<< zurück / back
Metafictional Representation of Reality in Paul Auster’s The Locked Room (1985)
The Locked Room, which is the last part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, a trilogy consisisting of three short novels, or rather novellas, is, in many respects, similar but also different within the context of other two novels in Auster’s Trilogy. The Locked Room is similar to City of Glass, and Ghosts, other two parts in the Trilogy because of the author´s thematization and treatment of writing, reading, fiction and reality, because of the depiction of lonelinness and alienation of the individual in the chaotic urban environment, because of author’s use of the motives of the doubles (Doppelganger), mystery and a search producing various connotations associated with both real life and fiction. It is, on the other hand, different especially because of the exclusion of the detective story pattern and its consequent parody from the narrative pattern of the novel. On a basic level, the narrative pattern of this novel is seemingly reminescent of a psychological novel about the relationship of two friends complicated by the love relationship and later a marriage of one of them, an unnamed narrator, with the the wife of the other one´s (Fanshawe’s) wife whose husband (Fanshawe) had suddenly disappeared and could be considered dead. In addition to this, it can also be understood as a story of a quest for identity of the individual and his attempt for reconciliation with the past and lost friendship. However, this realistic pattern is made more complicated by a thematization of writing and reading which manifests itself through Auster´s depiction of characters, his use of intertextual and intratextual elements including the metacommentary on fiction, writing techniques and literature in general.
In this Auster’s novel, an unnamed narrator is a writer as well as Fanshawe’s lost friend, and the dominant theme of this novel circles around the discovery and reconstruction of Fanshawe’s manuscripts and the narrator’s commentary on these manuscripts, which is supplemented by the quotations from, paraphrazing of and the commentaries on various literary and non-literary doccuments (Fanshawe´s, his mother and sister’s letters, diaries) . In addition to this, a narrator is not only a writer, but he also thematizes writing himself by his oral reconstruction of Fanshawe´s life, and by writing his biography simultaneously. Both the narrator and Fanshaw may represent different aspects of writing, different approach to life and the society creating a certain symbolic asymmetrical construction of two personalities. During the childhood and maturation as well as during the narrator´s and Fanshawe´s friendship Fanshawe dominates being a class leader, popular and famous sportsman (baseball player), while the narrator´s personality is suppressed and represents an inferior part of the friendship and an admirer of Fanshawe´s success. Fanshawe, as the narrator sees, him “was too at games for that, too central a figure among us to retreat into himself[…]He was the best baseball player, the best student, the best looking at of all the boys. Any one of these things would have been enough to give him special status—but together they made him seem heroic, a child who had been touched by the gods. Extraordinary as he was, however, he remained one of us”(Auster 1990: 253).
A narrator thus represents a supplement, physically and perhaps also emotionally different, suffering and introvert counterpart to Fanshawe, which all create two symbolic aspects of one personalities to which the narrator alludes at the very beginning saying “He was the one who was with me, the one who shared my thoughts, the one I saw whenever I looked up from myself”(Auster 1990:235).
Thus both narrator’s classmates from the basic and high schools and the narrator himself understand Fanshawe as an ideal to be achieved, a perfect friend, sportsman, and hero who, however, never boasted and emphasized his success since, as the narrator comments on it, “If he did well, it was always in spite of himself, with no struggle, no effort, not stake in the thing he had done”(Auster 1990: 251). Thus Fanshawe becomes a certain embodiment of the success in his childhood which is reminiscent of the success story as part of the concept of the American Dream. It is exactly this success (in sport, friendship, writing) which is envied by Fanshawe’s friends but which is put in the ironic context by Auster. Fanshawe’s way to success is unproblematic, natural, spontaneous and the success is not the main aim of his life through which the very nature of the American Dream is undermined. Despite his success, however, Fanshawe is not an aggressive and ambitious boy striving to achieve success, he is rather shy, calm, secluded, reticent and rejects all material and other luxury this success can bring. In addition to this, Fanshawe “had never had any regular work[…]nothing that could be called a real job. Money didn’t mean much to him, and he tried to think about it as little as possible”(Auster 1990:241).
Such Fanshawe’s rejection of material prosperity, success and fame is also associated with his writing. For him, writing is a matter of spiritual concentration and activity, not a way to achieve success with the readers, his writing becomes the main aim not a path to success and material prosperity, to the fulfillment of the American Dream. As his wife comments on his writing,
“He had never tried to publish. At first, when he was very young, he was too timid to send anything out, feeling that his work was not good enough. But even later, when his confidence had grown, he discovered that he preferred to stay in hiding. It would distract him to start looking for a publisher, he told her, and when it came right down to it, he would much rather spend his time on the work itself”(Auster 1990:242).
Auster’s construction of Fanshawe’s character thus shows the parodic and ironic reversal of the idea of the American Dream of success. For Fanshawe, the success is not the main aim and a path to a working career and material prosperity, but a way to spontaneous life and spirituality represented by writing. Auster’s depiction of Fanshawe represents first the achievement of all possible kinds of success (being a school hero, successful sportsman, a husband to a handsome, attractive and loving wife, later also a successful writer), but later its rejection represented by Fanshawe’s indifference to money, financial security, stable work, success (publication of his works) and an escape from his wife to seclusion, lonelinness and to the spiritual asylum. Such a rejection and escape represents a metaphorical rejection of physicality, success and a version of the American Dream his Fanshawe’s schoolmates and friends represent. These characters including an unnamed narrator and Fanshawe’s childhood friend create a counterpart to Fanshawe and a part of Auster’s assymetrical construction of the protagonists. The narrator (and his childhood friends) represents other, more typical, but also more negative aspects of the myth of the American Dream and the consequences it can bring. Success, fame and material prosperity being it associated with writing or real life in general becomes, in difference from Fanshaw, the main aim of his life and a success a matter of envy. As he comments on it,
“Especially as we grew older, I do not think I was ever entirely comfortable in his presence. If envy is too strong a word for what I am trying to say, then I would call it a suspicion, a secret feeling that Fanshawe was somehow better than I was”(Auster 1990: 247)[…]I would get so close to Fanshawe, would admire him so intensely, would want so desperately to measure up to him—and then, suddenly, a moment would come when I realized that he was alien to me, that the way he lived inside himself could never correspond to the way I needed to live. I wanted too much of things, I had too many desires, I lived too fully in the grip of the immediate ever to attain such indifference. It mattered to me that I do well, that I impress people with the empty signs of my ambition: good grades, varsity letters, awards for whatever it was they were judging us on that week. Fanshawe remained aloof from all that, quietly standing in his corner, paying no attention”(Auster 1990:251).
The narrator thus becomes the exact opposite to Fanshawe and his approach to the success being interested in ‘the empty signs of his ambition’, rather in the nature of the success and the activity it had brought it. In difference from Fanshawe, the success is rather a matter of hard work, endeavour and ambition than a talent and spontaneity, which concerns especially writing. The narrator comments on his own writing in a following way: “I had written a great many articles, it was true, but I did not see that as a cause for celebration, nor was I particularly proud of it. As far as I was concerned, it was just a little short of hack work[…]It was simpler to go on writing articles in any case. By working hard, by moving steadily from one piece to the next, I could more or less earn a living—and, for whatever it was worth, I had the pleasure of seeing my name in print almost constantly[…]I was not quite thirty, and already I had something of a reputation. I had begun with reviews of poetry and novels, and now I could write about nearly anything and do a creditable job. Movies, plays, art shows, concerts, books, even baseball games—they had onlyto ask me, and I would do it. The world saw me as a bright young fellow, a new critic on the rise, but inside myself I felt old, already used up. What I had done so far amounted to a mere fraction of nothing at all. It was so much dust, and the slightest wind would blow it away”(Auster 1990: 244-245).
Both characters, an unnamed narrator and Fanshawe, represent two different kinds of personalities, two different principles through which Auster addresses the idea of success, American Dream, and writing. Fanshawe represents honesty, spontaneity, a rejection of material and public aspects of fame and success, freedom through spirituality and seclusion and writing as a matter of talent and gift, while un unnamed narrator is a representative of superficial, public and commercial aspects of success, American Dream and writing. Writing becomes rather a matter of a hard work and practise than a talent and spontaneity as represented by a narrator. Both these characters, however, create two aspects of one allegorical personality, two sides of life, success, and writing. The envy, ambiton and an attempt to achieve success (American Dream) manifests itself in Auster’s further construction of his unnamed narrator. His marrying Fanshaw’s wife (and thus getting a nice woman), cohabiting with his mother, and a writing biography about him is a metaphorical compensation for his friend’s success, a way to achieve an ideal in a different way, through the following Fanshawe’s steps and life.
Thematization of Writing
According to Owens,
“In allegorical structure[…]one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent, or chaotic their relationship may be; the paradigm for the allegorical work is thus the palimpsest[…]Conceived in this way, allegory becomes the model of all commentary, all critique, insofar as these are involved in rewriting a primary text in terms terms of its figural meaning”(Owens 1992: 54).
Owens further observes that “Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter[…]He does not restore an original meaning that may be have been lost or obscured[…]Rather, he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however, he does so only to replace; the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement”(Owens 1992:54).
Depicting the character and constructing the story, Auster uses the symbols and symbolic imagery which all produce an allegorical effect associated with writing. Writing as a theme is derived from the primary meaning of the story, it can be identified and derived from this basic meaning through the re-construction of Auster’s symbolism and imagery. This allegorical meaning is not subordinate meaning, this meaning is equal to the primary meaning, it becomes its supplement and replacement. As has been mentioned above, on the primary, basic level a novel Locked Room can be read as a psychological modernist novel on the marriage life and crisis of the middle age man with mysterious, detective and Gothic elements (disappereance of Fanshawe, his mysterious letters, unnamed narrator’s search for him, the depiction of fear and psychological depression of the unnamed narrator). Systematically using symbolism and imagery of writing as well as the motif of the doppelganger Auster, however, turns the readers’s attention to the process of reading, writing, and interpretation, their various aspects as well as around the relationship between life and its artistic/linguistic representation. The basic narrative line circles around the reconstruction of Fanshawe’s life, his literary works by different protagonists (his wife, an unnamed narrator, his sister and mother) although it is set within the story of the middle-aged couple (an unnamed narrator and Fanshawe’s wife). In addition to this, most of the protagonists become in direct or inderect way writers either telling or writing the stories or about the stories. The idea of telling, of the narrative is a matter of the artistic process which is supported by the protagonists’ role of the commentators on and intepreters of both life and literary and artistic works in this Auster’s novel. These metacommentaries make a reader realize the fictitious status of the flow of narration reconstructing either Fanshawe’s personality or his work In addition to this, the juxtaposition of these commentaries and the unnamed narrator’s voice pretending to reconstruct both his and Fanshawe’s life become equal, become the same aspects of the process of telling understood as an artistic activity.
The narrator’s status of the teller, reconstructor and especially interpreter is emphasized at the very beginning of Auster’s novel evoking the similarity and giving the intertextual allusion to E.A. Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. The unnamed narrator, similarly than a narrator in Poe’s story, receives a letter from his childhood friend’s wife (from Roderick Usher in Poe’s story) asking him about Fanshawe, and to come to discuss the value of the literary and other works Fanshawe wrote but never published.. An unnamed narrator’s reading of Fanshawe wife’s letter becomes an act of reading and interpretation, as well as an attempt to reconstruct the meaning and reveal the truth. He comments on the letter in a following way:
“Seven years ago this November, I received a letter from a woman named Sophie Fanshawe. “You don’t know me,” the letter began, “and I apologize for writing to you like this out of the blue. But things have happenned, and under the circumstances I don’t have much choice”[…]
The explanation came in the second paragraph, very bluntly, without any preamble. Fanshawe had disappeared, she wrote, and it was more than six months since she had las seen him[…]This letter caused a series of little shocks in me.”(Auster 1990: 235-236).
This position of a narrator of both an interpreter and creator of the story is supported by his retelling of Fanshawe wife’s life and her relationship to Fanshawe from a position of a third person, an omniscient narrator which allots him a position of the teller and reconstructor of other man’s story, an interpreter, but especially a creator of the new narrative which is supported by his omniscient (God-like) position, as can be seen from the following example:
“With the baby in her lap, she told me the story of Fanshawe’s disappearance.
They had met in New York three years ago. Within a month they had moved in together[…]”(Auster 1990:238).
The narrator’s omniscient position is a position of a narrator reminiscent of a narrator from the realistic literature who tries to imitate, copy reality and evoke the illusion of the truthfullness and objectivity of the physical reality through its narrative imitation. Such a position, however, supports his status of the derivativeness, secondarinness since he only retells Fanshawe wife’s story. The idea of the derivativenness and secondarinness is further supported by the narrator’s position (occupation) of a reviewer (reviewing as an act of not primary creation, but as an act of commenting on the already created work), and by his further status of an inferior friend (weaker, less successful), and the replaced husband of Fanshawe’s wife and a father to his child, and later by his position of the author of biography of Fanshawe´s life. Thus the narrator´s status of a reviewer, biographer, reconstructor of Fanshawe´s life creates his derivative, secondary position since being in this status he must heavily rely on facts and on the imatation, not on a creation of reality. At the same time, this position suppresses creativity and freedom the narrator could gain as an independent writer of fiction. Auster constructs the derivativenness as juxtaposed to originality, creativity and spontaneity through the depiction of an unnamed narrator. The realization of the unnamed narrator´s status of derivativenness means his attempt to get rid of this derivativenness and inferior position and an act of liberation. The early traces of the narrator’s attempt to become creative rather than derivative, that is original, are expressed through his attempt to find the other, figurative and symbolic meaning of the factographic document which Fanshawe’s letter represents. As the narrator having read this letter comments on it:
”I read the letter over and over, trying to pull it apart, looking for an opening, a way to read between the lines—but nothing came of it. The attempt to get inside it. In the end I gave up, put the leter in a drawer of my desk, and admitted that I was lost, that nothing would ever be the same for me again”(Auster 1990:282).
The last sentence does not indicate only a possible change of the narrator’s life situation (because allegedly dead Fanshawe has sent him a letter confirming he was alive), but figuratively also a change of his status of an inferior and derivative supplement to Fanshawe. This change stems exactly from his realization of his inability to be creative, to find a figurative meaning, a meaning ‘between the lines’, which is a manifestation of the realization of his position. The process of growing independence, abandonement of the inferior position, and gaining a status of the original, creative author continues and manifests itself in a following scene where the narrator comments on his status of both a derivative and creative writer:
“There was never any discussion of telling the truth. Fanshawe had to be dead, or else the book would make no sense. Not only would I have to leave the letter out, but I would have to pretend that it had never been written. I make no bones about what I was planning to do. It was clear to me from the beginning, and I plunged into it with deceit in my heart. The book was a work of fiction. Even though it was based on facts, it could tell nothing but lies. I signed the contract, and afterwards I felt like a man who had signed away his soul.”(Auster 1990: 291)
Thus the narrator reveals his position of a future writer of fiction however heavily it could rely on facts. Writing biography would mean to use, as Hayden White says, the same narrative method both faction (history) and fiction writers use (White, 1978) but, in addition to this, the presence of living subject of the narrator’s study (and his narration— Fanshawe) can always deny the narrator’s treatment of his life and facts, which means that the objective truth cannot be proved, and the biography must necessarily become a fictional work. Thus the narrator realizes his position of the future fiction rather than faction author and his status changes from a passive reader, to an active interpreter and finally a creative author himself. This realization and the revelation of the narrator’s status of a creative author fully manifests itself in Auster’s depiction of this narrator later in his part-time job as a census-taker. Doing this job he is transforming from a position of recorder and interpreter of reality to the position of a creator, constructor of reality through fiction, which means the applies the principles of fictional narration to the situation which requires single recording. Manipulating with facts and figures to satisfy the governmental research (Auster 1990:292-293) he becomes a creative author (inventor rather recorder) who realizes the pleasure of creative writing which manifests itself in a following scene: ”My field work had turned into desk work, and instead of an investigator I was now an inventor[…] I don’t know how many people I invented—but there must have been hundreds of them, perhaps thousands[…]I would sit in my room[…]filling out questionnaires[…] I went in for big households—six, eight, ten children—and took special pride in concocting odd and complicated networks of relationships, drawing on all the possible combinations: parents, children, cousins, uncles, aunts, grand-parents[…]Most of all, there was the pleasure of making up names. At times I had to curb my impulse towards the outlandish—the fiercely comical, the pun, the dirty word—but for the most part I was content to stay within the bounds of realism. When my imagination flagged, there were certain mechanical devices to fall back on: the colors (Brown, White, Black[…]), the Presidents (Washington, Adams[…]), fictional characters (Finn, Starbuck,[…])”(Auster 1990: 294).
These comments are the proof of the narrator’s transformation from a recorder, interpreter to a fictional author realizing and endulging in his status of an author commenting on the narrative method he uses. The pleasure of writing and of creating reality manifests itself in the narrator’s further comments on his falsification and manipulation of the census data:
“That was on one level. At the heart of it was the simple fact that I was enjoying myself. It gave me a pleasure to pluck names out of thin air, to invent lives that had never existed, that never would exist. It was not precisely like making up characters in a story, but something grander, something far more unsettling”(Auster 1990:294).
This realization of creativity, authenticity becomes the realization of the truthfullness and value of the story telling, art and fiction which, in the narrator’s view, can represent reality not only more truthfully, but they can even influence reality itself literally. As he comments on it, “Everyone knows that stories are imaginary. Whatever effect they might have on us, we know they are not true, even when they tell us truths more important than the ones we can find elsewhere. As opposed to the story writer, I was offering my creations directly to the real world, and therefore it seemed possible to me that they could affect this real world in a real way, that they could eventually become a part of the real itself. No writer could ask for more than that”(Auster 1990:295).
The narrator’s vision of reality through the story-telling and reality creating creates a metaphor not only of the importance, but also of the equality of reality and fiction. Fiction is thus not understood as separate, desolate, different activity, but as equal to human life. The narrator’s status of a creator rather than imitator of reality, an author rather than a recorder is further supported by the play with and the mystification of his identity after his separation from his wife for some time and going to France following the places Fanshawe had formerly visited. He calls a Tahitian prostitute Fayaway who is the character from Melville’s novella Typee, and himself Melville (who is the American author) and uses Melville’s story to explain his background to Fayaway. Finally, he deliberately identifies an American coming to the bar as Fanshawe and behaves to him as if to real Fanshawe, an old friend. This mystification of his own identity with fictional characters and creating a new identity of a newcoming American represents the act of writing and realizing his creative potential as a writer which evokes a pleasure of writing, creating the stories. As he says:
“My happinness was immeasurable. I exulted in the sheer falsity of my assertion, celebrating the new power I had just bestowed upon myself. I was the sublime alchemist who could change the world at will. This man was Fanshawe because I said he was Fanshawe, and that was all there was to it”(Auster 1990:348).
The narrator’s position becomes now a position of a creator, an alchemist creating the things out of nothing.
Despite his absence, Fanshawe becomes a manipulator of the narrator’s life (carefully planned escape, the anticipation of the narrator´s later marriage with his wife, and organizing a meeting with a narrator through his letters) reminiscent of a writer of fiction manipulating with his characters. As Chris Pace argues, Fanshawe
“[…]has become a character in a work of fiction by Fanshawe; actions that previously seemed acts of free choice or of the will become, in light of Fanshawe’s letter, scripted and planned by Fanshawe from the start[…] The narrator’s life has become so entwined with Fanshawe’s that he no longer has a life that is truly his own; he is now nothing more than a character in one of Fanshawe’s creations[…] (Pace).
The narrator’s realization of Fanshawe’s plotting and manipulation as well as his further mystification of reality becomes an act of liberation, and act giving him the status of authorial independence, creativity and originality. On the level of physical reality, life, this also manifests itself in the narrator’s initial plan to find and kill Fanshawe and to escape from his family to get rid of Fanshawe’s influence, and later of the revelation of the derivativennes of this plan and his own position of a victim, a subject of Fanshawe’s plotting. As he says,
“There were times when little scenes would flash through my head—of strangling Fanshawe, of stabbing him, of shooting him in the heart—but others had died similar deaths inside me over the years, and I did not pay much attention to them. The strange thing was not that I might have wanted to kill Fanshawe, but that I sometimes imagined he wanted me to kill him”(Auster 1990:317).
The narrator’s transition from a dependent, derivative and uncreative reader to a creative, independent and original author is fully manifested in the final scenes of the novel during his meeting with Fanshawe. The narrator is given a journal reminiscent the last Fanshawe’s work from Fanshawe and is asked to read it as a journal by Fanshawe, but starting to read it he comments on it:
”I read steadily for almost an hour, flipping back and forth among the pages, trying to get a sense of what Fanshawe had written. If I say nothing about what I found there, it is because I understood very little. All the words were familiar to me, and yet they seemed to have been put together strangely, as though their final purpose was to cancel each other out[…]I lost my way after the first word, and from then on I could only grop ahead, faltering in the darkness, blinded by the book that had been written for me[…]
I wandered out to the tracks several minutes in advance. It was raining again, and I could see my breath in the air before me, leaving my mouth in little burst of fog. One by one, I tore the pages from the notebook, crumpled them in my hand, and dropped them into a trash bin on the platform. I came to the last page just as the train was pulling out”(Auster 1990:370-371).
Despite earlier realization of Fanshawe’s influence on the narrator’s life and writing, the narrator again takes up a derivative, secondary position of a reader and interpreter as well as a victim of his plans, but the final rejection to read, interpret, and even to deal with Fanshawe’s final book becomes an act of final liberation from his influence in real life (he refused to kill him) and in writing, and, at the same time, a beginning of his creative role as an author being it a creative reader or the author of the books. This position of a creative rather than derivative reader manifests itself in the narrator’s discovery of Fanshawe’s trick— Fanshawe’s notebook reminiscent of a notebook, faction rather than fiction, which gives a reconstruction of his life and is asked by Fanshawe to be read as such a genre becomes a different kind of writing as understood by the narrator which is not difficult to interpret but also to read. The narrator thus rejects his inferior status of a reader and interpreter and, as summarized in the final paragraph, becomes free and indepedent both man and author who is about to start his new career, life and status which is expressed through the metaphor of a leaving train suggesting a new way, a new path, and a new (different) future. As Pace
“The narrator reclaims his identity, finally, by reclaiming his creative power. At the same moment that he comes closest to a severe mental breakdown and even death, the narrator rediscover his power as a creator, as an author[…]Once the narrator realizes that he is going to recover from his wounds, that he has faced his enemy and survived, then he is truly freed from the power that Fanshawe had over him. His creator is not dead, but he no longer has any power over his creation. The narrator has escaped from the locked room at last[…](Pace)
As Pace further comments, now on the last scene from Auster’s The Locked Room, after throwing away Fanshawe’s book, “There remains no more trace of Fanshawe, and the story is now ended on the narrator’s terms[…](Pace). This final scene thus means
“the completion of his[the narrator’s] relationship with Fanshawe—he has turned the tables and taken control by creating a fiction about the fiction that Fanshawe created. Now the narrator is the creator and Fanshawe is the character. It is now the narrator who is able to decide where things end and where they begin, and it is Fanshawe who is now trapped inside someone else’s fiction.(Pace).
It is not only writing, but also death and killing which play a significant role in Auster’s construction of meaning and allegorical play with words. The narrator’s intentions to kill Fanshawe’s mother, people who he had something in common (a prostitute, an unknown American in France) and Fanshawe himself are, on the basic level, the intentions to become free and independent physical being in a real life. The final rejection to kill Fanshawe at the end of the book is a manifestation of the narrator’s realization of Fanshawe’s power as plotter and manipulator, and of his own independence. As Pace argues, the narrator,
“[…]once he becomes conscious that he is a character in Fanshawe’s artifice of self-annihilation, can take control of his life again by refusing to complete the structure that Fanshawe has crafted around him[…] Just as the narrator has taken back control of his life despite the continued existence of Fanshawe, so can the rest of us become more aware of our creative powers over our own lives despite the existence of fate and circumstance”(Pace).
Secondly, the narrator, at the same time, is initially a reviewer and an author reminiscent of traditional (or derivative-reviews) writing and his intention to kill Fanshawe may be a symbolic manifestation of an attempt to kill, destroy and control creativity and new, different kind of writing, different from the narrator’s writing. One of Fanshawe’s last novels is entitled Neverland and is referred to as
“Not…typical novel[…]Not[…]typical anything[…]But Fanshawe’s book stands out. There’s something powerful about it, and the oddest thing is that I don’t even know what it is”(Auster 1990:271), as a publisher says in his last words. And the narrator comments on the last Fanshawe’s notebook/book in a following way:
”Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible[…]He had answered the questions by asking another question, and therefore everything remained open, unfinished, to be started again[…]It is as if Fanshawe knew his final work had to subvert every expectation I had for it[…]I felt there was something too willed, something too perfect, as though in the end the only thing he had really wanted was to fail—even to the point of failing himself(Auster 1990:370).
The comments on Fanshawe’s books as untraditional, subversive, using a method of a mirroring and self-reflexive structure is reminiscent of the narrative strategies of the postmodernist fiction which thus Fanshawe’s book seems to be. The narrator, however, initially represents writing based on the mimetic (traditional, imitative) principle reminiscent of traditional mimetic writing, despite this writing are mostly reviews, essays and an intended biography. Thus the narrator’s intention to kill Fanshawe shows a symbolic struggle of traditional writing with an innovative and postmodernist writing, which finally fails and what wins is this new, postmodernist and innovative writing and a creative potential of such writing represented by both Fanshawe (who is not killed) and the narrator who eventually becomes a symbolic and potential author and creator. Thus it is neither the narrator nor Fanshawe who wins at the end, but creative imagination and story-telling both these characters represent at the end of the book. As Pace argues,
“One the narrator realizes that he is going to recover from his wounds, that he has faced his enemy and survived, then he is truly freed from the power that Fanshawe had over him. His creator is not dead, but he no longer has any power over his creation. The narrator has escaped from the locked room at last”(Pace).
Third, the imagery of death may refer to the traditional and new, creative reader status, a status which can able him/her realize his creative potential and become a partner in the construction of the author’s meaning rather than passive receiver of the, let us say, only primary meaning of the literary text. The narrator’s intentions to kill Fanshawe’s mother, an unknown American in France, and, finally Fanshawe represents his status of a ‘mimetic’ reader of reality. These narrator’s intentions to kill people mean the application of the principles of physical reality (the narrator’s belief that killing the controllers can remove control itself), but the narrator’s realization of Fanshawe’s control and manipulation as well as the narrator’s final rejection to kill him means a realization of the existence of other than physical reality, that is a reality constructed by the work of art, by fiction. In other words, the narrator’s transition from a potential killer, murderer to a saver of the intended victims by his refusal to kill them, and finally to a creator of stories (telling his version of the encounter with Fanshawe, that is also Fanshaw’s story) is a transition from a traditional, simplistic reader to a creative reader, a reader participating in the authors’s construction of the plot and meaning. It is exactly a status of a reader required especially by the postmodernist fiction Auster’s The Locked Room and the whole New York trilogy represents. In addition to this, it is a position of a reader post-structuralist theories emphasize. Alan Bilton referring to Rorty and his understanding of the construction of meaning argues that
“Meaning is wholly linguistic. Which is not to say that real snakes don’t exist or that they don’t slither— only that the meaning of the words ‘slither’or ‘snake’ is wholly a linguistic matter, separate from the actual living thing”(Bilton 2002:71).
In additon to this, Dragana Nikolic observes that in postmodernism
“The meaning has become whatever one wishes to become, the result of endless play of signification. The relation between signifier and signified is not defined as a unity that is outside the text, it is rather manifested as the arbitrary relation between the word and its concept”(Nikolic).
Thus Auster’s narrator from The Locked Room also represents not only creative, but at the end also a post-structuralist reader and interpreter of reality which is manifested in his realization of his position of a traditional reader and consequently a creator of new (linguistic, textual) reality and meaning. In other words, now he is the one who gives the meaning to the text and the world through the creation of his own story/ies, not an author as in traditional Aristotelian poetics (see Nikolic).
Thus in difference from Coover’s short stories or Vonnegut’s novel discussed above, Auster’s thematization of writing and reading as analyzed above creates metafictional effect and what Craig Owens called an allegorical impulse (Owens, 1992). The thematization of writing is further achieved by Auster’s use of intertextual and intratextual elements and the allusions to and comments on writing (Fanshawe is a character from the first novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fanshawe, similarly, as the main character from Hawthorne’s short story Wakefield mysteriously disappears despite leading quite a comfortable life with his wife, and lives an isolated and lonely life in seclusion, Fayaway, a Tahitian girl the narrator meets, is a character from Melville’s fiction, the narrator being in France claims that his name is Melville; the detective Sophie, Fanshawe’s wife had hired to find him, is named Quinn, which is a name of the detective from the first part of The New York Trilogy (The City of Glass); throughout the whole novel a metacommentary on and the interpretation of various discourses such as Fanshawe’s and his sister’s letters, diary, his as well as the narrator’s reviews and works occurs).
It can be said that Auster thematization of writing is achieved through his use of the allegorical principle. On the primary level, The Locked Room can be read as modernist psychological novel on friendship and love, or on the relation between an artist and life, or as a story of a romantic retreat of an artist from reality, but on the allegorical level (postmodern allegory in Owens’s understanding, not a traditional allegory) it is a story on the relationship between the traditional and post-structuralist/postmodernist and creative reader, between the author and his work, between traditional and innovative writing, between real physical and linguistic/textual reality which are all the issues of post-structuralism and postmodern writing. Auster’s depiction of the narrator´s search for Fanshawe, who is a writer, is a symbolic search for the author and meaning, and a deliberate separation and retreat of Fanshawe from the family and especially from his work symbolically shows the problematization of the author and the authorship. Despite the narrator’s attempt to find the meaning in Fanshawe´s work through the reconstruction of his life and a search for him (that is for the subject), the author (subject) is missing, ‘decentred’, and the meaning can be constructed not by finding the author, but by constructing the meaning by a creative reader who the narrator gradually becomes. In other words, a text and its meaning can exist without the presence of an author, the author, as Roland Barthes would say, is dead (Barthes), and the meaning is created through the creative reading of the text and through the analysis of the relationships between different texts rather than between an author and his text. In Derriderian terms, the meaning can be everywhere (Derrida, 1972) depending on the reader´s ability to reconstruct and justify it. As Nikolic argues referring to Auster’s depiction of Fanshawe and his deliberate escape and both literal and symbolic separation from his work,
“The more the poet watches the outside, the more he becomes aware that the world does not correspond to a definite pattern of knowledge. The meaning has become whatever one wishes to become, the result of endless play of signification. The relation between signifier and signified is not defined as a unity that is outside the text, it is rather manifested as the arbitrary relation between the word and its concept[…]In a constant shifting of meaning, the words do not point to something outside the language, rather meaning is achieved through their endless interaction and combination. Meaning has become the activity of reading, a matter of interpretation, as the text shifts away from the author”(Nikolic).
Auster points out these ideas through his depiction of the relationship between Fanshawe and the narrator, between the narrator and his and Fanshawe´s writing. The narrator´s realization of his own status as a creator and his final rejection to kill Fanshawe is the realization of the meaninglessness of identifying the author (subject) with his work as well as the realization of the independence of the literary text and its meaning from the author, or from the meaning the author might have intended. Bertens argues, “[…]‘decentring’ of the subject and the infinite deferment of meaning are central to poststructural postmodernism (Bertens 1991: 133). Foster similarly to Bertens identifies a poststructural postmodernism which, in his view
“asssumes ‘the death of man’ not only as original creator of unique artifacts but also as the centered subject of representation and history” (Foster 1984:67).
In Foster’s view, it “launches a critique in which representation is shown to be more constitutive of reality than transparent to us”(Foster 1984: 67). Thus it can be said Auster’s metafiction employed in his The Locked Room is mostly based on allegorical principle. This allegory points out poststructuralist concerns with the relationship between an author and his work, reality and fiction, the nature of the writer (subject) and artistic meaning which qualifies this work, should we use Berten’s and Newman’s terminology, a poststructuralist postmodernism. In addition to this, Auster’s use of the doubles in the narrative structure shows different kinds of people and writers who are constructed in a way to give a critique of some of the basic aspects of American cultural identity, that is a critique of the success story, an American Dream. This is manifested through Auster’s depiction of Fanshawe as a successful and later potentially rich author because of the success of his books, and in his consequent rejection of this status by his denying to enjoy both life and material prosperity his writing could bring him. Nina Vietorová argues that
“Certain ‘subjects’ – ‘problems’seem to employ Auster’s attention more than others, namely his concentrated interest in the position of man in the world, our feeling of being lost, our tendency, intention to be anonymous, locked in oneself, isolated from the environment of the outer world. For Auster as a typical postmodern writer of a broad spectrum of interests the loss or split of identity represents priority”(Vietorová 2003: 14).
On the other hand, the narrator’s enjoying life, sex and physical reality to which he eventually returns after a willing separation from his wife, family and final meeting with Fanshawe is a manifestation of the opposite aspects of the same personality associated with success and the American Dream. The narrator’s return to reality means a return to the physical, material and consumerist world, a return back to confirm the American Dream. But since the ending is open and Fanshawe continues to live, stay in separation and rejecting physical reality, success and American Dream, he represents a rejection and a critique of it by a deliberate escape and seclusion from all atvantages the American Dream and succes could bring him.
Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. City of Glass.Ghosts.The Locked Room. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1990.
Barthes, Roland. „The Death of the Author.“ Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana, 1977. 142-148.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”. Macksey, Richard, Donato, Eugenio (eds.). The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore, 1972. 247-265.
Fokkema, Aleid. Postmodern Characters: A Study of Characterization in British and American Postmodern Fiction. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 1991.
Foster, Hal. “(Post)Modern Polemics.” New German Critique 33 (1984): 67-79.
Bertens, Hans. “Postmodern Culture(s)” Smyth, Edmund J.(ed.). Postmodernism and Contemporary Fiction. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1991.123-137.
Nikolic, Dragana. „Paul Auster‘s Postmodernist Fiction: Deconstructing Aristotle‘s ‘Poetics’“. Available at http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/articles/aristotle.html
Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford:University of California Press, 1992. 52-87.
Pace, Chris. “Escaping from the Locked Room: Overthrowing the Tyranny of Artifice in Paul Auster‘s New York Trilogy“ Available at http://www.bluecricket.com/auster/articles/thesis.html