Paul Auster’s Locked Room

There is the sneaking suspicion reading The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s collection of short novels, that the works are related. This even before the narrator of The Locked Room throws out this bone late in the work: “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about.”

As a reader, I wanted to feel triumphant but didn’t. The statement is vague and somewhat obvious. For the hunch is not only that the stories are related thematically or in their ultimate message or outcomes — they most certainly are — but that they represent a single, cohesive work rather than three repetitive novellas.

The feeling gnawed at me, especially with the emphasis on the red notebook at the end of The Locked Room, the same-colored notebook from City of Glass. And then there is the name Stillman, again in both the first and last parts of the trilogy.

So I took notes during the second reading, jotting down phrases and sentences that seemed to connect the three pieces, hoping to find clues that would help me understand The New York Trilogy as one work instead of three.

Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Frustration counts for something, no?

I realize now that trying to understand any of Auster’s works on its own terms is largely fruitless. Some of the novels and essays are exhilarating and enjoyable by themselves, but all of his work leaves the distasteful residue that something is missing, and that everything is inscrutable. This isn’t to suggest that they’re flawed; even Auster’s least engaging work feels perfect if cold.

I now see that Auster’s work only makes sense as a whole. The New York Trilogy, in the end, is not three works or even one. It is, instead, a fraction of a work. Just like everything else he’s written.

Reflecting Glass

The first novel by poet, translator, and critic Paul Auster was Squeeze Play, under the name Paul Benjamin, in an effort to make money to keep himself afloat.

“I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name,” a character says in City of Glass.

In 1995, Auster wrote the screenplay to Smoke featuring the character Paul Benjamin, a novelist who has struggled to write since his wife was killed by a stray bullet.

In City of Glass, the detective novelist Daniel Quinn “had been more ambitious. As a young man he had published several books of poetry, had written plays, critical essays, and had worked on a number of long translations.” He writes his pulp novels under the name William Wilson.

“Not a thread in all his raiment — not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of his face which was not, even in the most absolute identity, mine own!” Poe wrote in “William Wilson.”

After a chance wrong number, Quinn pretends to be a private detective named Paul Auster.

In “The Red Notebook,” Auster relates that a similar wrong number, and his failure to pretend that he was the person the caller requested, sparked City of Glass.

Quinn meets the character Paul Auster in City of Glass. Character Paul Auster has a son Daniel and a wife Siri. Real Paul Auster has a son Daniel and a wife Siri.

Auster has said in interviews that Quinn represents one possibility of Paul Auster, the one who never met his wife Siri, and the one who made a different choice when somebody called asking for a person not himself.

In Squeeze Play, a wayward daughter says to the private detective: “I don’t got no mommy and daddy, you dig? I got born last week when you screwed some dog up the ass.”

In Smoke, a wayward daughter says to her mother: “I don’t got no daddy, you dig? I got born last week when some dog fucked you up the ass.”

In Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven, the short, round and tall, thin comedy team are charged with building a wall.

In The Music of Chance, wealthy Laurel-and-Hardy-like gamblers decide that because their debtors cannot pay off their gambling losses in cash or merchandise, they must build a wall.

The play Blackouts features three characters: Black, Blue, and Green.

The characters in Ghosts are all named after colors.

“My real name is Peter Rabbit. In the winter I am Mr. White, in the summer I am Mr. Green. Think what you like of this. I say it of my own free will. Wimble click crumblechaw beloo,” says Peter Stillman.

“All I can say is this: Listen to me. My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name,” says Quinn.


The above is but a sampling of explicit connections between different Auster works. Careful scrutiny, or perhaps a computer analysis, would surely reveal dozens more.

Admittedly, the re-appearance of certain phrases or motifs — in particular the statement from Squeeze Play recycled in Smoke — can be justified without lending larger meaning to Auster’s work as a whole. The author liked the quote, and at the time Smoke was written, few people had read Squeeze Play, as it had not been publicly acknowledged as a novel by Paul Auster. (The memoir Hand to Mouth, published in 1997, included the novel as an appendix.) And the play Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven, also published with Hand to Mouth, can be seen as the seed of The Music of Chance, as Blackouts is the precursor to Ghosts. But this dismissive attitude fails to address (and can’t adequately explain) all the other connections within Auster’s body of writing.

One could argue, on the other hand, that enigmatic cross-referencing is largely confined to The New York Trilogy. True enough, but that line of reasoning ignores that Auster’s work to this point is almost exclusively devoted to the question of identity — what makes us who we are; whether identity is a solid, unchangeable thing or a liquid quality shaped by coincidence and chance; and if we can ever truly know another person, or ourselves.

Alternatively, perhaps Auster is simply being playful, trying to prompt inquiries such as this knowing that they can lead nowhere, because it’s impossible to draw conclusions from the repeated appearance of words or names in various works. Nobody can deny a certain mischievous streak in Auster, but I argue that he also intends to set off warning lights, asking for people to notice, to recognize that there is significance, that reasonable inferences can be drawn to shed light on his work as a whole.

A Detective of Identity

Auster’s work features two main methods of inquiry into identity. The first, and most prominent, is to plunge the characters into darkness, to strip them of all their comfort, complacency, and pride to see who they really are. City of Glass, Ghosts, In the Country of Last Things, Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, and Mr. Vertigo follow this model. It never gets more explicit than the early stages of Mr. Vertigo, when Master Yehudi tells Walt that before the boy can fly, he must be destroyed: “The dumber you are, the better it is for both us. There’s less to undo that way ... . We’re embarking on a long journey, son, and the first thing I have to do is break your spirit.”

The second method is essentially a third-person investigation. Squeeze Play, The Locked Room, Leviathan, and the long-form essay “The Invention of Solitude” take this path. This type of inquiry — in Auster’s writing, at least — is largely pointless and inconclusive, as the author acknowledged most bluntly in Squeeze Play, his first published work of fiction.

Although Squeeze Play sticks to its detective-novel trappings, the work as a whole stands up pretty well. It is nothing if not a pleasant, quick read, for one thing. But more importantly, it introduces the issues that permeate all of Auster’s work: identity and duality.

The handling is sophisticated, especially for pulp fiction, and probably as subtle as anything in Auster’s work until the screenplay to Smoke. Whereas identity is central as a theme to everything Auster has written and cannot be ignored, the plot takes prominence in Squeeze Play. Only in its coda does Auster come out and say that something else is going on.

Throughout the work, the central corpse — a former star baseball player who lost a leg in an accident five years previous and is now dead from poison — is remembered alternately as a giving, decent person and a manipulative, image-conscious, self-centered man of evil. Because the sympathies of the narrator — a private dick named Max Klein — lie (as he ultimately does) with the widow accused of murder, readers are inclined to believe her side of the story, the negative version.

But the detective, after he has learned all aspects of the story and played every angle, sours on the case and its participants. His conclusion: Although the dead man killed himself, he was pushed there by his wife and her lover.

“I don’t suppose you want to hear my side of it, do you?” she begs.

“No. I don’t want to hear another word about it,” he responds.

“If you ever want to know the truth, just let me know. I’ll be happy to tell you,” she says. These are her last words to him.

It is a moment of clarity for the reader. Max Klein has his story, and he’s sticking to it. It’s not necessarily the “correct” version, because there is no objective truth. The reality of the corpse is that he was two people, depending on to whom you talked. His identity can never be truly known.

Double Take

In City of Glass, the duality of Squeeze Play is made literal. Upon seeing the elder Stillman at the train station, the narrator offers this description:

He was tall, thin, without question past 60, somewhat stooped. Inappropriately for the season, he wore a long brown overcoat that had gone to seed, and he shuffled slightly as he walked. ... He had one piece of luggage, a once beautiful but now battered leather suitcase with a strap around it.

And then:

What happened then defied explanation. Directly behind Stillman, heaving into view just inches behind his right shoulder, another man stopped, took a lighter out of his pocket, and lit a cigarette. His face was the exact twin of Stillman’s. For a second Quinn thought it was an illusion, a kind of aura thrown off by the electro-magnetic currents in Stillman’s body. But no, this other Stillman moved, breathed, blinked his eyes; his actions were clearly independent of the first Stillman. The second Stillman had a prosperous air about him. He was dressed in an expensive blue suit; his shoes were shined; his white hair was combed; and in his eyes there was the shrewd look of a man of the world. He, too, was carrying a single bag: an elegant black suitcase, about the same size as the other Stillman’s.

Recall, first, the narrator’s moment of understanding in Poe’s “William Wilson,” when he realizes that his tormentor, his conscience, shares his face exactly. And remember, too, Auster’s admission that Quinn represents Auster under different circumstances.

Auster is using multiple doppelgänger motifs in which separate characters represent different paths for the same person. The well-groomed, prosperous Stillman is the man who did not lock his child in a black room for years. The broken Stillman did. Similarly, Quinn is the Paul Auster who answered the phone call and pretended to be someone he was not. The character of Paul Auster represents the author who didn’t pretend.

But those ghostly presences are fleeting. Quinn and the destitute Stillman are the story, with the former going insane and the latter just released from an institution. They’re two in a long line of Auster characters revealed through adversity.

Nashe in The Music of Chance has a stash of cash and aimless dreams of seeing the world. He loses his money, is essentially gambled into slavery, and comes to value the joy of driving a car. What he took for granted is now precious and important.

And Marco Stanley Fogg started out in good shape in Moon Palace, but then:

“Little by little, I saw my money dwindle to zero; I lost my apartment; I wound up living in the streets. ... From then on, strange things happened to me. I took the job with the old man in the wheelchair. I found out who my father was. I walked across the desert from Utah to California. That was a long time ago, of course, but I remember those days well, I remember them as the beginning of my life.”

Auster spends little time with his characters when they’re comfortable, instead documenting their deprivation. He clearly finds it more intriguing and interesting as a subject.

The well-adjusted Stillman appears for only a moment. The author Auster disappears quickly from City of Glass. They are boring, insulated from their true selves by wealth and fat. Those who’ve been stripped of dignity and a warm coat in winter show their true colors.

In Auster’s world, a person exists only when he’s lost everything.

yep, remember how absurd is the locked room sometimes and how auster explained the absurdity of life, not a clue but a statement to explain the red book, the end and the obsession with fanshawe, Fanshawe was perfect but when you listened to him in the last scene, he’s bitter and sad, such a feeling of regret, grieving...
i like the essay but it make me feel lost when i think the trilogy is powerful by the laberynths not by the explanations.

“City of Glass” also had a skillful adaptation into graphic novel format. I’d highly recommend it. I had a hard time imagining that work in graphic form, until I saw how it was done.

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