The Solitude of Invention

Paul Auster, one of America’s most enigmatic literary figures, has opened up about his life in a new memoir. Now he opens his front door.

by Stacey Kors Published Fall 2012
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Auster’s first published fiction came in 1985: City of Glass, the first of three suspenseful, noir-style novellas with interconnected themes, that were later published together as The New York Trilogy. A postmodern, existential mystery, City of Glass is about a writer of second-rate detective novels, Daniel Quinn, who gets a series of calls looking for an actual detective. Bored and isolated, he decides to take on the detective’s persona, and soon finds himself implicated in a real mystery.

What makes City of Glass extraordinary is its exploration of identity through metafiction: Quinn writes his detective novels under a pseudonym, William Wilson; the frantic, repeated caller is looking for a detective named Paul Auster; and Quinn, after taking on Auster’s persona, meets the real Paul Auster, who is also a writer and not a detective.

“I’m fascinated by the artificiality of books,” Auster explains. “Everybody knows that when you pick up a novel, it’s something made up by somebody. Yet somehow we reify it. Somehow the protocol is that you’re not supposed to tamper with the rules. I was just curious to see what would happen if you take the name from the cover of the book and you put it inside the book.”

Auster is quick to point out that placing himself in the novel was not meant as a postmodern ploy, and had nothing to do with ego. “The Auster in the book is very similar to me in many ways,” he acknowledges, “the outward circumstances of his life more or less tallied with mine at the time. But I think of him as a rather foolish, even ridiculous, character. Everything he says is the opposite of what I think. I just was trying to make fun of myself.”

With the publication of City of Glass, Auster gained a cult of postmodern groupies; some fans retraced the protagonist’s travels around Manhattan, hoping to solve the mystery, and some years later, the book was turned into a popular graphic novel. When the other books in the trilogy, Ghosts and The Locked Room, were published, literary scholars also began to take notice. Auster was quickly establishing himself as a new and inventive voice in postmodern American literature.

Nearly thirty years and more than a dozen novels later, it’s hard to think of another contemporary American writer whose work generates more discussion and curiosity. “I must have over forty books about myself in the house,” says Auster, with more puzzlement than pride. “And I know that there are dissertations being written all the time. It’s rather extraordinary. There’s even a woman at the University of Copenhagen who’s setting up some Center for Paul Auster Studies. It’s all so strange that I can’t get my head around all of this.”

Academics theorize endlessly about Auster and his literary motivations, labeling him everything from a New York Jewish hunger artist to a clever semiotician whose every decision — down to the color of the notebook his protagonists choose to write in — is fraught with symbolism. Auster dismisses most of this as academic overanalyzing, usually with a hidden agenda.

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