Paul Auster’s deconstruction of the traditional hard-boiled detective narrative in The New York Trilogy
by Dan Holmes, University of Wales, Swansea
Paul Auster’s triad of detective stories, The New York Trilogy, has perhaps the most varied descriptions of any detective novel. Critics have called it a "metaphysical mystery tour", "a strange and powerful new adventure", "a seamless little detective story", "novels of desire" and "exquisitely bleak literary games."
Auster’s work does not seem to fit neatly into any one category. So how should it be read? Is it a deconstruction of the hard-boiled narrative, the natural progression of the genre in the post-modern age or something else?
In order to assess Auster’s work it is necessary to understand what it is we are comparing it to, to understand the rules and norms of the hard-boiled genre. Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction, particularly the Philip Marlowe series, has been described, “As near to canonical as crime writing gets.”1 Chandler is generally considered as a master of the genre and one of its founding fathers, as a successor to Dashiel Hammett. If Chandler can be considered as a benchmark against which other detective writers are measures, then he is a perfect comparison to place Auster against.
The New York Trilogy would seem to share several characteristics with Chandler’s works. There are obvious superficial similarities, for example, the stories all concern detective work and have white males as their protagonists. Like Marlowe, Daniel Quinn, the protagonist of City of Glass, seems to be a magnet for trouble, with the wrong number drawing him into the investigation, in much the same way as a chance meeting with a drunken Terry Lennox involves Marlowe with the proceedings of The Long Goodbye. Another similarity between City of Glass and both The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep is that the detectives are working for rich families and are involved in what are essentially family disputes (the families involved being the Stillmans, Lennoxes and Sternwoods respectively).
Both Auster and Chandler present the detective as a lone figure, living and working alone. Marlowe certainly embodies this, having no partner, no family and little in the way of autobiography. In The Long Goodbye he tells us "I was living that year in a house on Yucca Avenue."2 This suggests a single man who can move when it suits him, having no family ties. Auster’s detective also all work alone and have little in the way of autobiography. All we know of him is "that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both his wife and son were dead."3 In Ghosts this is particularly true with Blue being the closest to a stereotypical hard boiled detective, with a name that gives nothing away, he is merely a colour, one dimensional like the other characters in this story.
David Pinder describes the literary detective, in his piece Ghostly Footsteps, as follows:
“The figure of the detective has long been associated with the complexity of modern urban life. It rests on the idea of confronting the city’s apparent unknowability in its infinite spread and diversity, and of following clues to tame and make intelligible its secrets and scrambled paths. It embodies a realist epistemological claim about the potential of knowing the city and of mastering a labyrinthine urban reality.”4
Both Chandler's and Auster’s detectives show the difficulty of reading the city, whether it is the deceit of Los Angeles’ rich or the confusion of Peter Stillman’s path and the message it spells out in New York. In City of Glass, the city is New York and we are told, "New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps and that it is "a neverland of fragments, a place of wordless things and thingless words."5 Both authors have their detective crossing the city in search of answers, both about the cases they are working and the cities themselves.
“The detectives presence comes to speak of the difficulties of reading and knowing the city, where the city’s legibility and representatlity have been thrown into doubt and become a focus of anxiety, or in more extreme cases where they become the subject of paranoiac webs of connection, as in the self-reflexive, metaphysical detective fiction of Paul Auster.”6
Marlowe, Quinn and Blue all show the difficulties of knowing the city and its inhabitants In these stories nothing is ever straightforward, for example, with the faked death of Terry Lennox, the appearance of two identical Peter Stillmans, the mysterious identity of Blue’s employer and the mystery surrounding Fanshawe’s disappearance. Quinn even begins to be unsure of himself, "he did not recognize the person he saw there as himself...it had been no more than a matter of months and in that time he had become someone else."7
There are also elements of Auster’s work that suggest that The New York Trilogy is not a traditionally hard-boiled novel. Perhaps the most striking of these elements is that whilst detective novels generally deal with the search for answers, and for truth, that “while the goal of detection is to uncover the whole story, in Auster’s work, nothing, especially not nothing, is grasped in its all. No case is closed…his calculations and representations lead to no final illumination, no climatic discovery.”8 In Raymond Chandler’s novels it is inevitable that Marlowe will solve the mystery, that he will find the answers that he seeks. In The Big Sleep, for example, Marlowe solves the case of General Sternwood’s blackmailing and in The Long Goodbye he discovers the truth about Terry Lennox and his disappearance. For Auster’s detectives there are no such answers. In City of Glass, for example, Quinn never really solves the case he takes on. His method of detection seems flawed, for example, with the arbitrary decision taken over which Peter Stillman to follow and the resolution of the case is not down to him. Peter Stillman’s suicide and Virginia and Peter moving away have little to do with Quinn’s detective work. The end of the story certainly does not give answers, as Quinn disappears and the identity of the narrator remains a mystery. In Ghosts we never really discover the identity of Blue’s employer, whether it is indeed Black, and where Blue goes at the end of the story is similarly uncertain, the narrator telling us “where he went after that is not important...from this moment on we know nothing.” 9 The Locked Room, although revealing that Fanshawe is actually alive leaves him behind a closed door and reveals nothing of what will become of him and his work, which forms the crux of the story, also remains a mystery as the narrator destroys it. It has been suggested by John Mennick that “these novels undermine the form of the detective story itself, its rationality, its clear morality.”10
As Paul Auster himself puts it, “Mystery novels give answers, my work is about asking questions.”11
Auster’s detectives also lack the self-confidence and assurance of Chandler’s Marlowe. Whilst “Marlowe offers the reader the satisfaction of the successful comeback, the unshakeable confidence of the never failing witty rejoinder”12, Quinn is consciously trying to do this, to be like Max Work, but he fails. “The very things that caused problems for Quinn, Work took for granted.”13 The unexpected is also a problem for Quinn. When Virginia Stillman opens the door to him he is thrown off guard, not having expected a woman, and he is unable to take in any details of his surroundings, "already, things were happening to fast...even in those first moments he had lost ground, was starting to fall behind himself."14 something we cannot imagine happening to Marlowe. Chandler’s sleuth never fails to notice even the most minute detail of a situation, right down to the type of wood a floor is made up from:
“The parquetry was made of a dozen kinds of hardwood, from Burma teak through half a dozen shades of oak and ruddy wood that looked like mahogany, and fading out to the hard pale wild lilac of the Californian hills, all laid in elaborate patterns, with the accuracy of a transit.”15
This and other minor details such as the science fiction magazine behind the driver’s mirror are always picked up by Marlowe. The narrator of The Locked Room, shares Quinn’s lack of confidence, having spent his entire life in Fanshawe’s shadow, and lacks the poise and talents of men like Fanshawe or Marlowe. He tells us “I do not think I was comfortable in his presence. if envy is too strong a word for what I was trying to say, then I would call it a suspicion, a secret feeling that Fanshawe was somehow better than I was.”16 Again, one cannot imagine Marlowe ever feeling in the shadow of anyone else, treating those riche or stronger than him with no deference whatsoever. He is a man who was fired from the District Attorney‘s office for insubordination, who rather than being impressed by the size of the Sternwood mansion describes its rooms as “too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall.”17 When he is handcuffed and beaten by Captain Gregorius Marlowe never backs down and is still cocky around him, calling him “a gorilla...an incompetent.”18 Chandler’s detective never lacks confidence in the way that Auster’s do, and is always ready with a sharp retort.
If these arguments are taken into consideration, if The New York Trilogy cannot, in fact, be considered a detective novel in the traditional sense of the genre, or at best can only be considered a subversion of it, what sort of novel is it? The novel is often referred to in terms of post-modernism and it certainly seems to have many of the elements associated with post-modern literature. It is self referential, with the author Paul Auster apparently appearing as a character, but confusingly not as the narrator. It can also be seen as a piece of literature about literature, with writers such as Quinn, Fanshawe, Peter Stillman, Henry Dark and the narrator of The Locked Room appearing throughout the trilogy. The reference to Don Quixote in City of Glass also seems to reflect the ideas of the story concerning authorship. The trilogy has a strong theme of identity running through it, something particularly important in post-modernism. Quinn, for example, seems to have a fluid identity, becoming by turns William Wilson, Max Work and Paul Auster. In Ghosts identity seems arbitrary and superficial. All of the characters are named for colours, suggesting that their names and identities are simple and unimportant, as superficial as a colour, in a world where Black may indeed turn out to be White. The theme of identity is similarly explored in The Locked Room with the narrator publishing Fanshawe’s work, which many people believe to be his work, and moving in with his wife, seemingly taking over his life and identity.
A further link to post-modernism, particularly in City of Glass, is a sense of bewilderment and discomfort stemming from the city. Unlike Marlowe, Quinn is not a flaneur, he does not the ease with which Chandler’s detective traverses the city, instead seeming lost in it. In The Naked City, Ralph Willett argues that Quinn feels “a sense of impermanence generated by the rate of urban change in New York.”19 William G Little says, “For him, the contemporary American landscape, epitomized by New York, is a scene of cultural decay, environmental degradation, personal isolation and spiritual anomie.”20 The sense of impermanence and decay, of discomfort in the city, is shown by Quinn’s descent into living on the streets, the random wanderings of Peter Stillman and the surprise Quinn feels when he finds a stranger living in his apartment, that "Everything had changed, it seemed like another place."21
By comparison Raymond Chandler can be seen to be writer of detective fiction influenced by modernism. Writing in Modernism, Peter Childs says “One of the first aspects of Modernist writing to strike the reader is the way in which such novels, stories, plays and poems immerse them in an unfamiliar world with little of the orienting preambles and descriptions provided by most realist writers, such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot.”22
The Big Sleep certainly does this, beginning with a cursory description of the time, weather and Marlowe’s attire, before we are dropped into General Sternwood’s home and Marlowe’s first meeting with him There are no details of the two men or there business together. When Sternwood asks Marlowe about himself we are again given only the simplest of biographical details, with no real insight into his character. The Long Goodbye shares this style, beginning with “The first time I saw Terry Lennox he was drunk.”23 We are not told who the narrator is, who Lenox is or where they are, instead diving right in to the action.
Other elements of Modernism in Chandler’s work include the narrative authority and reliability associated with realism. Unlike Auster’s detectives and narrators, Marlowe is always in control and always seems certain. We believe him and have confidence in his reliability and think him to be unbiased and giving a fair account of events. Quinn, on the other hand, becomes increasingly disjointed through the novel and seems to lose touch with reality as he sees patterns, which may or may not be there and ends up living on the street, compromising him as an impartial narrator.
It has also been suggested by Lee Horsley that “Marlowe’s neurotic alienation, his fears about loss of agency, about violations of self and fragmenting identity are expressions of characteristically modernist anxieties.”24 Horsley suggests that Chandler’s novels “shift the focus of his thrillers away from wider socio-political disorder and corruption, and towards terrors that are more inward. His novels bring together the public and the personal: the crimes of crooked policemen, businessmen, and politicians provide an outer structure within which more private crimes are enacted. Part of Chandler's point is that these personal wrongs are inextricably related to the larger controlling forces at work in early twentieth-century society.”25 For Horsley, Chandler’s take on Modernism was shown by Marlowe’s apparent aversion to personal relationships and to sex, with the representations of the femme fatale. For Marlowe, the violations of the self feared by Modernist writers are those of a sexual nature, of physical violation by manipulative woman. Horsley also suggests that perhaps the way Marlowe is repeatedly knocked unconscious had links to a loss of control and this is the type of fragmentation he fears most. Marlowe seems to feel a visceral, physical revulsion towards women's sexuality, for example when eyeing up a woman in a bar, as soon as she responds to a suggestive touch from a man with a laugh, Marlowe tells us "That terminated my interest in her. I couldn't hear her laugh but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed."26 Marlowe describes a sexual encounter with Sylvia Lennox as follows. “Then she treshed about and moaned. This was murder. I was as erotic as a stallion. I was losing control.“ When they are interupted by the houseboy Marlowe tells us “Candy saved me.”27 In The Big Sleep, Marlowe finds Carmen Sternwood naked in his bed. He becomes revolted and angry, saying "I couldn’t stand her in that room any longer" before threatening to throw her out and then "savagely" tearing the bed to pieces.28 These exmaples show Marlowe's apparent anger and repulsuon at the sexuality of women, especially if they are strongly sexual, i n the modernist mold. Pehaps as a man of his time Marlowe feels threatend by the reversal of traditional roles which sexually agressive women denote. He seems to feel that having sex ith a strong, sexually agressive woman, is a failing, as shown by his feeling of being ‘saved’ by Candy. This entails a loss of control on the part of the man as the instigator of sex and is perhaps part of the fears over loss of agency which Horsley discusses.
There seem to be several possible theories as to where Auster’s work should be placed in relation to typical hard-boiled detective fiction such as Chandler’s. Whilst similarities can be found in Auster’s work, the differences and subversions of the genre seem to be too numerous and too essential to the stories for The New York Trilogy to be considered as typical detective fiction. Horsley suggests that “contemporary writers both acknowledge Chandler’s influence and try to differentiate themselves from him.”29This seems true of Auster who certainly seems to understand the genre and uses many of its conventions, such as the figure of the lone detective. Maw Work, for example, is a typically hard-boiled detective and Quinn tries to act like him when he assumes the role of a detective. Virginia Stillman is also somewhat of a traditional femme fatale, with her power over Quinn seeming to stem from her sexuality. Quinn describes her in a very Chandler-esque way:
"The woman was thirty, perhaps thirty five; average height at best: hips a touch wide, or else voluptuous, depending on your point of view; dark hair, dark eyes, and a look in those eyes that was at once self-contained and vaguely seductive. She wore a black dress and very red lipstick."30
Along with these acknowledgements of the genre there are also subversions which distance the trilogy from it. Quinn, for example, is decidedly no a typical detective, but rather someone assuming the detective’s identity, to whim detective work is confusing and unfamiliar. The most striking difference or subversion is that there is no resolution to Auster’s works, no discovery of truth, as one would expect from a detective novel.
The New York Trilogy has been seen as post-modern and could be considered a progression from the modernist influenced literature of Chandler. This can also be problematic however, as Auster’s work lacks some of the elements of typical post-modern novels. There is a coherence and linear nature to his narratives which is not usually associated with post-modern literature. There is also a sense of realism, an attempt to ground the characters and the city.
In this case Auster’s texts still do not appear to have any definitive place. William G Little offers this:
“While Auster’s texts appear to follow the redemptive band script of the traditional detective novel, they are nevertheless errant versions stressing that subjects and signs are never single, straightforward or self-evident but rather are duplicitous...and deceptive.”31
Perhaps Auster’s work should not be thought of as a typical detective novel, a post-modern novel or even an effective synergy of the two. The key phrase in Little’s description is that New York Trilogy is an “errant version”, it is not necessarily a simple fusion because the two types of novels are so different, almost antithetical. After all, detective fiction is concerned with the search for truth and postmodernism can be seen as an exploration of the lack of truth in the world. Perhaps Auster’s work should be though of as the bastard child of detective fiction and postmodernism, something that was never going to easily fit into one category.
1 Bell, Ian A and Daldry, Graham, Watching the Detectives: Essays on Crime Fiction (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1990) page xi
2 Chandler, Raymond, The Long Goodbye, 1953 (London: Pan, 1979) page 7
3 Auster, Paul, ‘City of Glass’ in The New York Trilogy, (London: Faber and Faber, 1987) page 3
4 Pinder, David ‘Ghostly Footsteps: Voices, Memories and Walks in the City’ in Ecumene (January, 2001, Hodder Arnold Journals, Vol 8 No 1) pp 1-19.
5 Auster, 'City of Glass', page 72
7 Auster, 'City of Glass' page 119-120
8 Little, William G, ‘Nothing To Go On: Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass’, Contemporary Literature (Vol. 38 No. 1, Spring 1997, pp 133-163) page 133
9 Auster, ‘Ghosts’ in The New York Trilogy, page 195-196
10 Mennick, John, The Detective (June 5th, 2003) online at http://www.johnmennick.com/archives/000003.php retrieved 14/3/2005
11 McCaffrey, Larry and Gregory, Sinda, ‘An Interview With Paul Auster’ in Contemporary Literature (Vol.33, No.1, Spring 1992 pp1-23)
12 Denith, Simon, ‘The Shitty Urban Machine Humanised’ in Bell and Graham, eds, Watching the Detectives: Essays on Crime Fiction (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1990) page 24
13 Auster, 'City of Glass' page 9
14 Auster, 'City of Glass' page 13
15 Chandler, Raymond, The Big Sleep, 1939 (New York: Penguin, 1948) page 133
16 Auster, Paul, ‘The Locked Room’ in The New York Trilogy, page 209
17 Chandler, The Big Sleep, page 22
18 Chandler, The Long Goodbye, page 38
19 Willet, Ralph, The Naked City: Urban Crime Fiction in the USA (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) page 7
20 Little, page 157
21 Auster, 'City of Glass' page 123
22 Childs, Peter, Modernism, (London: Routledge, 2000) page 4
23 Chandler, Raymond, The Long Goodbye, 1953 (London: Pan, 1979) page 5
24 Horsley, Lee, The Noir Thriller (Houndsmill: Palgrave, 2001) page 39
25 Horsley, page 39
26 Chandler, The Long Goodbye, page 67
27 Chandler, The Long Goodbye, page 161
28 Chandler, The Big Sleep, page 154-155
29 Horsley, page 188
30 Auster, 'City of Glass' page 13
31 Little, page 137