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"How to Get Out of the Room That Is the Book?" Paul Auster and the Consequences of Confinement

From: Postmodern Culture
Volume 6, Number 3, May 1996
10.1353/pmc.1996.0024

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I.

Reading the novels of Paul Auster over the years, I find myself drawn back again and again to his first prose text, The Invention of Solitude (1982), especially to its second half, "The Book of Memory," a memoir-as-meditation, in which Auster confronts all of his central obsessions, obsessions that return in various forms to animate his subsequent novels. One of the most resonant images from "The Book of Memory" that recurs in Auster's later work is that of "the room of the book," a place where life and writing meet in an unstable, creative, and sometimes dangerous encounter. In the present essay, I would like to examine the room of the book through three interpretive frameworks that will help to make its dimensions apprehensible. These frameworks represent dynamic issues that arise from within the room of the book, issues that account for some of the characteristic complexities of Auster's work: 1) a contest between prose and poetry that colors much of his writing; 2) a parthenogenic fantasy of masculine creativity that he constructs with great effort; and 3) a pervasive preoccupation with Holocaust imagery. In my reading of Auster's prose, the postmodern inquiry into the relationship between writing and identity metamorphoses into a confrontation with a series of gender issues, oriented around the father, and then metamorphoses again into an interrogation of the particularly Jewish concern with memory. Using memory to probe the ruptures in contemporary life, Auster returns ultimately to the unspeakable memories of the Holocaust, thus laying bare ways in which the postmodern is inescapably post-Holocaust.

To set the stage, we will look at an exemplary dramatization of the equation between "the room" and "the book" in Ghosts (1986), the second volume of Auster's New York Trilogy. The protagonist of Ghosts, Blue, has recently completed an apprenticeship to a master detective, Brown, and the novel narrates Blue's first "case," in which he hopes to establish an identity as self-sufficient "agent." Blue has been engaged by White to "keep an eye on" Black, a simple "tail job" that turns out to be much more demanding than Blue could have imagined. It's not that Black is difficult to follow; in fact, he hardly ever leaves his room. From his own room across the street, Blue, using binoculars, can see that Black spends most of his time writing in a notebook and reading. In order to record Black's activities, Blue takes out a notebook himself and begins to write, thus initiating the equation between the room and the book.

After nearly a year of tailing Black, following him on long walks and watching him read and write, Blue begins to find his lack of knowledge about Black, White, and the case unbearable. Unsuccessful in his attempt to precipitate a disclosure from the ever-elusive White, Blue realizes that his perpetual spying on the nearly sedentary Black has rendered Blue a virtual prisoner in his own room. It dawns on him that Black and White may be in collusion, and that in fact he may be the one under surveillance:

If so, what are they doing to him? Nothing very terrible, finally -- at least not in any absolute sense. They have trapped Blue into doing nothing, into being so inactive as to reduce his life to almost no life at all. Yes, says Blue to himself, that's what it feels like: like nothing at all. 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...


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