Spaced Out: Signification and Space in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy

This article originally appeared in Contemporary Literature 36 (Winter 1995): 613-632.


Steven E. Alford


I wonder whether, if our tracks about the globe were visible at one glance from a god's point of view, they would not have the same designs as they have on the palm.

--Graham Greene, Ways of Escape


He wondered what the map would look like of all the steps he had taken in his life and what word it would spell.

--Paul Auster, City of Glass


In Auster's The New York Trilogy, we encounter genuinely puzzling characters and spaces: characters disappear from the space of the novel, characters seek to lose themselves by wandering through unfamiliar space, characters employ space as an arena for hermetic communication, and still other characters design utopic spaces resulting from their fears and misapprehensions. By looking at how three spaces--pedestrian spaces, mapped spaces, and utopic spaces--function in the novels, we can see that thematically, a relationship is established between selfhood, space, and signification. Pedestrian spaces are the seeming theater for a loss of selfhood, but only because the characters misunderstand what it means to leave "home" for their walks, or how by leaving home for some place completely new they carry their "home" with them. Spaces are also the apparent scene of signification, but only through a misapprehension of the missing human elements in mapped representations of space. Ultimately, we will discover that the space of signification is what we have traditionally called utopia, which is not a "nowhere" but a "neither-here-nor-there."

Toward the end of the first volume of Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, City of Glass, the reader finds Quinn, the protagonist, in a strange place. Quinn allowed himself to be confused with the detective, Paul Auster, in an early morning telephone call from Peter Stillman and his wife. Impersonating Auster, Quinn promises to protect Peter Stillman, fils, from his father, Peter Stillman, who abused him as a child and is about to be released from prison. Quinn/Auster follows Stillman on his release, keeping notes on him in a red notebook. However, part way through the investigation, Stillman Senior disappears, and then, following an extended surveillance of the Stillman couple's apartment, Quinn/Auster learns that they have disappeared. Quinn/Auster enters their apartment and takes up residence in "a windowless cubicle that contained a toilet and a sink" (151).1 Naked, he remains there, eating food that mysteriously appears in the room. Quinn/Auster alternates between sleeping and writing in his notebook. Of Quinn/Auster, the narrator says

The period of growing darkness coincided with the dwindling pages in the red notebook. Little by little, Quinn was coming to the end. At a certain point, he realized that the more he wrote, the sooner the time would come when he could no longer write anything. He began to weigh his words with great care, struggling to express himself as economically and clearly as possible. He regretted having wasted so many pages at the beginning of the red notebook, and in fact felt sorry that he had bothered to write about the Stillman case at all. Nevertheless, he tried to face the end of the red notebook with courage. He wondered if he had it in him to write without a pen, if he could learn to speak instead, filling the darkness with his voice, speaking the words into the air, into the walls, into the city, even if the light never came back again.
The last sentence of the red notebook reads: 'What will happen when there are no more pages in the red notebook?' (156)

What happens, as the narrator indicates, is that Quinn/Auster ceases to exist.

Seen one way, this incident, and also the fate of Blue in Ghosts, establishes that thematically, Auster's The New York Trilogy is a meditation on the problematic of self-identity, in which a "textual" sense of the self undermines our common sense, essentialist notions of selfhood.2 We could also ask, where is Quinn/Auster? He's living in a back room of the Stillman's apartment, but where does the food come from? Who brought it? We could perhaps say that Quinn/Auster has gone mad, but where did he disappear to? Why couldn't the narrator find him?

Novels needn't establish verisimilitude to carry out their business, but from the reader's point of view it helps. When the novel overtly refuses to do so (for example, magical realism), we may be sure that the text intends something thematically significant. While on one level, The New York Trilogy invokes the problematic between signification and selfhood, on another level we can see a thread in the trilogy involving the relationship between signification and space.

City of Glass opens with Quinn leaving his apartment to walk around New York, a random walk he took almost every day:

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere. New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized that he had no intention of ever leaving it again. (4)

Becoming an aimless pedestrian has internal as well as external consequences. Through walking, he leaves "home," both his apartment and his sense of self. But, as he indicates, he is somewhere: "nowhere," a nowhere of "his" own construction.

Unlike Rousseau and Nietzsche, those famous walkers who came to themselves when walking (albeit in much different ways), Quinn creates a pedestrian space for himself where he is not. This space is for him, we assume, an ideal place, a utopia, a no-where.3 Also unlike Rousseau and Nietzsche, Quinn/Auster has a job to do: protect Peter Stillman and his wife from Peter's father. Rather than losing himself in space, he must track another, and this involves meticulously observing the space and self of his quarry.

Quinn watches Grand Central for Stillman to emerge from the train. When two men matching Stillman's description materialize, Quinn arbitrarily chooses the second as his man. He follows him through the West Side shuttle, and uptown two stops on the Broadway express to 96th Street. Stillman walks several blocks to the Hotel Harmony on Broadway and 99th, where he rents a room. Quinn begins his surveillance.

Stillman emerges every morning for a walk, and like the formerly solitary Quinn, Stillman's walks seem to follow no pattern, except that they keep to a narrowly circumscribed area, "bounded on the north by 110th Street, on the south by 72nd Street, on the west by Riverside park, and on the east by Amsterdam Avenue" (72). Stillman, the sidewalk bricoleur, stops frequently, collecting random junk from the streets.

As the days go by, Quinn senses that he "was going nowhere, was wasting his time." He comforts himself by realizing that he's impersonating Auster, "a man with no interior, a man with no thoughts" (75). After thirteen days of following Stillman's aimless wandering, however, Quinn becomes increasingly hopeless. For no particular reason, Quinn moves to a fresh page in his notebook and begins to map Stillman's walks, day by day. Doing so, he comes to a stunning realization: Stillman's walks were not random at all, but a mapping out, with his steps through the streets of Manhattan, of the words THE TOWER OF BABEL:

Quinn's thoughts momentarily flew off to the concluding pages of A. Gordon Pym and to the discovery of the strange hieroglyphs on the inner wall of the chasm—letters inscribed into the earth itself, as though they were trying to say something that could no longer be understood. But on second thought this did not seem apt. For Stillman had not left his message anywhere. True, he had created the letters by the movement of his steps, but they had not been written down. It was like drawing a picture in the air with your finger. The image vanishes as you are making it. There is no result. No trace to mark what you have done.

And yet, the pictures did exist—not in the streets where they had been drawn, but in Quinn's red notebook. (85-86)

Stillman's steps and their evanescence mirror the problem Quinn finds at the end of the book, quoted earlier: "He wondered if he had it in him to write without a pen, if he could learn to speak instead, filling the darkness with his voice, speaking the words into the air, into the walls, into the city, even if the light never came back again" (156). The answer to Quinn's speculation seems to be no, because significance in the world must emerge as the consequence of the relation between one's self and another (even if sometimes that other is oneself). Looking at his notebook, Quinn realizes that the words he has mapped out, THE TOWER OF BABEL, refer to Stillman's early book, The Garden and the Tower: Early Visions of the New World.

The idea that space is significant is, of course, not new: witness the phrases "the book of the world," or "the book of nature." As Curtius notes, "So, as early as Plato, we find the comparison between the dressing of a field [plowing] and writing" (313). Curtius adds that throughout the early and middle Christian eras, significance was something not to be inscribed onto the earth, but to be discovered in it.

[Nicholas of Cusa] remarks that there had been saints who regarded the world as a written book. For him, however, the world is the 'showing forth of the inner word.' Hence the things of sense are also to be regarded as 'books' through which God as our teacher declares the truth to us. (321)4

Unlike space which is inscribed with significance through an intentional act, or space which is discovered to contain a type of implicit transcendental intentionality, Peter Stillman's book describes the space of signification as one that occurs within discourse, a space that, he notes, emerged only following the discovery of the New World.5

Stillman wrote The Garden and the Tower: Early Visions of the New World as his dissertation, and then published it as a book. Divided into two parts, "The Myth of Paradise" and "The Myth of Babel," the first part asserts (according to narrator Quinn) that

From the very beginning, according to Stillman, the discovery of the New World was the quickening impulse of utopian thought, the spark that gave hope to the perfectibility of human life--from Thomas More's book of 1516 to Gernimo de Mendieta's prophecy, some years later, that America would become an ideal theocratic state, a veritable City of God. (51)

The second part, basing its discussion in part on Milton, argues that human life per se did not actually begin until after the Fall:

Adam's one task in the Garden had been to invent language, to give each creature and thing its name. In that state of innocence, his tongue had gone straight to the quick of the world. His words had not been merely appended to the things he saw, they had revealed their essences, had literally brought them to life. A thing and its name were interchangeable. After the fall, this was no longer true. Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God. The story of the Garden, therefore, records not only the fall of man, but the fall of language. (52)

The Tower of Babel story, occurring where it does in Genesis, records the "very last incident of prehistory in the Bible. ... In other words, the Tower of Babel stands as the last image before the true beginning of the world" (53).

The second part of Stillman's work then turns abruptly to the story of Milton's putative secretary, Henry Dark, and his journey to the New World. In America in 1690 Dark wrote a pamphlet, The New Babel, discovered by Stillman.

Dark did not assume paradise to be a place that could be discovered. There were no maps that could lead a man to it "Rather, its existence was immanent within man himself: the idea of a beyond he might someday create in the here and now. For utopia was nowhere--even, as Dark explained, in its "worldhood." And if man could bring forth this dreamed-of place, it would only be by building it with his own two hands. (57)

Building the New Babel in the New World, ""the whole earth [could] be of one language and one speech. And if that were to happen, paradise could not be far behind" (58). In this new (physical) Tower, "there would be a room for each person, and once he entered that room, he would forget everything he knew" (59). For Dark, then, the utopian project of the New Babel would at once incorporate post-lapsarian, human intentionality with God's transcendental plan.

Two of the preponderant spatial themes in City of Glass recur in altered form in the second volume, Ghosts, that of utopic space and of "losing" oneself in space. For this utopia, however, we must move forward to the American Renaissance.

While observing Black, Blue notes the book he is reading, Thoreau's Walden. Later, following him into a bookstore, he comes across the book (published by Walter J. Black, Inc.) and buys it. Several days later, sitting indolently in his apartment, Blue finally brings himself to read the book. Blue was hoping for a story, but all he read were endless natural descriptions and harangues. Even a second try, while helping him understand the book a little better, doesn't prevent him from tossing the book aside. Nonetheless, it has had its effect:

What if he stood up, went out the door, and walked away from the whole business? He ponders this thought for a while, testing it out in his mind, and little by little he begins to tremble, overcome by terror and happiness, like a slave stumbling onto a vision of his own freedom. He imagines himself somewhere else, far away from here, walking through the woods and swinging an axe over his shoulder. Alone and free, his own man at last. He would build his life from the bottom up, an exile, a pioneer, a pilgrim in the new world. But that is as far as he gets. For no sooner does he begin to walk though these woods in the middle of nowhere than he feels that Black is there too, hiding behind some tree, stalking invisibly through some thicket, waiting for Blue to lie down and close his eyes before sneaking up on him and slitting his throat. (222)

Momentarily envisioning himself in a solitary Thoreauvean utopia, Blue quickly realizes that solitude would be impossible, that his tie to Black is inextricable.6

The utopia of Walden clearly differs from those of More, and of Dark in City of Glass. In both Utopia and The New Babel, the quest is to build an external structure, that of an island or a huge building, and by reordering citizens' external relationship to space and property, destroy historical time and its attendant injustices through mandating an ultimately static space. Walden, by contrast, believes in the transformative inner power of the imagination--a change in our inner space will effect external space. Like Wordsworth's "Spots of Time" (themselves an interesting spatialization of temporality), the events narrated in Walden record the power of nature to transform the seer morally through affecting his/her imagination. The language of Walden becomes a second-order phenomenon that in turn affects the poet's readers.

Ghosts also gives us a vision of losing oneself in space, not through a pedestrian act, but through the time-honored American vision of lighting out for the territories. But here, too, the vision is qualified, this time by a narrator who allows Blue an escape, only to take it back by showing it to be "only" a linguistic act on the narrator's part:

I myself [the narrator] 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)

Like Quinn and his red notebook, outside the constitutive purview of language, Blue ceases to exist in space.

Hence, from the point of view of The New York Trilogy, space can be a place where selfhood is lost, where selves (the quarry) are found, where intertextuality can be maintained,7 where space itself can be overmastered within space, through the aegis of a map, and where, through the act of establishing a utopia, space can finally express its dominance over history. But how do these spaces intersect? What is the relation between map spaces, pedestrian spaces, and utopic spaces?

Since Descartes and the development of modern science, space has emerged as an absolute, yet transparent and insubstantial "container" that holds the things of this world. Henri Lefebvre has argued that Descartes’ view of space overturned the traditional Aristotelian idea that the space and time were categories within which sensory evidence could be named and classed:

The status of such categories had hitherto remained unclear, for they could be looked upon either as simple empirical tools for ordering sense data or, alternatively, as generalities in some way superior to the evidence supplied by the body's sense organs. With the advent of Cartesian logic, however, space had entered the realm of the absolute. As Object opposed to Subject, as res extensia opposed to, and present to, res cogitans, space came to dominate, by containing them, all senses and all bodies. (1)

This Cartesian transformation, however, coupled with the emergence of empirical science, saw the "dominance" of space reduced to the concept of a container for the objects that were science's true field of study.

Seeing an historical development to the concept of space (from, say, Aristotle to Descartes), in seeking to understand space essentially, one tends to locate a time, early on, when space was "pure," not contaminated by the forces of history. According to Lefebvre, however, such purity is illusory. The concept of a "natural" space mapped by geographers and then later occupied can lead in one of two ideologically charged and equally mistaken directions, nostalgia for a space that has disappeared, or obliviousness to a rapidly disappearing space:

In reality, whenever a society undergoes a transformation, the materials used in the process derive from another, historically (or developmentally) anterior social practice. A purely natural or original state of affairs is nowhere to be found. Hence the notoriously difficult problems encountered by (philosophical) thinking on the subject of origins. The notion of a space which is at first empty, but is later filled by a social life and modified by it, also depends on this hypothetical initial 'purity', identified as 'nature' and as a sort of ground zero of human reality. Empty space in the sense of a mental and social void which facilitates the socialization of a not-yet-social realm is actually merely a representation of space. (190)

As Lefebvre indicates, then, our contact with space qua space is always second-hand; it is always a representation. Like the attempt to find an "essential self," interiorized and below or prior to language, we are forever consigned to inventing a nonexistent spatial "ground," the consequence of our essentialist positing.

At least since Hegel (and perhaps since the advent of Christianity, if one takes God's plan as an historical one), space, understood not as an object of science, but as an arena for human action, has been subordinate to the concept of revolutionary time. Space is the field within which History unfolds, a backdrop to the drama of the World Spirit or the class struggle. As such, space has not been comprehended, but understood instead merely as the elemental domain for the play of history's forces. As either a container of objects or a backdrop to historical action, space occupied a subordinate role in physical and historical existence.

Yet, the space of The New York Trilogy is intimately involved in the significatory acts of self-constitution, acts that somehow involve the intersection of self and other, space and language. Is space, then, according to this work, either an element in the significatory act, or one subordinate to it?

Let us return to Quinn's solitary New York wandering, a practice which leaves him "Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well." Quinn thinks that by leaving home, and by having no particular destination, he can lose not only his way, but his self. However, to lose himself, he would have to lose not only his destination, but his point of origin, since his home (in geographical space) is linked intimately to his sense of self. Using the Greek term oikos to characterize "home," the origin and end point of oneís voyages, George Van Den Abbeele notes that the oikos is not a geographical location, but "a transcendental point of reference that organizes and domesticates a given area by defining all other points in relation to itself." Hence, "home" could refer to any element in the voyage.

. . . [A]ll travel [is] a circular voyage insofar as that privileged point of oikos is posited as the absolute origin and absolute end of any movement at all. For instance, a journey organized in terms of its destination makes of that destination the journey's conceptual point of departure, its point of orientation. Thus, a teleological point of view remains comfortably within this economic conception of travel. (xviii)

Thus, the only way Quinn could be truly lost is if he never returned home at all. Ironically, of course, Quinn doesn't return home at the end of the novel; he disappears into the atextual, non-spatial void of having completed the red notebook.

Along the way, however, he does return to his apartment, only to find that it has been rented out to someone else in his absence. Although he has been absent from his apartment, it functions as an anchor to his selfhood, a home which is a metaphysical and epistemological place, and only incidentally a geographical location. With respect to travel, "home" functions retrospectively and not prospectively, as Van Den Abbeele observes:

If, however, a voyage can only be conceptualized economically in terms of the fixity of a privileged point (oikos), the positing of a point we can call home can only occur retroactively. The concept of a home is needed (and in fact can only be thought) only after the home has already been left behind. In a strict sense, then, one had always already left home, since home can only exist as such at the price of its being lost. The oikos is posited après-coup. Thus, the voyage has always already begun. (xviii)

Like the proper name in discourse, "home" functions as the anchor in the pedestrian's movements through space (analogous to the self's journey through discourse).

We can see as well the self-delusion inherent in lighting out for the territories. Epitomized in the ending of Huckleberry Finn, going West has embodied a certain vision of freedom, the ability to abandon the space we've created for ourselves in the hope of encountering a new, virgin space. But home, like Cavafy's city, is something we carry with us, however interdependent it may be with our selfhood. Home, according to Van Den Abbeele, is a moving anchor:

For the point of return as repetition of the point of departure cannot take place without a difference in that repetition: the detour constitutive of the voyage itself. Were the point of departure and the point of return to remain exactly the same, that is, were they the same point, there could be no travel. Yet if the oikos does not remain selfsame, how can one feel secure in it, especially given the fact that this identity of the oikos is what is necessarily presupposed by the economic view of travel, the only way we can think of a voyage as such? (xix-xx)

Hence, home is an anchoring point, but one whose spatial location depends on the Other of "awayness" (and its spatial location, like our selfhood, may change through time without losing its character as "home"). Like the prison of the Other all the characters in The New York Trilogy experience (Quinn/Stillman, Blue/Black, and, in The Locked Room, the narrator/Fanshawe), any attempt by them to escape home emerges from a misperception of the self-anchoring (yet with respect to the journey, always "underway") character of home. To leave home is to abandon the self altogether, yet Home only derives its meaning from its relationship to the Away. Hence, Quinn, like Hawthorne's Wakefield in Ghosts, is altogether deluded in thinking that by wandering the streets he can lose himself. While his wandering presupposes the absence of a telos, a destination, the oikos-telos link cannot simply be denied and thereby disappear; for him in this instance he is merely suppressing his sense of self in the pseudo-category of going "nowhere." Nowhere, as we will see, is not a physical space, but the space of textuality.

Beginning each day from the Harmony Hotel, Peter Stillman leaves his home on a seemingly arbitrary journey. Yet during that journey he traces out something that emerges as mysteriously significant. Henri Lefebvre has argued that what is "primary" in establishing space is the nexus of patterns of use of that space (paths inscribed both by animals and humans), but that this nexus cannot be understood itself as "significant":

This graphic aspect, which was not apparent to the original 'actors' but which becomes quite clear with the aid of modern-day cartography, has more in common with a spider's web than with a drawing or plan. Could it be called a text, or a message? Possibly, but the analogy would serve no particularly useful purpose, and it would make more sense to speak of texture rather than of texts in this connection. (118)

At the same time, areas of human habitation and pedestrian movement have been determined by semiotic intentions, such as a university quadrangle laid out in the pattern of a cross. Michel de Certeau argues that irrespective of an intention toward significance, pedestrians do inscribe meanings through their wanderings:

The ordinary practitioners of the city live "down below," below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk--an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban 'text' they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other's arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poem in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. . . . The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other. (93)

The point of disagreement between Lefebvre and de Certeau is this: Lefebvre seeks to understand what is essential space, or fundamental space, something he calls social space, produced ultimately by class struggle. de Certeau, on the contrary, while agreeing that "real" space is social space, chooses to view this space from the standpoint of an observer and not an actor, or "producer." The significance of space, then, emerges not from the one who moves through space, the pedestrian, but from the one who observes he who moves through space, the person with the red notebook. Signification thus emerges from movement without being of it.

As Quinn notes, Stillman's movements vanished into thin air: "the pictures did exist--not in the streets where they had been drawn, but in Quinn's red notebook." The "book" of Stillman's voyages turns out to be simply that: something that appears not on the streets of Manhattan, but in a red notebook.

To engender significance, Stillman's steps had to be transformed from the movements of a pedestrian through space to vectors on a map. However, "to be mapped" in one's movements implies an other to do the mapping (even if that other may be, post facto, oneself). The space opened between the pedestrian and the mapper is the space of signification. As de Certeau observes:

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered. . . . It thus seems possible to give a preliminary definition of walking as a space of enunciation. . . . We must add that this location (here--there) (necessarily implied by walking and indicative of a present appropriation of space by an "I") also has the function of introducing an other in relation to this "I" and of thus establishing a conjunctive and disjunctive articulation of places. (97-99)

This space--neither a property nor a consequence of the pedestrian or the mapper--exists in a "nowhere" out of which meaning emerges.8 Hence, the "placelessness" from which so many of the Trilogy's characters suffer owes its origin not to (by now traditional, modernist) alienation, but to the sense of their self being neither exactly at "home," nor exactly "away," without understanding the grounds of that homelessness, out of which the possibility for selfhood itself emerges.

But what of the space of the map and the mapper? While the pedestrian moves through space without a sense of his movement's significance, the mapper must remain stationary, must stay "home" to understand the movement of the pedestrian other. What space does the mapper inhabit?

The map is not a simple representation of space. It represents a space from which perspective has been removed. The viewpoint of a map is an impossible one, one which no human could ever occupy, because to be human in space is to possess a perspective, a perspective which moves with the pedestrian. The map-view is somewhat like looking down from a tall building, as de Certeau explains:

His elevation transforms him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. It transforms the bewitching world by which one was "possessed" into a text that lies before one's eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more. . . . The panorama-city is a "theoretical" (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and misunderstanding of practices. (92-93)

Such a perspective grants the illusion of knowledge of what is viewed, up and away from the practice of the pedestrian. But even the skyscraper viewer maintains a perspective (the airplane passenger, for example, shares an "elevated" view, but maintains a shifting perspective), one that is missing in maps. The map user, looking at a mapped landscape, is observing something that quite literally no one has ever seen. The map rationalizes and deracinates space in order to master it.9 Despite the power over space a map brings, it also fosters an illusory, inhuman knowledge of that space, devoid as it is of human perspective. According to de Certeau, the map engenders forgetfulness:

It is true that the operations of walking can be traced on city maps in such a way as to transcribe their paths (here well-trodden, there very faint) and their trajectories (going this way and not that). But these thick or thin curves only refer, like words, to the absence of what has passed by. Surveys of routes miss what was: the act itself of passing by. . . . The trace left behind is substituted for the practice. It exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten. (97)

The space of language, existing as it does in that nowhere between the pedestrian and the mapper, confers on the map a significance, and on the pedestrian a self, without, however, being of either of these two spaces. Maps eliminate perspective; language provides the possibility for establishing a perspective by establishing a self. For Quinn, the knowledge he derives from mapping (THE TOWER OF BABEL), emerges within the narrative as fictive, given that Stillman's dissertation was not the product of research, but largely of the imagination, since Stillman invented, for example, the character Henry Dark and his literary products. Quinn's textualization of Stillman's pedestrian acts engenders a dialectical play between Stillman, Quinn and the reader. Quinn thinks he has learned something from Stillman by mapping his walks, knowledge which turns out to be "only" fictive; the reader understands that what Quinn learns to be fictive does describe the intertextual nature of the knowledge that emerges from the space between the pedestrian and the mapper (and, in a different way, between the novel's text and the reader).

The spaces of which the characters dream in the Trilogy are invariably utopic: Henry Dark's Babylonian utopia; Quinn's best walks, which rendered him nowhere; and Blue's encounter with Walden, a romantic noplace of the imagination. In each of these instances, utopia as a place emerges as a space that opens between two oppositions. While traditionally utopia has been thought of as an other, as the stuff that dreams are made of, as a not-here, we can see that utopia in The New York Trilogy is not a not-here, but a neither-here-nor-there. It is an arena of mediation out of which the possibility for the spaces of home-away, self-other, inside-outside, and pedestrian space-mapped space emerges, which Louis Marin calls "the neutral":

This no-place does not mean the unreal or the imaginary. Rather it signifies the indeterminability of the place, the place of the neutral, of difference and of the force of differentiation. It is a place neither here nor there. It is the presence of a lack whose space is that by which and around which space is organized. (263)

Blue recognizes both the impulse toward utopia and its attendant difficulties when he quotes Walden: "We are not where we are, he finds, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out" (200). By supposing ourselves to be in a place ("home"), and finding it not ideal, we posit (through the textual act of describing a place where, in principle, we could never be) another place (utopia) where we aren't either. This sets up the spatial problematic. The original misunderstanding, that "home" is a place (as opposed to a pole of the binary opposition home-away), engenders another mistaken act, the positing of a someplace that would substitute for this place and relieve us of our difficulties. We are always-already someplace else, and that is the index of our being-there.10 Like the violence, implied or actual, that characters employ to eliminate their other, mistakenly believing that their selves exist independent of their others (Quinn/ Auster, Quinn/Stillman, Blue/Black, and, in The Locked Room, the narrator/Stillman and the narrator Fanshawe), Quinn, Stillman, Dark, and others seek to eliminate either "home" through wandering, or through the positing of a utopia to solve their spatial woes, not understanding the coimplication of the oikos and the telos.

Utopic space shares with mapped space an inhuman quality: both lack a perspective, any perspective. Unlike mapped space, however, utopic space is not a series of vectors re-presenting experienced space with any possible perspective removed; it is instead engendered through an act of linguistic signification. As language that brings into being and orders a space, it announces at its inception its fundamental inhabitability, noted by Louis Marin.

Utopic discourse is perhaps this extreme pretension of language to provide a complete portrait of an organized and inhabited space. If it does manage it, however, it is perhaps because this portrait is constituted by its discourse and constructed through its language in order to serve as the origin and foundation for every map and every image. (51)

As language, then, utopic space gives rise to mapped space and, we could say the significance, qua significance, of pedestrian space. Marinís "neutral" is textual:

Utopia is thus the neutral moment of a difference, the space outside of place; it is a gap impossible either to inscribe on a geographic map or to assign to history. Its reality thus belongs to the order of the text; more precisely, it is the figurative representation that the text inscribes beneath its discourse, and by it. (57)

Henry Dark suggests as much when he says, "For utopia was nowhereóeven, as Dark explained, in its `worldhood.' And if man could bring forth this dream-of place, it would only be by building it with his own two hands" (75). And those hands do not so much build, as they write. The narrator of The Locked Room (and putative author of City of Glass and Ghosts) describes this place figuratively as a "tiny hole."

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. (274-275)

As a space, utopia is not so much projected by an intentional consciousness so much as it is that space of signification from which the possibility for intentionality arises. Figuratively speaking, it is behind and before our significatory acts. The characters in The New York Trilogy, as well as those who succumb to the impulse to create utopic fiction, suffer from the misapprehension that utopia is out there somewhere, somewhere out in the territories. Instead, it is the ground of our spatial being which, historically, has occupied the position of an "up-there," a transcendental signified, when indeed it (and for the verb we should perhaps employ the Heideggerian sous ratureóhis "under erasure") is a neither-here-nor-there.

* * *

As noted in the epigraph, Greene fatalistically views Journey as Destiny: our travels fulfill what has been preordained, what has inscribed upon us. Quinn, on the other hand, views Journey as Meaning, travel as a significatory act. The traveler, for Quinn, is a retrospective hermeneut, one whose pedestrian inscriptions spell out a greater understanding. Quinn's own lack of introspection, his willingness to inhabit the self of an other (the detective Paul Auster) and consider that other "a man with no interior, a man with no thoughts," his desire to lose his self in the streets of Manhattan, all point to a figure who suffers from a genuine misunderstanding of his place in the world, of the space that he occupies, one that is neither here, nor there. Quinn's misapprehensions exemplify the problem experienced by all the protagonists in The New York Trilogy, a lack of understanding that space and the self are coeval, engendered from the possibility for signification that arises from a place that is neither here nor there.


1. The three books forming the trilogy were first published separately by Penguin: City of Glass (1987), Ghosts (1987), and The Locked Room (1988). The novels were then published as a combined edition in 1990 as The New York Trilogy. All subsequent references will be to this combined edition of the novels.

2. See my "Mirrors of Madness: Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy." For other views on the trilogy, see Lavender, Rowen, and Russell.

3. As Rousseau notes in Reveries of a Solitary Walker, "I can only meditate while walking; as soon as I stop, I stop thinking, and my head goes only with my feet" (qtd. in Van Den Abbeele 114). We can anticipate Rousseau's difference from Quinn with this comment from Van Den Abbeele: "It seems that for Rousseau, to find or refind oneself is to find oneself alone, and it is this solipsistic implication of the topographical understanding of the self that is described most strikingly in the strange world of the Reveries of a Solitary Walker, which begins, 'Here I am, then, alone upon the earth'" (105).

4. Indeed, tourism owes its origin in the Christian world to a desire not to traverse space for recreation and enjoyment (much less to "find" or "lose" oneself, as is Quinn's intention), but to make a pilgrimage to spots on the earth wherein the significance of God's word is revealed visually to the faithful:

Theological rigor necessitated the construction of a geography more literary than empirical, conforming at whatever cost to the literal and implicit cosmography of Scripture.

The built-in significances that resulted from the attachment of theology to geography, and of moral allegory to natural history, are of course decisive in any attempt to situate the corpus of pre-modern travel literature between the extremes of science and fiction. (Campbell 55)

5. Investigators into the relation of space to signification should be aware of the myriad other ways literary works establish this link. For example, one has to distinguish between those works in which the physical shape of the words or groups of words form signs (George Herbert, Mallarmé, the Concrete Poets), and those works in which letters as signs are inscribed on the earth physically, or traced out through a pedestrian act, such as Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," and Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Other examples include the solution to the mystery in the film Sea of Love, wherein windows in a high rise building represent musical notation, and Bruce Chatwin's work on the aboriginal notion that the earth itself is inscribed with music, The Songlines.

6. Like Rousseau, Thoreau demonstrates a solipsistic conception of the self, thinking that he can "find" himself by removing himself from all possibility of comparison, by being alone in the woods. Blue recognizes the problematic character of this notion.

7. When Quinnís mapping of Stillmanís walks reveals the words THE TOWER OF BABEL traced on the streets of Manhattan, Quinn discovers a text that is not inscribed in space, but in which space is the arena for the possibility of its trace. This trace becomes manifest through Quinnís inscription of Stillmanís path into Quinnís red notebook. In turn, the text of the notebook refers to still another text, Stillman's dissertation. This chain of signifiers links text to text, but Stillmanís original act of signification vanishes into the air of his Manhattan walks.

8. One is reminded here of the Heideggerian distinction between Earth and World explored in Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes. While this connection is certainly fecund, the ontological defect in Heidegger's position (that of a presence fully present to consciousness which permits the intentional significatory act to have its origin in that consciousness) has been fully critiqued by Jacques Derrida.

9. Louis Marin argues, "The map is originally a net of itineraries and a system of potential routings all present at the same time, co-present. These paths are the opposite of a trip and its surprises and events. They are also the reverse side of a narrative unfolding in surprise and expectation, of a story limited by its characters' viewpoints. With a map and its surface presentation, the viewpoint is no longer affected by surprise or the expectation of the unusual. The gaze is everywhere present, and all points of view are the viewpoint, similar to Leibniz's God. All points of view are negated by its ubiquitous vision, everywhere present for everyone and every detail. All routes and journeys are equivalent and reversible. Vertically situated with reference to the map, the dominating gaze is in complete possession of all places. It is itself not a part of their system, but rather at the transcendent center organizing them into a system so as to render the elements interchangeable" (264).

10. Heidegger would have this other place be the future that emerges from Dasein's projects, but whether the issue of no-place can be understood through his temporal analysis lies outside the scope of our discussion.


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Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Campbell, Mary B. The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Tr. Willart R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Tr. Steven Randall. Berkeley: U California P, 1984.

Greene, Graham. Ways of Escape. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

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Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1974.

Marin, Louis. Utopics: The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces. Tr. Robert A. Vollrath. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1984.

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.

Van Den Abbeele, George. Travel as Metaphor: From Montaigne to Rousseau. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Pr, 1992.