Mirrors of Madness: Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy

This article originally appeared in Critique 37 (Fall 1995): 16-32. Reprinted in Time, Narrative and Imagination: Essays on Paul Auster, ed. Arkadiusz Misztal (Gdańsk, Poland: Gdańsk University Press, forthcoming).

Steven E. Alford

My true place in the world, it turned out, was somewhere beyond myself, and if that place was inside me, it was also unlocatable. This was the tiny hole between self and not-self, and for the first time in my life I saw this nowhere as the exact center of the world.

—Paul Auster, The Locked Room


Among the many puzzles in Paul Auster's remarkable The New York Trilogy, a persistent one involves the identity of the narrator(s) of these novels. In answering the question, "who narrates these three stories?" I will demonstrate that thematically the novels develop the problematic of self-identity. Along the way I will show how questions of identity flow into questions about textuality, and undermine the ontologically distinct categories of author, narrator, and reader. Thematically, The New York Trilogy argues that the self within the novels and without is a textual construct, and subject to the difference and deferral inherent in language. The novels enact a series of binary oppositions between characters engaged in dramatic psychological and physical confrontation that demonstrates the impossibility of a pure opposition between self and other. From within every conflicted doubling a triad emerges, challenging our commonsense notions of the self.

Previous scholars have examined The New York Trilogy from different angles. Alison Russell linked the novels to Derrida's analysis of polysemy and the problems such polysemy produces for our senses of identity and unity, and for the ability of language to refer truthfully to the world. In addition, she briefly explored the relation between The New York Trilogy and the romance (including the detective story), as well as noting the connection between it and travel literature. Norma Rowen's 1991 essay focused exclusively on City of Glass, arguing that the novel concerns the madness involved in the search for absolute knowledge, symbolized in the book (among other ways) as Peter Stillman's search for a prelapsarian language. While relying on their excellent work, I am concerned here to explore the issue of the identity of the narrator(s) of these stories.

The New York Trilogy is nominally a collection of detective stories that, within the generic constraints of detective fiction, engage in a series of self-oriented metaphysical explorations.1 While these tales could be characterized accurately as postmodern, in that they employ a pop culture form to reflect on issues more profound than "whodunit," postmodern detective fiction did not originate the concern with metaphysical issues. Julian Symons offers some examples of metaphysical detective fiction at virtually the beginning of the genre. We can see, for example, a predecessor of Auster's Daniel Quinn-William Wilson-Max Work triad in Frederick Irving Anderson's Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914): "Godahl, a criminal who always succeeds, is the creation of a writer named Oliver Armiston. In one of the best stories the two become confused in a Borgesian manner, as Armiston is duped into using Godahl's talents to provide the means of committing an actual crime" (83). And Maurice Leblanc's Arséne Lupin poses "in the novel 813 (1910) ...as the Chef de la Sureté for four years, and arrests himself during the investigation" (84), echoing in fiction the experiences of the real-life Vidocq, whose own Mémoires were thought to be largely fictional (32). These latter dramas, that reveal the border between lawfulness and criminality as nonexistent, echo the erasure of the borders between one self and the other that we find between Black and Blue in Ghosts, and between the narrator and Fanshawe in The Locked Room.

Closer to our own time, Dashiel Hammett's Continental Op isn't innocent of a metaphysical flavor. As Steven Marcus has noted

[The detective] actively undertakes to deconstruct, decompose, and thus demystify the fictional—and therefore false—reality created by the characters, crooks or not, with whom he is involved. ... His major effort is to make the fictions of others visible as fictions, inventions, concealments, falsehoods, and mystifications. When a fiction becomes visible as such, it begins to dissolve and disappear, and presumably should reveal behind it the "real" reality that was there all the time and that it was masking. Yet what happens in Hammett is that what is revealed as "reality" is still a further fiction-making activity ... Dashiell Hammett, the writer, is continually doing the same thing as the Op and all the other characters in the fiction he is creating. ...He is making a fiction (in writing) in the real world; and this fiction, like the real world itself, is coherent but not necessarily rational. What one both begins and ends with, then, is a story, a narrative, a coherent yet questionable account of the world. (xxi)

What Steven Marcus is suggesting here about Hammett's text could be asserted about Auster's works as well. Unlike Hammett, however, Auster recognizes that while detective stories are "coherent yet questionable," the same could be said about any story about the world, including those nominally regarded as nonfictional. And given that the "real" authors of stories are themselves a part of the world, the making of the author, as well as the narrator is the making of a fiction, both inside and outside the text.2 Hence, in Auster's work, the solution to the mystery is not the discovery of the criminal "other," but how the other is implicated in the self-constitution of the investigator. In turn, just as Dupin claims that detection involves "an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent" (qtd. in Auster 65), the author's intellect can be identified with that of his narrator. But the connections between author, narrator, character (and the character's relation with other characters, as well as the relation between these entities and the reader) are not as simple as a string of binary associations.

The names and interrelations of the narrators of the three books of The New York Trilogy are complex and paradoxical. Characters' names are twinned, characters are revealed to be imaginary beings invented by other characters, characters appear in one book, only to maintain their name, but switch to another identity, in another book, and so forth. This makes for not only complexity, but outright contradiction.

City of Glass

Told in the third person by an unnamed narrator, City of Glass follows Daniel Quinn, who at the prompting of a wrong number, impersonates Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency (who seems to exist only in the imaginations of Virginia and Peter Stillman, Junior, since Quinn fails to find him). The Paul Auster Quinn does find is a Manhattan author, whose name is identical to the "real" author of The New York Trilogy.3 This Paul Auster tells Quinn he is working on a book of essays, currently a piece about Don Quixote, concerned "with the authorship of the book. Who wrote it, and how it was written."4 Don Quixote claims the text was originally written in Arabic by Cid Hamete Benengeli. Chancing on it in the Toledo market, Cervantes arranged to have it translated, and then presented himself as the editor of the translation. Since Cid Hamete neither appears in the novel, nor once claims to be present during Quixote's exploits, the character Paul Auster argues that Cid Hamete is actually a pastiche of four people—the illiterate Sancho Panza and only witness to all Quixote's adventures, the barber and the priest (who transcribed Panza's dictated story), and Samson Carrasco, the bachelor from Salamanca, who translated it into Arabic. Cervantes then discovered the book, and had it translated and published.

Why should these men go to such trouble? According to Auster, to cure Don Quixote of his madness. "The idea was to hold a mirror up to Don Quixote's madness, to record each of his absurd and ludicrous delusions, so that when he finally read the book himself, he would see the error of his ways" (118-119). But Auster adds one last twist to his argument. Don Quixote was not mad, as his friends thought. Since Quixote wonders repeatedly how accurately the chronicler will record his adventurers, he must have chosen Sancho Panza and the three others to play the roles of his "saviors." Not only that, Quixote probably translated the Arabic manuscript back into Spanish. That is, Cervantes hired Quixote to translate Quixote's own story.

Why, according to Auster, would anyone do anything so complex and bizarre?

[Quixote] wanted to test the gullibility of his fellow men. Would it be possible, he wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction spew out lies and nonsense? To say that windmills were knights, that a barber's basin was a helmet, that puppets were real people? ...In other words, to what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn't it? To any extent. The proof is that we still read the book. (119-120)

As we shall see, The New York Trilogy holds a mirror up to our own madness—the assumption of our hermetic individuality.

City of Glass is told in third person. However, after the bulk of the novel is rendered in third person, the final two pages shift to first person, when the narrator returns from a trip to Africa and calls his friend, the writer Paul Auster. Auster has become obsessed with Quinn (who himself was obsessed with the Stillmans), but has lost track of him, and also cannot find Virginia Stillman. Auster and the narrator visit Virginia Stillman's apartment, where Auster finds Quinn's red notebook, and gives it to the narrator for safekeeping. The narrator then confesses that he has followed the red notebook as closely as possible in telling his story, and has "refrained from any interpretation" (158).

Like "editors" of previous fictions (The Sorrows of Young Werther and Notes from Underground, for example), the confident professions of editorial thoroughness and sincerity lack foundation. The narrator has never met Quinn, the subject of his story, and has only two sources of information about him, Auster and the red notebook. Auster's knowledge of his narratee, Quinn, actually emerges only from Quinn's account, since the only time he and Auster met was in Auster's apartment (and Quinn's account to Auster may or may not have been distorted). Hence, the narrator's only two sources are the hearsay of Auster and a text, Quinn's notebook. The narrator has no direct experience of or information about the story he tells.5

Returning to the character Auster's account of Quixote, we can observe some parallels.6 If we were to say provisionally that the narrator is {Paul Auster} (bracketing, for now, his ontological status),7 we could say that the story {Auster} tells has been invented for him by some concerned friends, presumably a real-life Quinn (who would parallel Sancho Panza) and the Stillmans (who would parallel the other three friends). Presumably, {Auster} has been having difficulty with his sanity, and his friends have concocted City of Glass to hold up a mirror to his madness. However, continuing to follow the lines of the Quixote argument, we could argue as well that {Auster} has engineered the entire enterprise, and chosen Quinn and the Stillmans as his "saviors," so that he could spew out lies and nonsense for people's amusement. Hence, Paul Auster, the writer in City of Glass, is a character invented by {Paul Auster}, narrator, the same way that the character "Don Quixote" was engineered by Don Quixote.

Of course, Don Quixote never existed, but was invented by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra of Spain. By association, {Paul Auster} never existed, but was an invention of the "real" Paul Auster, of Manhattan.8 Hence, we have three Austers, not two: author, narrator, and character, each ontologically distinct.

The twinning has uncovered a triad, which has its corollary in City of Glass. Daniel Quinn, detective fiction writer, had taken on the pseudonym of William Wilson. "William Wilson, after all, was an invention, and even though he had been born within Quinn himself, he now led an independent life. Quinn treated him with deference, at times even admiration, but he never went so far as to believe that he and William Wilson were the same man" (5). "William Wilson" has authored a series of books featuring a private-eye narrator, Max Work. "Whereas William Wilson remained an abstract figure for [Quinn], Work had increasingly come to life. In the triad of selves that Quinn had become, Wilson served as a kind of ventriloquist, Quinn himself was the dummy, and Work was the animated voice that gave purpose to the enterprise" (6).

Note the surprising role assignment in this conceit. Ordinarily, we would consider Quinn the ventriloquist, Wilson the dummy, and the words of the dummy Work's story. As the audience, we would then attend to the dummy's words, failing to notice Quinn moving his lips, owing to our absorption in the tale. By this account, however, Wilson is the ventriloquist and Quinn is the dummy. This textual analogy suggests that Quinn exists only insofar as the words he invents give him life.

To tell the story that is City of Glass, {Auster's} only sources are a text and one person's second-hand account. But in terms of self-knowledge, what does Paul Auster, author, have to go on? In his daily life, Paul Auster tells himself stories about himself (as we all do, by engaging in interior dialogue), and others tell him stories about himself. He creates a text (whether it be The New York Trilogy or his other works) and through that text gains self-knowledge. But what kind of knowledge of self can one acquire by inventing stories, which are, by definition, untrue?

Auster's trilogy dramatizes the assertion that the self can gain knowledge only through language because, in a strict sense, the self is language. Anthony Paul Kerby argues that other views of the self, such as the Cartesian, originate in three fundamental misconceptions: a) "that there is a doer before the deed," that the `I' causes narration, rather than being implied by it; b) that intentions or thoughts exist prior to their linguistic expression; and c) that "language has a certain neutrality or transparency with respect to what is expressed" (65). On the contrary, "the self is a social and linguistic construct, a nexus of meaning rather than an unchanging entity" (34). One further misconception should be mentioned: that our originary experience of the world occurs in perception. While no one would question that we do have extra-linguistic bodily experiences involving perception and sensation, the self, in its genesis and self-understanding, is a construct.9

In the wake of Benveniste and Michel Foucault, such an insight may approach a commonplace. However, when we ally the notion of the linguistically constructed self with the Saussurean/Derridian notion of language as a differing/deferring process, the real drama begins. Two problems with self-knowledge arise.

First, if the self is a text, and if text's knowablity is endlessly deferred, referring within the cognitive process only to other texts (be they physical texts or other selves), then "true" self-knowledge is impossible. We understand our self as the locus of our identity by telling ourselves stories, yet these stories' criterion of correctness is not truth, but what we might call the adequacy of a meaningful narrative sequence. Kerby explains, "this identity ...is not the persistence of an entity, a thing (a substance, subject, ego), but is a meaning constituted by a relation of figure to ground or part to whole. It is an identity in difference constituted by framing the flux of particular experiences by a broader story" (46).

Second, having said that, we should recognize that once truth is abandoned as the transcendental criterion of self-knowledge, we find ourselves in a vertiginous intellectual space in which the distinction between narrative and its traditional certifying element (truth, whether that term be understood as a Kantian adequatio or in some other sense) collapses. In practical terms, if I assert that "true" self-knowledge is impossible, what is the guarantor of the truth of that statement? In discussing Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Foucault, Linda Hutcheon recognizes the implicit paradox of such a position. "These [positions] are typically paradoxical; they are the masterful denials of mastery, the cohesive attacks on cohesion, the essentializing challenges to essences, that characterize postmodern theory" (20). Hence, we must proceed to the next step of the argument fully conscious of the paradox involved: I am asserting the truth of an argument that assumes the unavailability of a truth-based certification.

Each of Auster's stories features a character who awakens to the ongoing deferral of the possibility of self-knowledge. {Auster} cites Baudelaire: "Wherever I am not is the place where I am myself" (132). In The Locked Room, the narrator suggests

We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another—for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (292)

The particular contribution of The New York Trilogy is that in each story, we see the realization of the "substancelessness" of the self in its psychological dimension.10 The characters and narrators of these stories respond to their evolving insight into the "nature" of their selves with fear, violence, and despair. Self-knowledge becomes a narrative agon, a contest in which there can be no declared winner. Or, to put it another way, the loser is whoever quits writing first.

One of the more interesting scenes in City of Glass has already been alluded to, wherein {Auster} and Auster visit the Stillman's apartment, only to find that Quinn has disappeared. Where is he? Alison Russell notes: "In City of Glass, characters 'die' when their signifiers are omitted from the printed page" (75). Quinn has "died" since he filled up his red notebook with signifiers. When he came to the last page, he himself came to an end.


Within the free realm of imaginative invention, an author's characters can, of course, do anything the author wants, including violating laws of logic and nature, in particular those involving paradox and identity. Also, they can easily breach ontological categories, as has already been shown with the three Paul Austers. These thematic threads run through this trilogy. However, what does the quandary of identity the characters' experience imply for Paul Auster, the author of The New York Trilogy (or any writer, for that matter)? His work suggests that no clear dividing line exists between the characters' predicament and his own, that he is beset by the same paradoxical problems of identity in his "real" life. As Blue says in Ghosts, "Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he's there, he's not really there" (209). As we shall see, these problems will emerge for the readers of his texts as well.

In Ghosts, a certain detective Blue is hired by White to shadow Black.11 The narrator says the location is unimportant, "let's say Brooklyn Heights, for the sake of argument. Some quiet, rarely traveled street not far from the bridge—Orange Street perhaps" (163). Blue moves into the third floor of a four story brownstone to shadow Black, who lives in a third floor apartment opposite. Blue is a detective self-conscious about his social role. He reads True Detective and Stranger Than Fiction with devotion. Owing to a peculiarity of his client, White, Blue is consigned to remain in his room and write weekly reports, which he mails to White. Observing Black, Blue notes that Black is composing a manuscript. Hence, Blue spends his days writing a report about someone who spends his days writing.12

For him, things aren't going well:

He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough—to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others. But if the book were an interesting one, perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. He could get caught up in the story, so to speak, and little by little begin to forget himself. But this book offers him nothing. There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book. That's all there is, Blue realizes, and he no longer wants any part of it. But how to get out? How to get out of the room that is the book that will go on being written for as long as he stays in the room? (202)

A series of events complicate Blue's life. He discovers his fiancee is seeing another man. He tries to meet White in the post office, but White eludes him. Black continues to scribble. Blue's anxiety mounts. "It seems perfectly plausible to him that he is also being watched, observed by another in the same way that he has been observing Black. If that is the case, then he has never been free. From the very start he has been the man in the middle, thwarted in front and hemmed in on the rear" (200). Like Quinn, the dummy, whose words were generated by the ventriloquist, his narrator, William Wilson, Blue's words are being generated by the person controlling him, but that person is neither himself, nor White, but Black. From the twinning of Blue and Black, Blue has uncovered a triad, one beyond his control.

Like Quinn, who in his three meetings with Peter Stillman, Senior, adopted the "disguises of Quinn, Henry Dark, and Peter Stillman, Junior (88, 95, 100), Blue adopts a series of disguises to get closer to his quarry, Black.13 Like Quinn, who visits Paul Auster, Blue gathers the courage to take the next, "inevitable" step and confront Black directly in his apartment. The narrator notes, "To enter Black, then, was the equivalent of entering himself, and once inside himself, he can no longer conceive of being anywhere else. But this is precisely where Black is, even though Blue does not know it" (88).

Black is not home, and Blue steals the papers on Black's desk before returning to his apartment. With a creeping sense of horror, Blue reads Black's papers, recognizing that they are nothing more than Blue's own reports to White. Blue is both scared of and angry with Black because he thinks that Black has somehow stolen his freedom and autonomy. The narrator comments, "For Blue at this point can no longer accept Black's existence, and therefore he denies it" (226).

Blue's error is an intellectual one with emotional consequences. As an individual, he thought he possessed the freedom one ordinarily ascribes to individuals. As a detective, as a type of private contractor, he thought he independently took the job of shadowing Black, and in a sense he did. But he now realizes that his metaphysical assumptions about his freedom, both personal and professional, were wrong. He responds with fear and projected anger. He denies Black's existence. What he doesn't understand is that "autonomy, freedom, and identity ...are not pregiven or a priori characteristics but must be redefined within the context of the person's appearance within the sociolinguistic arena" (Kerby 113-114).

In his analysis of Derrida, Kerby further suggests that

If auto-affection is the possibility of subjectivity, this subjectivity finds its release, its expression of itself, in acts of signification. The feeling of subjectivity that we have more or less continually, ...is quite simply the possibility of signification, of expression, what might be called vouloir dire or a wanting and being able, in most cases, to say or express. But this subjectivity does not know itself outside the fulfillment of its desire to express. (77)

Blue's selfhood emerges as his Self in his "reports." But the reports themselves are not a discrete product of an autonomous, isolated self, but emerge as even feasible only through the possibility of the other's existence. In denying Black's existence, Blue is denying his own.14 For, "One cannot become `I' without an implicit reference to another person, an auditor or narratee—which may be the same subject qua listener. `I' functions in contrast to `you' in much the same way as `here' refers linguistically to `there' rather than any fixed location" (Kerby 68). Hence, Blue's freedom, a consequence of his self-understanding, is contingent on Black's existence.

A further level of Blue's misunderstanding involves his notion of the "job," namely that one begins a job, carries it to an end, and moves on to the next. He assumes that the persistent element linking one job to the other is his ongoing, Cartesian self, one which remains apart and exempt from whatever "case" he is under contract to pursue, in this instance, Black. Blue is, in this sense, denying the historical and hermeneutical dimension of self-constitution. "Interpretation, like understanding, is a continuous process with no precise starting point. ...interpretation has always already started" (Kerby 44). Blue denies this "always-already" underway aspect of self-understanding and, when he sees himself mirrored in Black (or more precisely, mirrored in Black's text), he responds violently.

Blue enters Black's apartment, and Black awaits him, masked and armed with a revolver.15 Blue disarms Black and attacks him, rendering him unconscious, possibly dead. Blue muses, "There seems to be something [breathing], but he can't tell if it's coming from Black or himself" (231). Blue returns to his apartment with Black's manuscript, reads it, and leaves. The narrator explains, "For now is the moment that Blue stands up from his chair, puts on his hat, and walks through the door. And from this moment on, we know nothing" (232).

Quinn ceased to exist when he completed the red notebook. Blue ceased to exist when he completed reading Black's manuscript, which, we are told, Blue already knew by heart. When the words of the other ceased, the self ceased to exist. In Quinn's case his other was himself, which he masked from himself by filling his red notebook with observations about Stillman. In Blue's case his other was himself, which he masked from himself by filling his pages with observations about Black.

Who narrated Ghosts? I adduced the identity of the narrator in City of Glass from the story of Don Quixote. However, ferreting out the narrator of Ghosts is complicated by the difference in narrative time between the two books. City of Glass occurs in the narrative present and, based on copyright and publication information, we can date the narrative present of that book as the mid-Eighties.16 Ghosts, on the other hand, occurs approximately thirty-five to forty years before City of Glass, beginning on 3 February 1947, with the action continuing through midsummer of 1948 (203).17 Based on the evidence in City of Glass, Daniel Quinn and {Auster}, the narrator, are approximately the same age, and Quinn's age is given as thirty-five (3). Hence, {Auster} would have been born around the beginning of the narrative time of Ghosts.

Scouting ahead a bit, however, I note that the first-person narrator of The Locked Room talks about having written both City of Glass and Ghosts (346). Neither horn of this dilemma yields much satisfaction if we consider the world(s) of these stories to be governed by empirical laws. If {Auster} narrated both books, then he is either approximately thirty-five-years-old in City of Glass, or a new born infant in Ghosts. Both contradictory possibilities have equal textual evidence. But let's consider the passage in The Locked Room immediately following his admission that he wrote City of Glass and Ghosts: "These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different state in my awareness of what it is about" (346). Given the paradox, given the imaginative arbitrariness of proper name and geographic place assignments in Ghosts (everyone's name is a color; the narrator confesses the place names originate in narrative convenience), it seems reasonable to assume that Ghosts' narrator is {Auster}, who is establishing for himself an imaginative narrative space around the time of his birth. This allows him to metaphorically explore the complex issues of the relation of selfhood to language, but not as a self reflecting on its own constitution (as in City of Glass), but as one reflecting on its origin.

Further support for this position can be gleaned from the final paragraph, where a series of curious semantic shifts occur. The paragraph is worth quoting in full.

Where [Blue] goes after that is not important. For we must remember that all this took place more than thirty years ago, back in the days of our earliest childhood. Anything is possible, therefore. I myself prefer to think that he went far away, boarding a train that morning and going out West to start a new life. It is even possible that America was not the end of it. In my secret dreams, 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. For now is the moment that Blue stands up from his chair, puts on his hat, and walks through the door. And from this moment on, we know nothing. (232)

Ghosts began in third person omniscient. Like City of Glass, it closes with a shift into first person. But unlike City of Glass, the narrator does not assume the role of another (albeit unnamed) character. Instead, the reader is included along with the author, using the first person plural: we must remember, our earliest childhood.

At this point it becomes clear that the search for a narrator, the search itself, has been swallowed up into the anti-metaphysical18 (or metaphysical detective) terms of the novel(s). Just as Blue could not be Blue without including within himself Black, the narrator cannot exist without our inclusion into him, and he into us. "For in spying out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself" (20). Paul Auster, author, establishes the sense of his identity by projecting himself into the narrator, {Auster}, and holding the textual mirror up to himself. With Ghosts, we can now understand that the identity of the narrator lies in that ontologically indistinct realm of textuality, a linguistic black hole in which our common sense understanding of the proper separation of ontologically discrete categories—fiction, history, speculation, the empirical world of common, personal identity, as well as the conventional distinctions between author, narrator, and character—collapses. So, to answer the question of who narrates Ghosts, we can reply: you, me, and Paul Auster, all of whom are elided into an entity known, for the convenience of the narrative, as the narrator, or in our (!) terms, {Auster}.19

The Locked Room

We can answer the question about the narrator's identity in The Locked Room right away. He is {Auster}, narrator of City of Glass and Ghosts, so long as we understand both the terms "narrator" and "author" as standing for what we might call a locus of textual space, one which nominally includes you, me, and Paul Auster, author. (Note that in the course of our discussion, this additional triad has been spawned.20) We would do well to investigate this pattern of triads emerging from binary oppositions, wherein the self and other confrontation engenders a third entity.

Narrated in first person, The Locked Room opens in May 1984, with the disappearance of {Auster's} childhood friend, Fanshawe. {Auster} is summoned by Sophie, Fanshawe's wife, and he learns that Fanshawe has named {Auster} executor of his unpublished literary works, in the instance of Fanshawe's death or disappearance. He accepts the job, and arranges for Fanshawe's works to be published with a calculated schedule of publication that, following wide acceptance of Fanshawe's first novel, engenders both Fanshawe's literary fame, and fortune for both Sophie and {Auster}. {Auster} and Sophie fall in love, and he moves in with her and her child by Fanshawe. Fanshawe's works make {Auster} and Sophie rich, and all seems to be going well until {Auster} receives a letter from Fanshawe, thanking him for his help and claiming that Fanshawe will never contact him again.

{Auster} is intrigued, but more so when he contracts to write Fanshawe's biography. He gains access to Fanshawe's childhood works from Fanshawe's mother, with whom he begins an affair. At this point, for {Auster}, "everything had been reduced to a single impulse: to find Fanshawe, to speak to Fanshawe, to confront Fanshawe one last time" (317). He is confused: he wants to kill Fanshawe, he wants Fanshawe to kill him; he wants to find Fanshawe and then walk away from him.

Fanshawe's trail leads to France, and {Auster} locates him in a Paris bar. Confronting him, however, Fanshawe says, "My name isn't Fanshawe. It's Stillman. Peter Stillman" (349). Fanshawe/Stillman leaves the bar and {Auster} follows him. They have a bloody fight and Fanshawe/Stillman wins.

Three years pass. Sophie and {Auster} have a child, Paul. In the spring of 1982, {Auster} receives a letter from Fanshawe, saying they must meet in Boston.

Fanshawe, armed behind a door, confronts {Auster}. At this point, a blizzard of twinning occurs: like Stillman, Fanshawe claims to have been followed by a detective, Quinn; like Black, he says he travelled in the West; like Quinn, he claims to have camped outside Sophie's apartment for months, observing Sophie, {Auster}, and the child; Fanshawe uses the name Henry Dark in his travels, and so forth. Fanshawe has lured {Auster} to give him an explanation of why he left, and there {Auster} picks up a red notebook, filled with text. Back in the New York train station, {Auster} reads the notebook.

All the words were familiar to me, and yet they seemed to have been put together strangely, as though their final purpose was to cancel each other out. I can think of no other way to express it. Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible. It is odd, then, that the feeling that survives from this notebook is one of great lucidity. ... I came to the last page just as the train was pulling out. (370-371)

In her discussion of the postmodern novel, Linda Hutcheon has argued that the self-other opposition is what we could call a modernist moment along the way to postmodernism, a way-station through which our thought must pass (and conceivably return) in our understanding of postmodern texts. She writes, "The modernist concept of a single and alienated otherness is challenged by the postmodern questioning of binaries that conceal hierarchies (self/other)" (61). Instead of binary oppositions, she suggests it is more useful to think of difference, and the chaining movement of signifiers (originating in Saussure's insights, and developed further by Derrida) that describes not only the movement of meaning-constitution within language, but self-constitution as well. "Difference suggests multiplicity, heterogeneity, plurality, rather than binary opposition and exclusion" (61).

Whenever a binary, self-other opposition is erected (as is the case in The New York Trilogy), it establishes a hierarchy which is both arbitrary and illusory. When Blue imagines his control of his case, or when {Auster} asserts control over Fanshawe through the decision to write his biography, both characters employ the self-other opposition, and privilege the self as the controlling origin of the "job" (surveillance, writing) and of the discourse that constitutes the larger tale. Along the way, however, confidence in their autonomy is undermined, and they increasingly see themselves as being controlled and, ultimately, constituted as themselves by the other. This second movement, then privileges the other, rather than the self. The consequence is projected anger and violence: Blue assaults Black, {Auster} assaults Fanshawe/Stillman, and {Auster} wants to engage in some sort of violence toward Fanshawe toward the end of the novel, although his confusion renders his exact aim unclear.21

The final pages of The Locked Room embody these arguments. The character Fanshawe evolves from his oppositionary role as {Auster's} other into an "Everycharacter," wherein his own experiences suggest that he is the "same" character as Quinn, Stillman, Blue, Black, and Henry Dark.22 {Auster}, standing on the train station platform, realizes that in the end, there is text, and only text, and that each text (or, in this case, sentence or paragraph) cancels out the previous one, establishing not the truth of identity, whether that be one's self-identity or the identity of the other, but simply another text, an experiential description of the differing/deferring movement of language.

I suggested earlier that our identity, far from originating within a soul or mind, has its origin in text. But if, "reality only exists in function of the discourse that articulates it" (Thiher 27), our attempts at truth-making are doomed to irrelevance. Instead we are left with the adequacy of a meaningful narrative sequence.23 In discussing Nabokov, Allen Thiher argues,

Freud appears to be a quintessential modernist insofar as the unconscious, with its storehouse of time past, can be compared to the modernist domain of revelation, waiting to be seized in the form of iconic symbols. By contrast Nabokov's self-conscious play with ironic doubles exults in the arbitrary relations that obtain between signs. There is, for Nabokov, no other discourse than this manifest play of autonomous language. There is nothing beneath this verbal surface. The novel's surface is all that the novel is: a self-enclosed structure of self-mirrorings, offered as so many language games, with only an occasional catastrophe to recall the void that waits on the other side. (100)

This description could well be applied to Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Hence, in Auster's work we have moved from the modernist, alienated fiction of the other, exemplified in Hammett and others of the hard-boiled school, to a postmodern fiction of difference.24 In Michael Huhn's discussion of the hard-boiled novel, he argues that the contest between detective and criminal is one for control over interpretation of the clues, a control over the text that defines the reality of their linked situation:

The main difficulty of the reading process is occasioned by the criminal's attempts to prevent the detective from deciphering the true meaning of his text. This is, basically, a contest between an author and a reader about the possession of meaning, each of them wishing to secure it for himself. (The contest within the novel is repeated on a higher level between the novelist and the actual reader.) (456)

The detectives and searchers in Auster's fiction, by contrast, realize that possession of meaning invariably lies in becoming one with the other, the object of their surveillance or search. What they don't realize, and what carries the main thematic weight of these texts, is that they have failed to take the next step, the movement from the violent confrontation of the self-other to the realization that both figure in a larger whole, that of a set of texts, whose shifting relations of difference and deferral form what we know as the world.

Having reached the end, let us return to the beginning, and the story of Don Quixote. Cervantes wrote a novel narrated by Cid Hamete Benengeli about Don Quixote which is read by you and me. Since Cid Hamete is ultimately a "fiction," we understand that only Cervantes is "real." However, {Auster} argues that Quixote wrote a novel narrated by his friends about Quixote which is read by you and me. {Auster's} argument suggests that Cervantes is generated by the text as much as the characters and that ultimately, he is Quixote. If this argument is itself a meaningful narrative sequence, then the readers of Quixote are themselves Quixote, insofar as their self-constitution is implicated in the texts they read. The New York Trilogy is a work written by Paul Auster, narrated by {Paul Auster} about, among other characters, Paul Auster, which is read by you and me. If this analysis of The New York Trilogy parallels that of {Auster's} of Quixote, then we can close best by echoing the words of {Auster's} child, Daniel: "Goodbye, myself!"


1. As Michael Holquist notes, the term "metaphysical detective story" was coined by Howard Haycraft in his 1941 book, Murder for Pleasure to describe G. K. Chesterton's work (Holquist 154, n. 8)

2. Paul Auster (the real Paul Auster) has been a student of Jean Paul Sartre's works and translated Sartre's Life/Positions. We owe to Sartre's The Transcendence of the Ego the notion that "there is no ego `in' or `behind' consciousness. There is only an ego for consciousness. The ego is `out there,' in the world, an object among objects. ¼ consciousness is a great emptiness, a wind blowing toward objects. Its whole reality is exhausted in intending what is other. It is never `self-contained,' or container; it is always `outside itself'" (Williams and Kirkpatrick 22). What distinguishes Sartre and Auster in this respect is Auster's focus on language as constitutive of the self and world, and the rendering problematic of any notion of an originary intentionality, a la Husserl. Auster rejects the autonomy of consciousness Sartre so ardently defends (in The Transcendence of the Ego), and places in between self and world (or other) language. This interposition problematizes the notion of self-knowledge, since if everything is text, the notion of autonomy (which would ground self-knowledge) is suspect.

3. Of course, the author featuring himself as a character is not new, and is an almost de rigueur trope for postmodern fiction. In this context, Auster is echoing Cervantes, in which a certain Saavedra is featured in the Captive story (1:42), as Robert Alter notes (17). Note also Alter's comments about Cervantes' Brechtean impulse: "... Cervantes' principal means for [drawing the reader into the narrative and then wrenching him away] is to split himself off into a fictional alter ego, the Moorish chronicler who is supposedly the true author of the history; Don Quixote himself is another kind of surrogate for the novelist, being prominent among the characters of the novel as an author manqué, who is impelled to act out the literary impulse in the world of deeds, to be at once the creator and protagonist of his own fictions." (21)

4. Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room (New York: Penguin, 1985-86), 116. All subsequent references will be to this combined edition of the novels.

5. Alison Russell's comment on the narrator of The Locked Room is interesting in this context. "Unlike Quinn and Blue, the narrator of The Locked Room has access only to the language, the signifiers, of his counterpart, never to his physical presence" (79-80). In fact, Quinn, as this sentence seems to imply, doesn't narrate City of Glass. The unnamed narrator, who is, as I will suggest {Paul Auster}, has no direct access to the character whose story he tells either.

6. Here I would disagree with Alison Russell, when she says that "This [Quxitoean] analysis, when applied to City of Glass, raises a number of questions about the book's authorship, and results in endless doublings and mirror images." (74) While, as I hope to demonstrate, the linguistic quandaries the characters experience imply a notion of selfhood in which the possibility for self-knowledge is endlessly deferred, the doublings and mirror images are themselves not "endless." One can take the Quixote model and apply it to City of Glass (and other texts-within-the-text as well, such as the film Out of the Past, featured in Ghosts) without the danger of an argumentative mise-en-abyme.

7. In subsequent references to the narrator, Paul Auster, I will adopt the convention of referring to him as {Auster}, to distinguish him from Paul Auster, author, and Paul Auster, character.

8. As Robert Alter notes, however, "If the Quixote calls into question the status of fictions and of itself as a fiction, it also affirms a new sense of the autonomy of the artist who has conceived it" (15). As we shall see, The New York Trilogy, far from affirming the autonomy of the artist, calls into question his very selfhood: its origin, constitution, and capacity for originary linguistic intentionality.

9. "Perception" can be understood here in two senses, in the scientific, biological sense of the activity of light on the eye, optic nerve, and brain; and in the phenomenological sense of that which is present to consciousness. The problems with grounding experience in biological perception are well known. The problems with phenomenology have been amply examined by Jacques Derrida, in his critique of presence. In this context, the problem with phenomenology's account is phenomenology's grounding of the investigation into Dasein's being in consciousness' (presumed) interiority.

10. If we follow the lessons of the text, we would have to abandon the notion of psychology as the investigation of some "interior," dimension of a single human subject, and instead focus on how self-construction occurs in the public, narrative arena in which selves, both those of the "individual" and "others," are constructed.

11. The studied arbitrariness of these names is emphasized in The Locked Room, when the narrator describes his experiences as a census taker involved in inventing families to fulfill his quota. "When my imagination flagged, there were certain mechanical devices to fall back on: the colors (Brown, White, Black, Green, Gray, Blue)" (Auster 294).

12. Russell notes the continuity among the three stories: "Daniel Quinn is a writer turned detective, Blue a detective turned writer, and the narrator of The Locked Room a writer turned detective" (79).

13. The similarity between Quinn and Blue is highlighted by detail: when {Auster} opens the door to Quinn, Quinn finds "In his right hand, fixed between his thumb and first two fingers, he held an uncapped fountain pen, still poised in a writing position" (Auster 111). When Blue, in his Fuller Brush Man disguise, visits Black, Black is "standing in a doorway with an uncapped fountain pen in his right hand, as though interrupted in his work" (Auster 218).

14. In their final confrontation, Black says to Blue, "I've needed you from the beginning ¼ to remind me of what I was supposed to be doing. ... At least I know what I've been doing. I've had my job to do, and I've done it. But you're nowhere, Blue. You've been lost from the first day" (Auster 230).

15. This mask is the same one "White" wore in the post office when Blue attempted to confront him, suggesting either that White and Black are the same person, or that White has given his mask to Black to wear. In either case, Blue's paranoia is justified.

16. Internal evidence, such as Mookie Wilson's tenure on the New York Mets, also supports this assumption.

17. Having spent this much time on the Trilogy, I have reason to believe that 3 February 1947 is author Paul Auster's birthdate.

18. As we will see below, preceding a term with "anti" establishes a binary opposition that, within the developing argument, is illegitimate.

19. We should keep in mind, however, that such insights are not equivalent to claims such as "People qua people are merely the consequence of a grammatical reference simpliciter," or "The world is a fiction," or "Everything is a text." Fiction qua fiction relies for its understanding on the distinction, however imprecise, between "reality" and "fiction." To conflate this important distinction into a comprehensive claim about the fictionality of persons or "reality" would be to empty the term of any meaning. For a traditional and common sense discussion of such issues, see Crittenden 158-174.

20. Like the binary oppositions, the number and type of triads are dizzying, but here are a few to support the idea. City of Glass—Quinn talks about the three senses of the term "eye," in "private eye": "investigator" "I" and "physical eye of the writer." Quinn had a triad of selves: Quinn, Wilson, and Work. Stillman, Senior, had a wife and child; Quinn had a wife and child; and Auster, the character, has a wife and child. In Peter Stillman's book, The Garden and the Tower: Early Visions of the New World, he refers to the builders of the tower of Babel: those who wanted to dwell in heaven, those who wanted to wage war against God, and those who wanted to worship idols. Paul Auster occurs as author, narrator and character. Quinn has three meetings with Stillman: where Quinn is Quinn, Henry Dark, and Peter Stillman, Junior. Ghosts—The three primary characters are White, Blue, and Black. Among the three books Black recurs as Walter J. Black, editor of Walden, black Jackie Robinson, and Black as an arbitrary name. Mr. White occurs in all three books, under differing auspices. Mr. Green occurs in City of Glass, and, in The Locked Room, two characters are called Green: Stuart Green, editor, and Roger Green, Stuart's brother and the narrator's friend. Columbus is mentioned in Peter Stillman's book, and New York's Columbus Square serves as a meeting place in Ghosts, as does Boston's Columbus Square in The Locked Room. In this inquiry I have uncovered two sets of three: first, Paul Auster, author; the narrator {Auster}, and the reader of the Trilogy. Second, myself as the author of this article, the text, and you, the reader. I'm confident more can be uncovered.

21. And, in that final confrontation in The Locked Room, Fanshawe himself (or someone we assume is Fanshawe, hidden behind a door) threatens violence, again either toward {Auster} or toward himself if {Auster} does not do his bidding.

22. And we learn in City of Glass that Henry Dark wasn't a "real" person anyway, but one imagined by Peter Stillman, Senior, for the purposes of his argument.

23. As Hutcheon observes, "Narrative is what translates knowing into telling, and it is precisely this translation that obsesses postmodern fiction" (121).

24. See Hutcheon, 62.


Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre. Berkeley: U California P, 1975.

Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room. New York: Penguin, 1985, 1986.

Crittenden, Charles. Unreality: The Metaphysics of Fictional Objects. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1991.

Holquist, Michael. "Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction." New Literary History 3 (1971): 135-56.

Huhn, Peter. "The Detective as Reader: Narrativity and Reading Concepts in Detective Fiction." Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 451-56.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Kerby, Anthony Paul. Narrative and the Self. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Marcus, Steven. Introduction. The Continental Op. By Dashiell Hammett. Ed. Steven Marcus. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. vii-xxix.

Rowen, Norma. "The detective in search of the lost tongue of Ariel: Paul Auster's 'City of Glass'." Critique 32 (1991): 224-35.

Russell, Alison. "Deconstructing the New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Fiction." Critique 31 (1990): 71-84.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder; From Detective Story to the Crime Novel. London: Faber & Faber, 1972.

Thiher, Allen. Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1984.

Williams, Forrest and Robert Kirkpatrick. Introduction. The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Tr. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987. 11-27.