers his lost father, and Leviathan (1992), in which a man recounts the coincidences that led a friend to a grisly death. In particular, I owed it to his New York Trilogy, a stylized, philosophical, and metafictional treatment of the detective novel. The first volume, City of Glass (1985), unspools a mystery that may in fact be a figment of the imagination of the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, an author of detective novels turned private eye who encounters a number of characters named Paul Auster and a curious father-and-son duo, both named Peter Stillman. In the second novel, Ghosts (1986), a private investigator named Blue is tasked with snooping on a man named Black by a man named White, who turn out to be the same person. In The Locked Room (1987), the last book in the Trilogy, a writer named Fanshawe goes missing, setting in motion a detective story and a self-reflexive meditation that plays with the tropes of early models of the genre.

Obsessing over Auster’s pocketing of that scrap of paper as I did, I might well have been taking cues from Quinn, who becomes a private investigator in City of Glass only because he is mistaken for one after someone dials the wrong telephone number. Quinn finds himself wandering the streets of the Upper West Side tailing Peter Stillman the father, whose extreme views about language have led him to raise his son without access to words. Stillman appears to be tracing gigantic, city-block-sized letters with his movements, spelling out a codeword for an unknown—indeed, unimaginable—audience. Or so Quinn thinks. Perhaps, Quinn muses, he had seen the letters “only because he had wanted to see them.”

Auster’s stylized, quasi-philosophical novels led to significant praise; critics lauded him as a new master of the American postmodern detective novel. For a time in the late 1980s and early ’90s, during which he won, among other honors, France’s Prix Médicis étranger, Auster was among this country’s most famous postmodern novelists. This was due not only to their spare elegance but also to what critics deemed his legibility; unlike those of Thomas Pynchon, say, Auster’s metafictional excursions have never been hard to follow. In the twenty-first century, as experimental detective fiction grew more familiar, the novelty wore off, and the easiness of Auster’s style became sort of a fatal flaw—proof of what his critics saw as his fondness for cliché, his corniness, and his lack of meaningful inventiveness—expressed, most memorably, in 2009, in a parodying review by James Wood in The New Yorker.

Like Wood, I admit to finding some of Auster’s dialogue hard to swallow and some of his philosophical insights (on the nature of language, for example) sophomoric. But the contributions he made to American letters are nonetheless real—and substantial. Auster’s work taught us that the acts of novel-writing and crime-solving can be kindred, that a word and a clue might be symbols of the same order. He was early to recognize that, more than any other popular genre, the detective story offers unique opportunities for the novelist looking to interrogate and play with the novel itself as a form. (This explains why the philosophical aspects of his interest in language are less important than his insight that the problems inherent to language can be a source of narrative tension.)

The detective plot represents the two principal activities of the literary arts—reading and writing—as the two principal activities of detecting itself. The detective, sorting through the residue left in the wake of a mystery (a crime, a sudden departure, a conspiracy), is both reader and writer. The clue is a sign, which the detective reads; the story of the crime is one he writes by solving it. The genre’s earlier practitioners tended to emphasize the detective as reader. Consider the ability of Sherlock Holmes to “read” a case from a bulge in a hat, for example. At stake in each story is whether the clues are being correctly read; the writing of the crime—by Watson—is by comparison effortless. And in the end, everything clicks into place.

Auster, though, is interested in the problem of the detective as writer. Quinn can “read” just fine—he astutely decodes Stillman’s life-sized writing along the streets of Manhattan—but it is when he begins to write that things fall apart. The acts of giving a clue a meaning and relating it to a larger web of conspiracy are thrown into relief as arbitrary; the clue could just as easily be meaningless, or only emptily referential; the conspiracy nonexistent, the whole pursuit merely a projection. A writer of detective novels, which he pens under the pseudonym William Wilson (the adopted moniker of the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name), Quinn is more than once mistaken for “Paul Auster” the writer, who is himself mistaken for a detective. The point of this cascade of mistaken identities compounds the driving question of all of Auster’s work: writer or detective—what’s the difference? Not only does the novelist see himself in the detective but the detective sees himself in the novelist. “In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable,” Quinn says.

Aesthetically, however, Auster is better compared to his hero, Samuel Beckett, whose own trilogy of novels were as hardboiled as they were literary.

Auster was not the first to find a gold mine of possibilities for literary experiment within the detective novel. Don DeLillo’s Running Dog (1978) preceded the Trilogy by nearly a decade. Pynchon, perhaps the best-known example, explored the link between the so-called paranoid style of American politics and the conspiratorial conventions of detective fiction. Aesthetically, however, Auster is better compared to his hero, Samuel Beckett, whose own trilogy of novels were as hardboiled as they were literary. Beckett’s Molloy (1951), a novel in two parts (the first about Molloy, the second about a private detective named Moran) was perhaps the earliest twentieth-century novel to focus on the writerly nature and the metafictional possibilities of sleuthing. (Molloy was followed by two more books that collectively form a trilogy, much like the New York Trilogy.) When Moran is tasked by his boss to “see about Molloy,” he embarks on a quest in which he seems to transform into Molloy, ever more enfeebled, as Beckett interrogates the contradiction between the detective’s drive to give meaning to everything and the inherent slipperiness of meaning-making.

The central mystery of City of Glass similarly revolves around a crisis of meaning, one embodied by Peter Stillman the son, who speaks with a defective grasp of language. His father, a professor, is the cause of his disability. Peter is the living American equivalent of Molloy: having been locked by his father in a dark room for the duration of his childhood, he has an entirely alienated relationship with the language he eventually learns to produce. “This is what is called speaking,” he tells Quinn. “I believe that is the term. When words come out, fly into the air, live for a moment, and die. Strange, is it not?” Peter is the first of Auster’s creations to give voice to a concern that will animate many of his later novels, that a word and its meaning are only contingently connected.

Quinn’s quest to discover what, exactly, happened to Peter is simultaneously a quest into the typically postmodern conundrum of language. How can we place our confidence in language if words have no inherent relationship to the things they mean? At the age of twenty, Auster wrote that “language is not experience. It is a means of organizing experience.” He continued: “To feel estranged from language is to lose your own body.” Peter is a victim of this gap between experience (or life) and language, of a father who could not tolerate introducing his son to language as long as that gap existed. His father is possessed of a belief that language is caught in a postlapsarian state of meaninglessness: “Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God.” He invents “a language that will at last say what we have to say. For our words no longer correspond to the world.”

For some critics, Auster’s interrogation of the mystery of the sign via the detective novel was little more than shallow game-playing. But for others of us, myself included, Auster found in the problem of language’s ambiguity a means to push the bounds of the detective novel and, by consequence, of the novel more generally. By insisting that writing might be a form of conspiratorial thinking, Auster advanced the metafictional turn in American literature and authorized a lighter approach to the form that, in the intervening years, has scarcely been championed in a publishing era dominated by literary realism. We should remember Auster as a daring experimentalist who thought the novel still capable of being new.

Ben Libman is the author of The Third Solitude, forthcoming from Dundurn Press. He lives in Paris.
Originally published:
May 7, 2024


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