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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 52.3 (2006) 613-633


Public Personae and the Private I:
De-Compositional Ontology in Paul Auster's the New York Trilogy

Let everything fall away, and then let's see what there is. Perhaps that is the most interesting question of all: to see what happens when there is nothing, and whether or not we will survive that too.

—Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things

Unless the dog-narrated Timbuktu deconstructed the author-function in a posthuman episteme, Paul Auster's work of the last decade bears little resemblance to his earlier works' complicated explorations of language and identity—explorations that usually get Auster labeled postmodern. Auster's postmodern credentials arise primarily from the first work of fiction published under his own name, The New York Trilogy (1987), comprised of three separately-published novels: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. Eager to find fictional corollaries to the Continental theories imported throughout the 1970s, American postmodern critics quickly adopted Auster's early works as manifestations of one form or another of postmodern and poststructuralist theories. In light of his subsequent fiction, however, this construction of a postmodern Auster seems premature, even if traces of these theories echo throughout the texts, and these later [End Page 613] novels invite a reinvestigation as to how theory functions in Auster's work in the first place.

In this essay I will argue that Auster's works deploy the arguments and concerns of postmodern theories not in a desire to validate those theories, but in an effort to generate a creative space outside of those theories' logical conclusions. More specifically, I propose that The New York Trilogy enacts a philosophical and aesthetic refutation of the art of Samuel Beckett, the main influence on Auster's writings in the 1970s, and one of the main factors, he claimed, that prevented him from writing fiction. 1 Finally, I will suggest that rather than exploiting traditional detective fiction to stage epistemological problems, The New York Trilogy in reality exploits the already exhausted antidetective genre to explore dimensions of ontology, ultimately reaffirming a metaphysical system in which chance overrides all questions of postmodern indeterminacy.

In the early 1970s, two influential studies by Michael Holquist and William V. Spanos claimed that a certain form of abortive detective fiction most clearly highlighted the thematic concerns of postmodernism. Spanos called this genre the "anti-detective story" (Spanos 154; Holquist 135), a concept that Stefano Tani more fully developed in his 1984 study The Doomed Detective. These theorists argued that in the tradition established by Edgar Alan Poe and developed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, and others, detective fiction stages fundamentally epistemological problems. A person commits a crime. The crime must be solved. An investigator serves as master interpreter, and he reconstructs the crime by sifting through evidence, using inductive logic to re-present the event. Ideally, this leads to a kind of Scooby-Doo moment ("I would have got away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids"), in which the criminal validates the correct interpretation through confession, for nothing would darken a mystery like the possibility that our society convicted an innocent man.

Described in this way, detective fiction obviously has clear metafictional implications, playing as it does on such notions as evaluating evidence, plotting, and reading a person's character. As the detective sifts evidence to reveal a single unified meaning of an event and to discover the criminal, the reader sifts through textual evidence to reveal a single unified meaning of the text and discover the authorial intent. 2 Ultimately, no matter how much the detective may construct or find himself as an outsider to the society he protects, he remains to the end a defender of the social order as he eliminates all uncertainty and chaos.

In contrast, the postwar, postmodern antidetective fictions of writers such as Robbe-Grillet and Borges use these conventions to [End...

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