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Coping with the Postmodern: Paul Auster's New York Trilogy



Throughout this essay, I will show the characters of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy moving between modernism and postmodernism, and discuss the way some of them epitomize either largely modernist or postmodernist epistemologies. My purpose is to offer a reconstruction of Auster's dialogue across both, and I will resist situating the novelist in either the modern or the postmodern camp. I see him as rather watching from a distance, while his characters scour the terrain (both terrains, as a matter of fact) for him. My conclusion is that Auster seems to acknowledge the inevitability of inhabiting the cultural space of the postmodern, while staking out a claim to question, or even to challenge, some of its presumptions. While modernism still holds a powerful spell for the protagonists of City of Glass and Ghosts (less so for the latter), the narrator of The Locked Room posits the inextricability of embracing our contemporary sensibility, the postmodern, without necessarily rejecting altogether what went before. Auster associates modernism largely with the secluded, invisible, despicable Fanshawe, whose spell and influence over him the narrator of the third novel of the trilogy manages to break.



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1 Jameson, Fredric, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in Jameson, , The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998 (London: Verso, 1998), 120, 3.

2 Quoted in Bertens, Hans, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (London: Routledge, 1995), 177. Susan Sontag's critical work is an inevitable reference in connection with such postmodern resistance to interpretation. See the seminal “On Interpretation,” but also the very perceptive “Godard's Vivre Sa Vie,” for an analysis of the way postmodern art thrives on interpretive blanks. Both in Sontag, “Against Interpretation” and Other Essays (New York: Delta, 1966).

3 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Circles”, in The Portable Emerson, ed. Bode, Carl (New York: Penguin, 1981), 228–40, 238.

4 Alford, Steven E., “Mirrors of Madness: Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy,” Critique, 37, 1 (Fall 1995), 1733, 18.

5 Ibid., 29.

6 Russell, Alison, “Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-detective Fiction,” Critique, 21, 2 (Winter 1990), 7184, 75.

7 Ibid., 72. For another approach tilted towards acknowledging the postmodern in Auster, see Herzogenrath, Bernd, An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999).

8 Tysh, Chris, “From One Mirror to Another: The Rhetoric of Disaffiliation in City of Glass,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, 14, 1 (Spring 1994), 4652, 46.

10 Ibid., 47, original italics.

11 Ibid., 51.

12 Little, William G., “Nothing to Go on: Paul Auster's City of Glass,” Contemporary Literature, 38, 1 (Spring 1997), 133–63, 134.

13 Shostak, Debra, “Under the Sign of Moon Palace: Paul Auster and the Body of the Text,” Critique, 49, 2 (Winter 2008), Literature Online, at, accessed 8 June 2011. I subscribe to her distinction between “the Postmodern condition as a political-philosophical-cultural situation that is theoretically described, postmodernism as an historical movement and set of formal conventions in the arts, and poststructuralism as a discursive theory.” Refusing to go further into the distinction, she professes to “rely on a commonsense use of postmodern to embrace all of the above insofar as they are often seen to intersect in literary representation.”

14 For a categorical rejection of any postmodern label for Auster see Dimovitz, Scott A., “Public Personae and the Private I: De-compositional Ontology in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy,” Modern Fiction Studies, 52–3 (Fall 2006), 613–33.

15 Cf. Barone, Dennis, “Introduction: Paul Auster and the Postmodern American Novel,” in Barone, ed., Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 126.

16 Quinn's preparations for taking up residence in front of the Stillman's seem literally borrowed from “Economy,” the opening section of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and his subsequent recordings of the swiftly changing hues of the sky and clouds again strongly remind us of the nineteenth-century masterpiece, which will be given due acknowledgement, however, in Ghosts, the second novel of the trilogy. For more intertexts (but by no means all that can be found) see Marc Chenetier, who believes that all Auster does is “talking of writing to other writings. As an American, he speaks of and to all of classical American literature and tells it of Beckett.” Cf. “Paul Auster's Pseudonymous World,” in Barone, 34–43, 39.

17 Auster, Paul, Travels in the Scriptorium (London: Faber, 2006), 104–5.

18 Shostak.

19 Hoberek, Andrew, “Introduction: After Postmodernism,” Twentieth-Century Literature, 53, 3 (Fall 2007), 233–47, 243.

20 Adams, Rachel, “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism,” Twentieth-Century Literature, 53, 3 (Fall 2007), 248–72, 273–74.

21 Hungerford, Amy, “On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary,” American Literary History, 20, 1–2 (2008), 410–19.

22 For a groundbreaking account of how literary theory, or just “theory,” has impacted American and European fiction over the past decades see Ryan, Judith, The Novel after Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). Ryan, however, does not include Auster in the roster of writers tackled in the book, maybe because she sees this incorporation of theory into fiction as spawning a new subgenre. Auster's trilogy is in my opinion too complex and multivocal to fit into such a constraining category, though. On the other hand, see McGurl, Mark, The Program Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), for an insightful account of how theory (by means of creative writing programs) has enriched contemporary writing and caused it to move in certain directions. I am indebted to an anonymous reader for JAS, who brought McGurl's study to my attention.

23 Jameson, “Postmodernism,” 5, original emphasis.

24 Hutcheon, Linda, A Theory of Parody (New York: Methuen, 1986), 6.

25 Venturi, Robert, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (London: The Architectural Press, 1977), 38.

26 Jameson, 11. The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles is taken by Jameson to epitomize that disorientation with the postmodern, successful in “transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and to map cognitively its position in a mappable external world.” Cf. Jameson, 15–16.

27 Bertens, The Idea, 166. Alienation as a modernist stand is also suggested by Steven Alford, “Spaced-Out: Signification and Space in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy,” at, accessed 6 May 2011.

28 Ibid., 163.

29 Such “highbrow” books may undoubtedly mirror Auster's own early years as a writer. I am again indebted to yet another anonymous reader for JAS for such a perceptive remark.

30 Auster, Paul, The New York Trilogy (London: Faber, 1988), 31.

31 Ibid., 54.

32 Ibid., 56.

33 Ibid., 56.

34 Quoted in Bertens, 37.

35 Sorapure, Madeleine, “The Detective and the Author: City of Glass,” in Barone, Beyond the Red Notebook, 7187, 77.

36 Alford, “Mirrors,” 17.

37 Tysh, “From One Mirror,” 48, original italics.

38 Ibid., 50.

39 Auster, 84.

40 Ibid., 40.

41 Quoted in Bertens, 44.

42 Auster, 8.

43 Quoted in Alford, “Spaced-Out,” 29.

44 Auster, 7.

45 Ibid., 53.

46 Ibid., 6.

47 Ibid., 11.

48 Ibid., 14.

49 Ibid., 14.

50 Ibid., 76.

51 Ibid., 77.

52 Bertens, 44–45.

53 Lyotard, Jean-François, Post-modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 10.

54 Russell, “Deconstructing,” 72.

55 Little, “Nothing to Go on,” 140.

56 Auster, 74.

57 Ibid., 85.

58 Ibid., 71.

59 Ibid., 15.

60 Ibid., 15–16.

61 Ibid., 15.

62 Ibid., 22.

63 Ibid., 35.

64 In a previous work I studied the reasons for Quinn's adoption of Auster's identity – mostly to suppress his pain and acquire a sense of purpose for a life that had become aimless, as well as the reasons for the impossibility of Quinn's returning to his old self and his unwillingness to do so once the evaporation of the Stillman case prevents “Auster” from proceeding further. See Espejo, Ramón, “Las dos caras de Nueva York en City of Glass, de Paul Auster,” in Marín, Pilar et al. , eds., Imágenes de la gran ciudad en la novela norteamericana contemporánea (Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla, 2001), 139–58.

65 Auster, 38.

66 Ibid., 59.

67 Ibid., 60.

68 Ibid., 59.

69 Ibid., 50.

70 Ibid., 65.

71 Ibid., 67.

72 Ibid., 3.

73 Ibid., 63–64.

74 Ibid., 92.

75 When Auster goes to the kitchen to prepare an omelette and Quinn closes his eyes, he can only hear Stillman's words: “You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Ibid., 97.

76 Ibid., 97.

77 Ibid., 129.

78 Ibid., 104.

79 Ibid., 104.

80 Ibid., 128.

81 Ibid., 127.

82 Ibid., 129.

83 Ibid., 130.

84 Ibid., 135, added emphasis.

85 Ibid., 138.

86 Ibid., 138.

87 Ibid., 137.

88 Ibid., 145.

89 Ibid., 147–48.

90 Ibid., 147.

91 Ibid., 170.

92 Ibid., 193.

93 Ibid., 148.

94 Ibid., 152.

95 Ibid., 185.

96 Ibid., 191.

97 Ibid., 169–70.

98 Jameson, “Postmodernism,” 2.

99 Ibid., 6.

100 Auster, 214.

101 Ibid., 220.

102 Ibid., 263.

103 Ibid., 263.

104 Ibid., 207.

105 Ibid., 212.

106 Ibid., 217.

107 Ibid., 236.

108 Ibid., 247.

109 Ibid., 296.

110 Ibid., 298.

111 Such a temptation had already been felt by the postmodern Auster of City of Glass, who got so absorbed by the modernist Quinn that he was even afraid to keep his notebook (for fear of following in his footsteps?).

112 Ibid., 293.

113 Ibid., 304.

114 Ibid., 314.

115 Ibid., 314.

116 Ibid., 294.

117 Ibid., 294.


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