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  • In the Country of Missing Persons:Paul Auster's Narratives of Trauma
  • Debra Shostak

Paul Auster's recent novel, The Brooklyn Follies (2006), opens with a stunning line-"I was looking for a quiet place to die"-and closes with a faintly foreshadowed but still shocking reference to the "brilliant blue sky" under which the protagonist walks in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001 (1,306). Auster's framing of the novel's action between moments of personal and national trauma points to one of the abiding preoccupations of his career. Best known for his narrative puzzles constructed around a postmodern metaphysics of identity, as in his early New York Trilogy (1985-86), Auster also takes his stories of ontological and epistemological uncertainty outside the purely metaphysical realm within which the subject intuits his own fundamental lack of presence. Often in such instances, Auster dramatizes lack by way of narratives of missing persons, especially as seen from the point of view of those left behind. At times, these narratives recount a personal loss-of a family member or lover-and at others, they move within a national landscape, providing in their missing figures metaphoric surrogates for an impersonal or cultural lack. In both cases, however, Auster explores the possibility that loss is a historical, and hence potentially narratable, condition. Such a premise leaves open the potential for moving beyond loss, a potential that each novel questions in its own way and that ultimately structures each narrative trajectory according to the psychoanalytic pattern of acting-out and working-through associated with the process of mourning.

Since a central absence shadows and directs Auster's novels, they tend to follow a narrative pattern of quest or detection in which the questing figure- generally the narrator or his surrogate-seeks the missing person, either literally or in the figurative terrain of knowledge and understanding. Consider, for example, from early in his career, Auster's search for the story of his father in the memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982), the diegetic "Paul Auster" [End Page 66] attempting to comprehend Quinn's obsessive pursuit of Peter Stillman, Sr., in City of Glass (1985; rpt. in The New York Trilogy), and Anna Blume's quest for her brother in In the Country of Last Things (1987). In subsequent novels, the pattern is visible in Peter Aaron's goal to reconstruct the story of his enigmatic friend Benjamin Sachs in Leviathan (1992), David Zimmer's scholarly pursuit of the vanished silent film star Hector Mann in The Book of Illusions (2002), and even Sidney Orr's desperate attempt to seek out and heal his fractured subjectivity in Oracle Night (2003). In each case, the narrator's desire to erase an absence aims toward uncovering secrets-and the fact of narration both testifies to and enables the quest. Each quest stands for the narrator's confrontation with trauma. The inconclusiveness of each suggests that loss is largely irremediable, the primary object of desire not just inaccessible, but at times unrepresentable. Nevertheless, despite the intuition of existential absence evident in The New York Trilogy, Auster demonstrates a surprising, if modest, optimism. The narrators pursuing their objects engage in a therapeutic process that brings them toward accepting loss, contingency, and thwarted desire. Their narratives complete histories that record and embrace loss by recovering the very possibility of the historical from the timeless stasis of the traumatic condition. The histories they construct provisionally release them, if not their objects of contemplation, from the past so as to live in an ongoing present.

Auster's work, and especially the relationship between his narrators and the objects of their quests, is illuminated by central distinctions that Dominick LaCapra has drawn from Freud's work. In "Reflections on Trauma, Absence, and Loss," LaCapra differentiates absence from loss, acting-out from working-through, mourning from melancholy. The distinction between the latter two terms derives from Freud's account in Mourning and Melancholia (1917), with the emphasis on the active work of mourning that allows one who has lost an object to move beyond grief, as opposed to melancholia, which is "characteristic of an arrested process in which the depressed, self...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
pp. 66-87
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-18
Open Access
No
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