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Paul Auster$

Mark Brown

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780719073960

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719073960.001.0001

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(p.67) 3 Downtown
Paul Auster

Mark Brown

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines Auster's characters and follows their descent, their rescue and their subsequent recovery from social and linguistic failure. It also considers several of Auster's later novels, namely The Brooklyn Follies and Oracle Night. This chapter also deals with the themes of urban redemption and briefly discusses these texts.

Keywords:   social failure, linguistic failure, The Brooklyn Follies, Oracle Night, urban redemption

[H]ow deeply and passionately most of us live within ourselves. Our attachments are ferocious. Our loves overwhelm us, define us, obliterate the boundaries between ourselves and others

(Auster, True Tales of American Life, 2001: xvii)

For Auster's writer-characters, as the preceding chapters have shown, ‘the word’ is a way of being in the world, and in particular the metropolitan world of New York. Moon Palace and Leviathan, like The New York Trilogy, chart their central character's descent into the abyss of linguistic and social failure. However, unlike the Trilogy, the novels then go on to explore how characters can emerge from this void. This chapter, then, will trace Auster's characters through their descent, their rescue and their subsequent recovery. Auster's later novels, Oracle Night (2004) and The Brooklyn Follies (2005), also deal with the themes of urban redemption, and I will discuss these texts briefly at the end of the chapter.

Auster again adopts the figure of an abyss to represent the absolute solitude (social disconnection) and ‘the wordless panic’ of an ‘aphasic’ episode discussed in Chapter 1. In contrast, though, the novels which form the focus of this chapter, Moon Palace and Leviathan, represent a more optimistic period of Auster's career. This is because he presents the possibility of a fragile metropolitan stability and coherence. The central characters in these texts experience the chasm of linguistic and social failure before undergoing a kind of metropolitan redemption when rescued by lovers and caring friends. It is my contention in this chapter that these friends emerge from social networks which extend across New York City. These networks inhabit very particular spaces – bars, restaurants, dinner parties and art galleries. Ray Oldenburg calls (p.68) these the ‘great good places’ (in the book of that name): ‘informal public gathering places’ that become a part ‘of the citizen's daily life’ (Oldenburg, 1989: xxviii). The pivotal ‘rescuers’ emerging from these networks and places are women artists. As artists versed in spatial and visual media (dance and photography) rather than writers, these women mediate their metropolitan environment through non-verbal sign systems rather than language. Through the resulting spatial and linguistic competence, the urban rescuers are able to contribute to the recovery of the condition of a fully social being for the ‘fallen’ characters, which is demonstrated by an effective relationship with language, and is subsequently manifested in writing. The relative coherence of each character's language function becomes a measure of her or his place in that process. This chapter traces the path for the central figures of each novel, examining the specific social and environmental conditions that first shape their descent, the chance encounters which then make possible their rescue, and their subsequent slow recovery. In doing so, it explores how Auster presents social networks of friends and lovers able to support a relatively stable sense of identity, which, however, remains temporary and fragile.

As with Auster's earlier work, linguistic instability prefigures mental and social breakdown. In Moon Palace, Marco Stanley (M. S.) Fogg inherits his Uncle Victor's book collection, and he sets out to read it all. However, his personal life is in crisis and his language function has deteriorated to the point where the written word is indecipherable, each symbol becoming indistinguishable from others. ‘I could feel my eyes making contact with the words on the page’, he records:

but no meanings rose up to me anymore, no sounds echoed in my head. The black marks seemed wholly bewildering, an arbitrary collection of lines and curves that divulged nothing but their own muteness [but] … [i]f I couldn’t see the words, at least I wanted to touch them. Things had become so bad for me by then, this actually seemed to make sense.

(Auster, 1992a: 30–1)

Much later, after experiencing the very bottom of the chasm separating the material world from language, and then ascending from it, Fogg is required to describe everyday metropolitan objects to his blind employer, Effing. Initially he struggles, ‘piling too many words on top of each other’ such that the object is not revealed, but is buried ‘under an avalanche of subtleties and geometric abstractions’ (Auster, 1992a: 123). Fogg labours to bring the word to the world so that, like (p.69) the flower that ‘blooms in a stranger's mouth’ in the poem ‘Scribe’, it can be shared between language users. ‘The world enters us through our eyes’, Fogg writes, echoing Auster's 1967 ‘manifesto’:

but we cannot make sense of it until it descends to our mouths… . Inactual terms, it was no more than two or three inches, but considering how many accidents and losses could occur along the way, it might just as well have been a journey from the earth to the moon.

(Auster, 1992a: 122)

In time, however, Fogg comes to realise that he needs to help Effing ‘see things for himself’, because ‘[i]n the end, the words didn’t matter’ (Auster, 1992a: 122). The task of words, he tells us:

was to enable him to apprehend the objects as quickly as possible, and in order to do that, I had to make them [the words] disappear the moment they were pronounced… . I took to practising when I was alone … going around the objects in the room… . I don’t think there was any questionthat I improved, but that does not mean I was ever entirely satisfied with my efforts. The demands of words are too great for that; one meets with failure too often to exult in the occasional success.

(Auster, 1992a: 123)

In this episode, the inadequacy of language to the complexities of the New York environment is apparent, but the relationship between word and object is much more stable than in the earlier passage. Fogg is able to will ontological stability into the world by naming the objects in his room, but unlike Blue in ‘Ghosts’, Fogg is also able to take this linguistic coherence out into the streets with him.

The story of Leviathan is the story of Benjamin Sachs's destruction as he falls unchecked into the abyss, and the struggle of his friend, Paul Aaron, to tell that story.1 As the narrative progresses it is apparent that Aaron comes to occupy a similar coherent social and linguistic space as that previously occupied by his friend. Aaron's relationship with language, like Fogg's, is troublesome, but through the course of the narrative it achieves some degree of stability and coherence. However, he too is unable to achieve the full accommodation with language that Auster associates with the motif of Edenic innocence, which he employs here once again.

Aaron tells us that for Sachs ‘the words always seemed to be there for him, as if he had found a secret passageway that ran straight from his head to the tips of his fingers… . Words and things matched up for him … , and because Sachs himself was hardly even aware of it, he seemed to live in a state of perfect innocence’ (Auster, 1993: 49–50). (p.70) Sachs seems to have a prelapsarian relationship with language, but for Aaron the opposite is true. He describes his own relationship with language in this way:

The smallest word is surrounded by acres of silence for me, and even after I manage to get that word down on the page, it seems to sit there like a mirage, a speck of doubt glimmering in the sand. Language has never been accessible to me in the way that it was for Sachs. I’m shut off from my own thoughts, trapped in a no-man's-land between feeling and articulation… . [F]or me [words] are constantly breaking apart, flying off in a hundred different directions.

(Auster, 1993: 49)

The figurative notion of language fragmenting and physically disintegrating resonates both with Jameson's description of the failure of the ‘signifying chain’ and Sachs's ultimate fate. In the first sentence of the book we are told that Sachs has been literally blown apart by his own bomb at the side of a lonely highway in northern Wisconsin (Auster, 1993: 1). On his journey from linguistic innocence to disintegration Sachs loses his power of speech, destroys his marriage and abandons his facility with the written word.

These episodes are triggered by a fall from a fourth-floor fire escape during the Statue of Liberty centennial celebrations, which takes on the linguistic characteristics of the fall of Adam. Sachs miraculously survives, but is thrust into the same postlapsarian state to which Adam and mankind are condemned after the banishment from Eden and the destruction of the Tower of Babel. After the fall, ‘[t]he garrulous, irrepressible Sachs had fallen silent, and it seemed logical to assume that he had lost the power of speech, that the jolt to his head had caused grave internal damage’ (Auster, 1993: 109). He tells Aaron that every time he attempted to write he ‘would break out in a cold sweat’, his ‘head would spin’ and he would feel like he was falling again from the fire escape – experiencing ‘the same panic, the same feeling of helplessness, the same rush toward oblivion’ (Auster, 1993: 226). Later, Aaron employs similar language of social disconnection and a drive to self-destruction to describe Sachs's who has become ‘a solitary speck in the American night, hurtling towards his destruction in a stolen car’ (Auster, 1993: 237). In contrast, Aaron's relationship with language has become more coherent as he achieves stability and harmony in his own life, which Auster figures once again as a kind of innocence. As we shall see shortly, Aaron's innocence stands in opposition to Sachs's literal temptation and fall, and his consequent postlapsarian state. This (p.71) innocence places Aaron in a similar linguistic position to the one Sachs had previously occupied, prompting Sachs to entrust his story to Aaron. Sachs writes a note to Aaron, telling him, ‘you’ll know how to tell it to others… . Your books prove that, and when everything is said and done, you’re the only person I can count on. You’ve gone so much farther than I ever did… . I admire you for your innocence’ (Auster, 1993: 236). How Aaron achieves this innocent linguistic state is, in part, influenced by his metropolitan experiences and the social spaces that he inhabits. The common thread in the New York experiences of Fogg, Sachs and Aaron is their inclusion in artistic social groups – of dancers, writers and photographers. The outcome of each character's narrative depends on the development of their relationships with individuals from these groups. Also, both of these novels are intensely metropolitan texts, and New York is central to the experiences of the protagonists. New York in these novels represents a place to live, socialise, make art of, get destroyed by and get put back together in.

In Moon Palace and Leviathan, Auster's representation of the alienating properties of the metropolis has developed to encompass the possible recuperation of some form of urban equilibrium. Even in the early and most nihilistic phase of his writing, Auster had suggested a glimmer of hope in locating a coherent sense of self for the Narrator through the character of Sophie. As we have seen, the Narrator finds his ‘true place in the world’ between himself and Sophie. In ‘The Locked Room’, Auster was only able to suggest how the isolated individual might emerge from his solitude. Through his ferocious attachment to Sophie, the Narrator begins to obliterate the boundary between himself and the world. These later texts, though, demonstrate that it is possible to uncover small-scale and personal connections in the metropolis. That is, each character apprehends the metropolis through a sensual contact with the physical places that constitute their personal New York, and their contact with people in an immediate (and here artistic) social circle. However, these characters do not venture beyond their immediate environment, and so remain unaware of the vast array of urban possibilities which stretch beyond. As a consequence, the stability they do find is contingent on the material conditions of the moment, and is quickly threatened when those conditions change. That is to say, because of the multitudinous nature of the contemporary metropolis, personal and social conditions are constantly in flux, and so the relationships Fogg, Sachs and Aaron form remain provisional and often fleeting.

(p.72) Fogg, Sachs and Aaron's everyday experience of the city produces an opaque, chaotic and often contradictory vision of contemporary metropolitan life. In the introduction to the recent collection of true stories edited by Auster, True Tales of American Life, he said ‘the more we understand of the world, the more elusive and confounding the world becomes’ (Auster, 2001: xviii). In these stories, the central characters do establish temporary and provisional stability, but a coherent understanding of their own lives and their place in the fluxes and flows of the vast metropolis proves elusive.


M. S. Fogg summarises and encapsulates his own life in an exceptional opening paragraph to Moon Palace. Here Auster relates the essence of everything that is to happen to his central character. He describes Fogg's impoverishment and dereliction; his chance rescue by Kitty Wu; his subsequent employment by Effing; the discovery of his paternity; and his desert walk from Utah to California (Auster, 1992a: 1). By doing so he signals the central themes of language, identity, dereliction and paternity, and the way that each is influenced by place.

Fogg's descent is set in motion by the death of his mother, Emily Fogg, and he is pushed into freefall by the sudden death of his surrogate parent, Uncle Victor. Emily dies when M. S. is eleven, and he is brought up in Chicago by Uncle Victor, whose death (like Sam Auster's) from an unexpected heart attack occurs soon after Fogg has departed for Columbia University. Fogg receives a small compensation for his mother's death, and inherits Uncle Victor's library, his collection of baseball cards and his suit (Auster, 1992a: 13). Victor's death causes a traumatic change in Fogg's life, and marks the point at which he ‘began to vanish into another world’ (Auster, 1992a: 3). As Victor is Fogg's sole social coordinate, the ‘one link to something larger than myself’, and his last remaining connection with the world beyond himself, the loss inevitably produces instability (Auster, 1992a: 3). ‘In the end, the problem was not grief’, Fogg records:

Grief was the first cause, perhaps, but it soon gave way to something else – something more tangible, more calculable in its effects, more violentin the damage it produced. A whole chain of forces had been set in motion, and at a certain point I began to wobble, to fly in greater and greater circles around myself, until at last I spun out of orbit.

(Auster, 1992a: 19)

(p.73) Fogg's descent is much like Quinn's in the Trilogy. However, Auster shows how Fogg's fragile connections to society are enough to prevent him falling to the same depths of physical and textual erasure.

Fogg begins to measure the extent he has vanished ‘into another world’ by the depletion of his financial and literary inheritances. Uncle Victor's literary bequest consists of 1492 books, which also represents the year that Columbus discovered America (Auster, 1992a: 13). Fogg converts the boxes of books into makeshift furniture for his apartment. By reading and selling each book, Fogg measures the disappearance of his connection to the social world – he is also, of course, dismantling his apartment. Fogg has ‘become a gathering zero’ and the room in which he lives is ‘a machine that measured my condition: how much of me remained, how much of me was no longer there… . Piece by piece, I could watch myself disappear’ (Auster, 1992a: 24). In this way, the depletion of his money, the disappearance of his uncle's legacy, and the dismantling of his furniture all measure the disintegration of Fogg's interior sense of self and his relationship with his environment. In an earlier version of the book, Auster describes this ‘quest for zero’ as ‘marked by a triple injunction: to want nothing, to have nothing, to be nothing’ (Auster, undated g: n.p.) – so Fogg's presence diminishes along with his few material possessions.

Fogg has embarked on a paradoxical strategy of virtual starvation as a means to survive poverty. As he becomes progressively weaker through hunger, he is less able to halt his downward spiral. Fogg's predicament is unlike Quinn's, however, as he is responding to an emotional and financial crisis with a deliberate strategy. His ‘militant refusal to take any action at all’ (Auster, 1992a: 20–1) is designed to separate his interior sense of self from his physical body (Auster, 1992a: 29). ‘I would turn my life into a work of art’, he asserts:

sacrificing myself to such exquisite paradoxes that every breath I took would teach me how to savor my own doom. The signs pointed to a total eclipse, … the image of that darkness gradually lured me in, seduced me with the simplicity of its design… . The moon would block the sun,and at that point I would vanish.

(Auster, 1992a: 21)

Fogg is following the same strategy as Hamsun's hunger artist. It is, he tells us, ‘nihilism raised to the level of an aesthetic proposition’ (Auster, 1992a: 21). In ‘The Art of Hunger’ Auster describes the ‘narrator-hero’ of Hamsun's Hunger as ‘a monster of intellectual arrogance’ (Auster, 1997: 11). Through Fogg's experiences of contemporary (p.74) New York, Auster tests Hamsun's model of aesthetic obstinacy to its limits. Both characters embark on an experiment with ‘no controls, no stable points of reference – only variables’ (Auster, 1997: 12). For both Hamsun's nameless hero and Fogg, the outcome of their fast is inevitably destructive; Auster notes that hunger ‘opens the void’ but ‘does not have the power to seal it up’ (Auster, 1997: 13). Hamsun's and Auster's characters play out their predicaments on the streets of the metropolis; one in late nineteenth-century Oslo, the other in late twentieth-century New York. Despite the temporal and geographical distance, there are comparisons to be drawn. Auster describes Oslo in 1890 as ‘a labyrinth’, in which Hamsun's hero suffers and ‘nearly goes mad. He is never more than one step from collapse’ (Auster, 1997: 9). Fogg too experiences New York as a labyrinth of streets and social conventions he is unable to navigate because of his total social disconnection. Fogg's plunge towards confusion is assisted by his inability to deploy what Fredric Jameson calls the appropriate ‘perceptual equipment’ (Jameson, 1991: 38). If he were in possession of the right ontological tools, able to ‘map’ the metropolis in a coherent way, Fogg would be able to ‘disalienate’ (Jameson, 1991: 51) his metropolitan environment and form a more effective correspondence with the complexities of his physical and social realm.

Like Quinn, Fogg colonises his vacated sense of self with the stereotype of the urban bum. Occupying the social margins, he confronts the everyday conventions of the streets and the need for physical and behavioural conformity. Fogg's failure to comprehend the norms of the crowd, that most ubiquitous of metropolitan symbols, exemplifies how his descent into the abyss dislocates him from his social world. For example, Walter Benjamin describes how the crowd is the natural environment of the flâneur and how this figure emerges from the crowd to observe and record it. However, Fogg does not possess the metropolitan knowledge and composure that the flâneur deploys to survive the ‘series of shocks and collisions’ of the crowd (Benjamin, 1997: 132). Through the work of Poe and Baudelaire, who have both influenced Auster's work, Benjamin examines the conventions of behaviour that the streets require. Fogg's responses owe more to Poe's ‘Man of the Crowd’ than to the flâneur. Like Poe's character, Fogg soon loses his self-control to ‘manic behaviour’ (Benjamin, 1997: 128) on the crowded streets, and disorientation forces him to retreat to the relative calm of Central Park. Initially, the homeless Fogg wanders mid-town Manhattan indiscriminately. But (p.75) soon he finds the streets to be an unforgiving environment. The rigid codes of metropolitan behaviour dictate ‘the way you act inside your clothes’ and preclude any ‘spontaneous or involuntary behaviour’ (Auster, 1992a: 56–7). ‘In the streets’, Fogg discovers that:

everything is bodies and commotion, … you cannot enter them without adhering to a rigid protocol of behavior. To walk among the crowd means never going faster than anyone else, never lagging behind your neighbor, never doing anything to disrupt the flow of human traffic. If you play by the rules of the game, people tend to ignore you.

(Auster, 1992a: 56)

Where Auster presented Quinn's streets as devoid of life in ‘City of Glass’, always empty and lonely, he shows Fogg's streets to be tumultuous, so admitting into his literature a sense of the interrelation of myriad lives intersecting in the metropolis. A metropolitan environment teeming with life, even if it is hostile to Fogg's predicament, is more able and likely to offer the possibility of rescue for him. However, the streets become a place that he dreads precisely because they emphasise his status as ‘a speck, a vagabond, a pox’ (Auster, 1992a: 57).

Central Park is ‘a sanctuary, a refuge of inwardness against the grinding demands of the streets’. The park offers a retreat from the gridwork of ‘the massive streets and towers’, where the self is easily separated from the world (Auster, 1992a: 56). The more democratic space of the park (where difference is more acceptable than on the streets) enables Fogg to contemplate his inner life. The boundary of the park marks the edge of a space that promotes interior reflection, while the streets beyond demand the examination of the individual's relationship to a wider social realm through external projection. The park alone is unable to physically sustain Fogg, however, and he needs to venture onto the streets to buy food when the scraps left by picnickers are insufficient. Fogg's experiences both in the park and on the streets demonstrate to him that ‘you cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between inner and outer’ (Auster, 1992a: 58). At this point in his narrative, Fogg identifies that his inner terrain of selfhood does not correspond with the outer terrain of New York City. While he is able to find respite from metropolitan confusion by retreating to the park, he is unable to create a balance between the two realms. As a result of this episode in his life, Fogg comes to understand his place in ‘the monstrous / sum of particulars’, and the need to break the cycle of his isolation. But at the time, these confusing events represent the lowest point in Fogg's life.

(p.76) Where The New York Trilogy figured an incoherent relationship with the metropolitan environment and with language as a physical erasure or disappearance, Leviathan associates these things with physical, literal and bodily disintegration. When Aaron describes ‘my poor friend bursting into pieces when the bomb went off, my poor friend's body scattering in the wind’ (Auster, 1993: 242), he is describing the final event in Sachs's long and eventful descent into the abyss. ‘In fifteen years’, Aaron tells us, ‘Sachs travelled from one end of himself to the other, and by the time he came to that last place, I doubt he even knew who he was anymore’ (Auster, 1993: 13). Thus, Sachs's unstable and incoherent identity drives him towards his own physical destruction.

When they first meet in the West Village's Nashe's Tavern for a book reading, Aaron is struck by Sachs's ‘generosity and humour and intelligence’ (Auster, 1993: 13). He relates these aspects of Sachs's identity and personality to his early capacity with language and the way ‘he steered himself through the world’ with a clear sense of direction (Auster, 1993: 16). Then Sachs was ‘at home in his surroundings’, and his marriage to Fanny is a picture of domestic happiness of the same order as that of the ‘Austers’ in ‘City of Glass’ (Auster, 1993: 17). Sachs's accomplished writing and storytelling is indicative of his personal stability, and Auster shows that he has located himself securely in the world. Sachs's writing is ‘marked by great precision and economy, a genuine gift for the apt phrase’ (Auster, 1993: 17). He also apprehends the world with a literary sensibility; he is able to ‘read’ the world ‘as though it were a work of imagination, turning documented events into literary symbols, tropes that pointed to some dark, complex pattern embedded in the real’ (Auster, 1993: 24). By adding an imaginary dimension to the world he inhabits, Sachs is able to disalienate and re-enchant his metropolitan environment, and thereby insert himself into its physical and social structures with a greater degree of flexibility than Aaron.

In the early passages of the narrative, Auster shows how the availability of language for Sachs is in part related to his ability to freely explore the sensations and impressions of the city. Instead of the rigid social conventions of many New Yorkers, for Sachs:

impromptu meetings were the norm. He worked when the spirit moved him (most often late at night), and the rest of the time he roamed free, prowling the streets of the city like some nineteenth-century flâneur, (p.77) following his nose wherever it happened to take him… . He wasn’tbeholden to the clock in the way other people are. (Auster, 1993: 40–1)

Auster's representation of an urban wanderer here reaffirms Benjamin's description of the flâneur ‘botanizing on the asphalt’ (Benjamin, 1997: 36). The flâneur's elis. His impression of the city is shaped at street level, through the confusion and immediacy of the sensual and local experience of urban phenomena such as the crowd. Through the immediate experience of the city he gains as a flâneur, Sachs is able to respond to his metropolitan environment intuitively. And by employing his time to ‘peruse’ the metropolis, his experience of it reveals what Benjamin refers to as the ‘phantasmagorical’ (Benjamin, 1997: 39) and lyrical qualities of metropolitan life that are to be found in galleries, museums and books. Auster relates the fugitive and clandestine activity of Sachs's flâneurie to his facility with language. Sachs's ability to orient himself in his Manhattan milieu, and relate comfortably with the social realm of artists and writers, suggests that at this point in his career Auster become more comfortable with incorporating the metropolis into his work as a potential location for a stable sense of self.

Sachs's unstructured routines result in a stream of essays and a novel, The New Colossus. The novel is named for Emma Lazarus's poem engraved into plinth of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus appears as a character in Sachs's postmodern novel, which incorporates real and fictional characters in events from across history and literature.2 The New Colossus, in a similar way to Stillman's fictional thesis in the Trilogy, explores the national cultural myth of America as the new Eden, and how that vision has become corrupted by a new ‘fall’ and the consequent postlapsarian failure of language. In Sachs's novel, Emma Lazarus is given Thoreau's pocket compass as a gift. Aaron interprets this act as America losing its way: ‘Thoreau was the one man who could read the compass for us, and now that he has gone, we have no hope of finding ourselves again’ (Auster, 1993: 38–9). In Leviathan this compass becomes symbolic of Sachs's attempts to locate himself in the world, and to re-establish his stability.

Sachs's instability is a direct result of his catastrophic fall. At a party given by Aaron's literary agent in Brooklyn to witness the centennial celebrations of the Statue of Liberty, he suffers a personal and literal version of the ‘fall’ of mankind. Like Adam, Sachs faces the temptation (p.78) of a woman (Maria Turner, who will be discussed in depth shortly), and in succumbing to her he topples from the fire escape and is only saved by a clothesline.3 After his fall, Sachs at first refuses to speak, later claiming this to be a turn inwards to focus on a profound and ‘extraordinary’ event (Auster, 1993: 119). Auster presents Sachs's fall as a pivotal point in the narrative, marking the point at which his grasp on language begins to fail, and his mental and physical disintegration commence:

His body mended, but he was never the same after that. In those few seconds before he hit the ground, it was as if Sachs lost everything. His entire life flew apart in midair, and from that moment until his death four years later, he never put it back together.

(Auster, 1993: 107)

At this point, the trajectories of the three writer-characters (Fogg, Sachs, Aaron) diverge. Sachs leaves his domestic stability with Fanny to continue his descent into the language void. He becomes lost and confronts death in a parodic American wilderness (Vermont), and he becomes disenchanted with America's political direction, which will lead him ultimately to a bizarre campaign of benign terrorism. Along this route, he attempts to reimpose some stability on his life by participating in Maria Turner's art and inserting himself into a family, but as I will show, the conditions under which this stability are sought is fundamental to its failure. Fogg and Aaron, on the other hand, go on to discover their metropolitan redemptions.


Meanwhile, in Moon Palace, Fogg's emotional rescue comes through Kitty Wu, a dancer, while the photographer and conceptual artist, Maria Turner, rescues Aaron from his linguistic and social dysfunction. Both Kitty and Maria bear some resemblances to the character Sophie in ‘The Locked Room’. Sophie's sensuality and watchfulness come, in part, from her involvement with the arts – she is a music teacher (Auster, 1988: 204). The connection between Sophie's view of the world ‘from the heart of a deep inner vigilance’ and her music is echoed in the relationship Kitty has with the physical world through her artistic practices. It is with the support of these women that the Narrator and Fogg find their ‘true place in the world’, and for both of them that place is beyond themselves. Semiotic art forms are exclusively feminine in these texts, but as Effing in Moon Palace and Auggie in Auster's films (p.79) such as Smoke and Blue in the Face (1995) demonstrate, painting and photographic art forms are not exclusively gendered feminine in his work.

An absolutely central aspect of Kitty and Maria's relationships to the world, and to Auster's literary aesthetic, is chance. For both of them, but for Maria in particular, chance is a primal force that drives their lives and their aesthetic practices. Chance operates in Auster's fiction in one of two contradictory ways. More often than not a key narrative moment is motivated by a purely chance encounter. Sometimes, though, particularly for Fogg in Moon Palace, events are ascribed to chance purely because the character is unable to imagine the myriad of possible intersections and relationships the metropolis has to offer. In Moon Palace and Leviathan chance meetings within artistic and creative social groups provide affirmative connections that enable ‘fallen’ characters to begin emerging from the abyss.

In an environment as complex and multitudinous as the city, rule and chance can operate to bring some kind of order to chaotic urban artistic forms, such as Maria's photography. Auster uses pure chance to challenge the orderly processes of rule, and rule and chance operate as important aspects of his literary aesthetic. Rule is an ordering discourse, setting limits and providing structures such as conventions of representation, subject matter, composition and interpretation. Chance operates within these structures when the individual, such as the artist Maria, allows aleatorical processes to bring together unexpected elements, images and practices.4 Auster, then, comes to understand chance too as an organising principle in art and life.

Rule and chance operate in Auster's work on two aesthetic bases. On the one hand, chance paradoxically provides causality in a seemingly chaotic environment, which is nonetheless constrained by highly regulated structures which set limits. On the other hand, the rule and chance encountered in Maria's aleatorical artistic production, like the structures and play of language or the grid and possibilities of the streets, provide Auster with a prime metaphor for urban social relationships. In an interview Auster said:

In the strictest sense of the word, I consider myself a realist. Chance is a part of reality: we are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence, the unexpected occurs with almost numbing regularity in all our lives… . What I am after, I suppose, is to write fiction as strange as the world I live in… . [W]hat I am talking about is the presence of the unpredictable, the utterly bewildering nature of human experience. From one moment to (p.80) the next, anything can happen… . In philosophical terms, I’m talking about the powers of contingency.

(Auster, 1997: 287–9)

Precisely this philosophy of the contingent is invoked by Fogg as a motivating force in his life in the opening passage of Moon Palace. Of his chance meeting with Kitty, he says: ‘I came to see that chance as a form of readiness, a way of saving myself through the minds of others’ (Auster, 1992a: 1). Much later, Fogg's paternity is restored by chance when he unknowingly works for his grandfather and subsequently meets his father. However, the conventions of genealogy are constantly undermined here. Genealogy is usurped by coincidence, paternity is discovered by accident, and the privileges that it conventionally confers, such as inheritance, are lost as soon as they are acquired.5 As such, chance emerges as an aesthetic strategy in Auster's work at this point in his career, and contingency becomes an organising principle in his representation of the chaotic environment of New York. Consequently, we should not see chance in Auster's work as complete randomness, or as a deterministic process. Instead, it is both a denial of statistical reality and an expression of the author's own seemingly bizarre experiences.6

Because of the different qualities of the chance events shaping their narratives, Fogg's and Sachs's fates contrast fundamentally. The outcome of Fogg's nihilistic project depends on the combination of random factors intersecting around him at the critical moment – some of his making, some the making of others. Hamsun's model of the ‘hunger artist’ suggests that in the nineteenth-century metropolis the artist will ‘arrive at nothing’ because his fate is existentially fixed by his own actions (Auster, 1997: 20). However, in Fogg's contemporary New York, Auster proposes a more optimistic outcome. The artist's fate remains undetermined as a consequence of the complex interrelation of lives in the contemporary metropolis, and Fogg's openness to chance ‘through the minds of others’.

The contingent interconnection that emerges from Fogg's ‘form of readiness’ arrives in the person of Kitty Wu. In his unbalanced life, she represents a balance between control and chance. In contrast to Fogg, Kitty is able to hold herself in physical and mental readiness for the random events with which the metropolis confronts her. Fogg becomes aware of the influence that such a coincidence of powers in one person could hold over his perilous condition, and is immediately drawn to her combination of spirituality and physical grace. Dancing provides Kitty (p.81) with her physical ease but also, as a non-verbal spatial system of language, it offers an accomplished capacity of expression, which Fogg lacks. It is through his sympathetic relationship with Kitty that Fogg recovers some degree of language facility.

Kitty and Fogg's initial meeting occurs by chance. In a period of desolation just prior to eviction from his apartment, Fogg attempts to contact David Zimmer, his freshman roommate. However, Zimmer's apartment has been taken over by a group of students from Juilliard who are ‘musicians, dancers, singers’ and who have gathered for a communal breakfast. Kitty is amongst them (Auster, 1992a: 35). Fogg is attracted by the ease of her physical relationship with the space she occupies. She, in turn, is fascinated by the learning and intensity that he displays in an extended and rambling monologue on literature and space travel.

Contingency haunts Fogg and Kitty's early encounters. Their initial meeting and their reunion in the park are the consequence of the intersection of countless possibilities. Michel de Certeau has described how the life of the unsuspecting individual is influenced by the intersection of myriad powers circulating around them, such that ‘each individual is a locus in which an incoherent (and often contradictory) plurality of … relational determinations interact’ (de Certeau, 1984: xi). In Moon Palace, Uncle Victor describes the same process in a more lyrical way. ‘Everything works out in the end, … everything connects’, he tells Fogg. ‘The nine circles. The nine planets. The nine innings. Our nine lives… . The correspondences are infinite’ (Auster, 1992a: 14).After his rescue from the park, Fogg attends an army medical to assess his suitability for service in Vietnam. He explains the causal motivations for his current condition in terms that echo his uncle's. ‘Our lives are determined by manifold contingencies’, he tells the military doctor, ‘and every day we struggle against these shocks and accidents in order to keep our balance’. By abandoning himself to the forces of contingency Fogg hopes to ‘reveal some secret harmony’, a pattern that would give meaning to the world (Auster, 1992a: 80). That he fails to find a coherent pattern confirms Fogg's belief that the world has become entirely random, and that he must seek an ordering principle elsewhere.

One such contingent event, and interaction of incoherent determinants, is the pivotal moment when Kitty and Zimmer discover the delirious Fogg in Central Park. Given the multitudes who inhabit New York, the chances of finding a lost individual are slight. That, against (p.82) all the probabilities, Kitty and Fogg are reunited, both exemplifies Auster's philosophy of the contingent and prefigures the bizarre coincidences which go on unfolding throughout the novel. The emotional dimension of Fogg's rescue echoes the experiences of the Narrator in the Trilogy. Both of these characters suddenly discover that the love of another has redemptive powers. Discovering what his friends did for him prompts Fogg to reassess the reality of his experiences. In a striking passage, Fogg describes how Kitty and Zimmer drop everything to search for him. ‘That was how I finally came to be rescued: because the two of them went out and looked for me’, he writes:

To be loved like that makes all the difference. It does not lessen the terror of the fall, but it gives a new perspective on what that terror means. I had jumped off the edge, and then, at the very last moment, something reached out and caught me in midair. That something is what I define as love. It is the one thing that can stop a man from falling, the one thing powerful enough to negate the laws of gravity.

(Auster, 1992a: 50)

Fogg's descent is arrested, first through the chance encounters with Kitty, and then through the love of his friends. Once rescued, Fogg realises that his nihilistic experiment has not demonstrated courage, but has displayed instead his ‘contempt for the world’ (Auster, 1992a: 73). With this realisation, and with the help of his friends, Fogg begins his recovery. Zimmer insists that Fogg recuperate at his apartment; and soon they venture out each night to a nearby West Village bar to drink beer and watch baseball. This time marks ‘an exquisitely tranquil period’ in their lives: ‘a brief moment of standing still before moving on again’ (Auster, 1992a: 82). Zimmer – ‘room’ in German, of course – once again represents a sanctuary from the tumultuous processes of the metropolis.

Fogg moves on from the safety of this pleasant and static existence when he and Kitty become lovers. Physical and emotional love with Kitty alters Fogg. ‘I am not just talking about sex or the permutations of desire’, he insists, ‘but the crumbling of inner walls, an earthquake in the heart of my solitude’ (Auster, 1992a: 94). Fogg's inner state is profoundly altered, and to mark the beginning of this new social phase of his life, he shares a meal with his friends at the Moon Palace Chinese restaurant close to his old apartment in Columbia Heights. Fogg had eaten here alone at a particularly desperate time in his experiment. Then he forced the food down his own throat – the lonely and traumatic (p.83) event conjuring an image of himself in pieces (Auster, 1992a: 43). In contrast, the meal with Kitty and Zimmer represents ‘a moment of astonishing joy and equilibrium, as though my friends had gathered there to celebrate my return to the land of the living’ (Auster, 1992a: 96). This social space, a ‘great, good place’ for gathering and sharing, represents Fogg's rehabilitation into a social being.

Auster introduces a further element of ease between the individual and her environment with Kitty's choice of a physical art form: dance. In control of her own bodily space, Kitty is able to exert far greater control over the spatial realm she inhabits. Fogg's discomfort in his own clothes is in stark contrast to Kitty's ease with her own beauty and corporeality. Fogg relates that she is able to dominate the space around her by combining her physical and cerebral powers. ‘I found her beautiful’, he writes:

but more than that I liked the way she held herself, the way she did not seem to be paralyzed by her beauty as so many beautiful girls did. Perhaps it was the freedom of her gestures, the blunt, down-to-earth quality I heard in her voice. This was … someone who knew her way around, who had managed to learn things for herself.

(Auster, 1992a: 37)

Kittys's control over and in space is inherently connected to her dancing, because she is not afraid of her own self: ‘she lived inside her body without embarrassment or second thoughts… . Because she took pleasure in her body, it was possible for her to dance’ (Auster, 1992a: 94). It is, in part, Kitty's control over space which leads her to Fogg in the park. The implication is, of course, that her role in his rescue is not entirely dependent on chance, but is the result of her superior relationship with the metropolis.

Although Fogg finds a new accommodation with language through Kitty, certain linguistic sign systems continue to evade his powers of interpretation. Both the non-linguistic spatial expression of dancing and Chinese symbols remain a mystery to him. Ten years before Moon Palace was published, in ‘White Spaces’, Auster wrote of the relationship between the movement of a body and speech:

To think of motion not merely as a function of the body but as an extension of the mind. In the same way, to think of speech not as an extension of the mind but as a function of the body… . [S]ounds are no less a gesturethan a hand is when outstretched in the air toward another hand.

(Auster, 1991: 82)

(p.84) Each move, each gesture of dance, carries meaning that is interpreted between the dancer and the audience. But for Fogg, despite following ‘her body around the stage with a kind of delirious concentration’, Kitty's dancing remains ‘utterly foreign … a thing that stood beyond the grasp of words’ (Auster, 1992a: 96).

When Fogg and Kitty rent an apartment in New York's Chinatown, Fogg encounters a similar quality of ‘dislocation and confusion’ promoted by the impenetrability of the Chinese language. Here because of the language barrier and the unfamiliar system of signs, Fogg is unable to ‘penetrate the meanings’ of his surroundings, and so he is limited to ‘the mute surfaces of things’ (Auster, 1992a: 230). Ultimately, Fogg's failure to ‘read’ Kitty, in just the same way he failed to ‘read’ his metropolitan predicament, results in his losing her.

In Leviathan, Aaron's ‘rescue’ is less dramatic than Fogg's but, given Sachs's ultimate fate, no less timely. Since the breakup of his marriage Aaron has been living, like A. in Solitude, in a sublet on Varrick Street that has become his ‘sanctuary of inwardness’ (Auster, 1993: 57). Through Sachs and Fanny's social network of artistic and creative people, Aaron is drawn out of his solitude. He meets Maria Turner at a dinner party at their Brooklyn apartment that exemplifies their New York social world. It is here that ‘half of New York’ seems to assemble to eat, drink and talk (Auster, 1993: 58). The parties are made up of ‘[a]rtists, writers, professors, critics, editors, gallery owners’, and it is from this crowd of people that Maria emerges to rescue Aaron from his loneliness. Maria displays many of the same qualities as Kitty in her physical presence. Maria is also a self-possessed woman in control of her body, a power she extends to her physical and social environment. An important aspect of her physicality, like Kitty's, is her eroticism. Aaron describes the graceful ‘way she carried herself in her clothes … that would unmask itself in little flashes of erotic forgetfulness’ (Auster, 1993: 59). It is this sexual charge to Maria's presence that will later tempt Sachs to his fall.

Maria understands the interplay of structure and chaos, rule and chance in contemporary metropolitan life, and she is able to draw many of the seemingly uncontrollable elements of the metropolis into a strategy to contain their disorder. Aaron describes Maria as ‘a good bourgeois girl who had mastered the rules of social behavior, but at the same time it was as if she no longer believed in them’ (Auster, 1993: 59). Because Maria has such a mastery of the rules of urban living, she is able to place herself into metropolitan settings and experience them (p.85) as the subject matter of her art. Maria's life is lived as a ‘set of bizarre, private rituals’, in which experiences are systematised within their own risks and limitations (Auster, 1993: 60). In other words, Maria's life is contained by the limits of rule, but within those structures, chance and contingency are allowed free rein to produce one of any number of outcomes. Because of her influence on people's lives and her mode of artistic production, Aaron calls Maria ‘the reigning spirit of chance, … the goddess of the unpredictable’ (Auster, 1993: 102).

The streets of New York City provide an ideal environment for this interplay of rule and chance. Maria has created two particularly metropolitan ‘pieces’ on the streets. For the first one, she leaves her loft on Duane Street and follows a randomly chosen individual around the streets for the day, photographing them and constructing fictional biographies. For the other, she makes herself the subject of the piece by employing a private detective to follow her and file a report on her movements (Auster, 1993: 62). Maria's purpose as a flâneuse is to watch and be watched, to expose the ‘fraught meanings of microscopic actions’, and to reconstitute the essence of things from a fragment (Auster, 1993: 63). Maria's art focuses on the human scale of metropolitan activity, recording the ‘practices of everyday life’ (to borrow de Certeau's term) and the visceral and the sensual aspects of the streets. Her attempt to trace and read the movements of individuals around New York is a reaffirmation of de Certeau's ‘urban poems’ as her pieces attempt to diagnose individuals’ metropolitan psychoses from the fragments of observable symptoms. Like Sachs earlier in the novel, she experiences the city in close-up, dense with detail and compelling urban impressions.

Maria's metropolitan stability provides Aaron with a social and personal foundation from which to explore his own social contingencies. A brief affair with Fanny (a curator of American landscape painting at the Brooklyn Museum) provides him with an ‘enigmatic point of stillness’ (Auster, 1993: 84) amid the turmoil of his life. Then, under the influence of Maria's ‘spirit of chance’, Aaron meets Iris, and all is motion again. They meet at a gallery on Wooster Street, on the night of the opening of Maria's second exhibition. Iris is drawn into Aaron's social orbit through the network of creative types that has Sachs and Fanny at its centre. It is only through a series of partial and contingent connections that Iris and Aaron come to meet. Aaron acknowledges that ‘[d]ecades would have passed before we found ourselves standing in the same room again’ (Auster, 1993: 101). She (p.86) becomes his ‘happy ending, the miracle that had fallen down on me when I was least expecting it. We took each other by storm and nothing has ever been the same for me since’ (Auster, 1993: 103).

The character of Iris remains very much in the background of this story, but provides the stability for Aaron to continue building his secure sense of self and to locate his place in the world. Iris does not conform to the model of the non-verbal artist negotiating an exceptional spatial environment set by Kitty and Maria. Iris is a literary character, a graduate student in English at Columbia. Her name, too, is resonant of Auster's poetic concerns, and those of the Objectivists, as they sought to occupy the ‘realm of the naked eye’. Iris's symbolic ocularity also stands in contrast to Fanny's (symbolic and actual) corporeality, and Maria's physical and erotic presence. These qualities put Iris in the poetic order that Oppen and Reznikoff occupy. This suggests that, for Auster in these texts, corporeal characters, such as Fanny and Maria, are essential to ‘fallen’ writer-characters’ recovery of the relationship between the word and the world. However, once the writer-characters have achieved a stable relationship with the world, they need to form new relationships in order to maintain that stability. Finally, Iris spelled backwards is Siri, the name of Auster's second wife, with whom there are a number of biographical correspondences.7

Aaron's story acts as a counternarrative or counterweight to Sachs's; as one ascends, the other descends. After his fall, Sachs renegotiates the terms of his relationship with the physical and social metropolis. Aaron sees little of him until he encounters him on the street in Downtown Manhattan. Sachs is on an aimless urban wander similar to his earlier flâneurie. However, his engagement with the urban environment has deteriorated; he appears to apprehend objects in a partial and fleeting way, merely acknowledging their surface. In the two hours that Aaron follows him through the ‘canyons of New York’, ‘Sachs wandered around the streets like a lost soul, roaming haphazardly between Times Square and Greenwich Village at the same slow and contemplative pace, … never seeming to care where he was’ (Auster, 1993: 125). But Aaron himself is going on ‘partial evidence’ (Auster, 1993: 126). Sachs has become one of Maria's pieces, and she is following him around Manhattan photographing him for a project called ‘Thursdays with Ben’, a ‘combination of documentary and play, the objectification of inner states’ (Auster, 1993: 127). Maria tries to capture Sachs's inner state with her camera as he wanders the streets of New York. Similarly, Auster employs the city itself as the measure (p.87) of Sachs's turmoil, and his partial connections with it indicate the imbalance between his interior and exterior selves. Maria plays the part of the detective (reversing again the roles of her earlier piece) who attempts to reveal some truthful or authentic sense of Sachs from the evidence because ‘he was no longer able to see himself’ (Auster, 1993: 129). Ultimately, the project fails because Sachs is no longer able to recover the social connections that had formed the basis for his earlier self, and he is unable to retake his place in metropolitan society. These failures, of Sachs as a flâneur and of Maria's project, suggest that the metropolis as Sachs experiences it here is illegible, and that in contemporary New York flâneurie is an inappropriate tool for engaging with the city.

Sachs withdraws from New York society completely when, at Aaron's prompting, he is offered the chance to publish a collection of his essays. He leaves Fanny and goes to the family farmhouse in the Vermont countryside to work. However, when Sachs attempts to explore the Vermont woods, just as Thoreau explored the Massachusetts countryside, he soon becomes lost. He becomes disorientated and is unable to establish coordinates that will either reveal his location or allow him to navigate his way out of this new predicament. Sachs is literally unable to locate himself in the world. The disorientation he experiences and the environment in which he finds himself recall the key theme of Thoreau's compass explored in The New Colossus; without it, Sachs has no hope of finding himself again. Beaten by the impenetrability of the woods, he sleeps on the ground, and the next morning flags down a truck on the first highway he comes to. The young driver, Dwight, takes a country road back towards the farmhouse. It is on this journey that violence and terrorism enter Sachs's life.

They encounter a car on the lonely road and Dwight stops to offer assistance. When the driver of the car shoots Dwight dead, Sachs, in both anger and self-defence, bludgeons the killer to death. He then flees the scene in panic, taking the assailant's car. Later, when he stops, he discovers in the trunk bomb-making equipment, around one hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars in cash, and a passport in the name of Reed Dimaggio. Sachs's experiences demonstrate that even in rural Vermont the innocent spaces of the American Eden have been swept away by the ‘fallen’ society of modern America. Like the metropolis, the Vermont countryside is a corrupt space containing the potential for disorientation and acts of random, anonymous violence. The chance encounter with the gunman also serves Auster as a causal (p.88) narrative event that provides a link between Sachs's ‘fall’ and his eventual destruction. Coincidence can clearly be the bearer of misfortune as well as rescue.

In Moon Palace, Uncle Victor identified the infinite coincidences that can occur in life. It is one of these ‘confluences’ that hauls Fogg from the void into the light of the social realm and back to sanity. In Leviathan, Aaron asserts that ‘[e]verything is connected to everything else, every story overlaps with every other story’ (Auster, 1993: 51). He also believes that ‘[a]nything can happen. And one way or another, it always does’ (Auster, 1993: 160, original emphasis). For Sachs, the powers of contingency act not to rescue him, but to accelerate his descent into the abyss. Maria Turner knows Reed Dimmagio as the husband of a friend, Lillian Stern, demonstrating, in Auster's fiction, the almost infinite interconnectedness of lives and the power of the metropolis to bring them together. The rapidly disintegrating Sachs grasps the opportunity of this ‘nightmare coincidence’ (Auster, 1993: 167) to redress the balance of his actions. He would embrace this uncanny event and ‘breathe it into himself as a sustaining event’ (Auster, 1993: 167). He travels to Berkeley in California to hand the money over to Lillian.

Auster once again exploits the uncanny results of coincidence when Maria decides to use a diary she has found in the street as the basis for a project, and it is through this re-establishes her friendship with Lillian. Maria anticipates a ‘portrait in absentia’ of the man the diary belonged to, ‘an outline drawn around an empty space’ that she could fill in by exploring his social world and interviewing the individuals who constitute it (Auster, 1993: 67, original emphasis). Lillian is an actress paying her way through drama school by prostitution, and the owner of the diary has been a client. This combination of actress and prostitute, of imitation and eroticism, reveals itself in a series of photographs that Maria takes of Lillian. Lillian, Maria tells Aaron, has ‘a quality that is always coming to the surface… . She's completely relaxed in her own skin’ (Auster, 1993: 71). At this stage in their lives, Lillian and Maria seem similarly visceral; like Kitty, they are corporeal and sensuous, spontaneous and open to chance.

In California, Lillian and her daughter, Maria, come to represent for Sachs the opportunity for redemption and domestic stability that Aaron has achieved with Iris. Sachs takes the place of the man he has killed: as husband to Dimaggio's wife, and father to his daughter. However, the prevailing conditions are unpromising. Auster shows that, unlike (p.89) Kitty, instead of representing a series of connections to a wider society, Lillian represents a withdrawal from it. She is not in New York, where Sachs's social circle operates, and he has severed his connections with Maria and Fanny. As a result, rather than finding stability with Lillian, Sachs is put ‘permanently off balance’ because Maria only reveals to him her surface beauty: ‘she refused to reveal herself …, which meant that she never became more than an object, never more than the sum of her physical self’ (Auster, 1993: 198). Consequently, Lillian does not have the depth of personality or the necessary relationship with the world to become a stable point of reference in Sachs's life, the foundation on which to establish a coherent sense of self, and the catalyst to launch the progressively disconnected Sachs back into the social realm where he was once so effective.

For less than two weeks Sachs and Lillian do manage to create a kind of domestic stability, following a night of passion during which Lillian ‘emptied him out’ and ‘dismantled him’ (Auster, 1993: 211), but she fails to release him from the solitude consuming him. Later Sachs describes Lillian as ‘wild’, ‘incandescent’ and ‘out of control’ (Auster, 1993: 228). It is this absence of boundaries in Lillian that sets her apart from Maria or Iris in the life of Aaron, or Kitty in the life of Fogg. These other women understand the limits that structures – artistic, social or physical – inscribe in their everyday lives. Sachs's attempt to locate himself in the world with Lillian as the point of reference founders because she is as unstable and disoriented as he is.

Finally, the end of the relationship with Lillian strips Sachs of his last vestige of social contact, and he embarks on his nihilistic campaign. Under the pseudonym ‘The Phantom of Liberty’, he tapes explosives to the crown of scale models of the Statue of Liberty in America's small towns (Auster, 1993: 215–16). Dimaggio's emergent campaign against environmental targets for The Children of the Planet provides the inspiration, while the money finances the four-year bombing spree. After completing his thesis on the anarchist Alexander Berkman, Dimaggio abandoned academia and writing for direct political action. Sachs adds his personal dimension to the crusade by incorporating the Statue of Liberty, which is central to both his personal fall and The New Colossus, and channels his creative energies into concocting false identities and cover stories for his activities. ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ attempts to rearticulate the fallen America with its founding principles by offering a version of Thoreau's compass by which to map a political and moral path, and ‘to look after itself and mend its ways’ (Auster, (p.90) 1993: 217). The extent to which America has fallen, however, is measured by the way the ‘Phantom’ is commodified, even to the extent of inspiring a stripping act in which the ‘Phantom’ seduces and disrobes the Statue of Liberty (Auster, 1993: 234).8

Leviathan is dedicated to Auster's friend Don DeLillo, and is contemporaneous with Mao II, a book that is also about terrorism. Both these novels question the power of literature in a complex world where the transparently violent acts of terrorists are more influential than books and poems. Aliki Varvogli notes that Leviathan may be ‘fruitfully read as a response to, or in dialogue with Mao II, rather than a capitulation of similar thematic concerns’ (Varvogli, 2001: 144). This is because DeLillo is concerned with ‘postmodernist consumerist concerns’, while ‘Auster negotiates his writer's position in the world by invoking … the spirit and rhetoric of nineteenth-century American writing’ (Varvogli, 2001: 144–5). That Sachs's terrorism fails, and he entrusts his story to Aaron, strongly suggests that Auster retains his belief in the power of art and that he personally, as an artist, feels more attuned to the experience of Aaron (with whom, of course, he shares initials) than that of Sachs. Interestingly, while DeLillo was writing and publishing his epic Underworld (1998), encompassing most of America's postwar history, Auster was producing his slight, introverted and autobiographical Hand to Mouth, which once more records his early years of struggle. This divergence of artistic paths suggests that Auster perceives fiction more as a way of examining the personal than of confronting the political, an emphasis suggested too by the peripheral role that major historical events, such as the depression, wars and the moon landings, play in his work.

Sachs's political project is not just his own, however, since his choice of direct intervention is driven by the work started by the man he killed, Reed Dimaggio (Auster, 1993: 228). Accompanying his abandonment of social contacts (first Fanny, then Maria and finally Lillian) is a sense that Sachs is emptying himself out, vacating his interiority for the man he has killed – ‘a gradual surrender to Dimaggio’, Aaron calls it (Auster, 1993: 223). By abandoning the personality of his disintegrating self, Sachs finds new purpose and coherence. ‘It was a marvellous confluence’, Sachs tells Aaron:

a startling conjunction of motives and ambitions. I had found the unifying principle, and this one idea would bring all the broken pieces of myself together. For the first time in my life, I would be whole.

(Auster, 1993: 228)

(p.91) This statement is prescient, given the information that the reader is armed with from the opening passage of the book. Clearly Sachs's ‘unifying principle’ is unable to prevent his ‘body burst[ing] into dozens of small pieces’ (Auster, 1993: 1).

In many ways, the symptoms of Sachs's breakdown parallel Fredric Jameson's descriptive model of cultural and linguistic schizophrenia. When the relationship between a word and what it means disintegrates, ‘the links of the signifying chain snap’. Jameson continues:

If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience or psychic life. With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.

(Jameson, 1991: 26–7)

Sachs too struggles to stabilise his language, his temporal experience and his ‘psychic’ internal life. Because Sachs has surrendered his internal terrain to his perception of Dimaggio's motives, as well as suffering a loss of his linguistic faculty, Sachs is embarking on a schizophrenic episode in his life. Along with the rubble of his language and his life, Auster represents Sachs's interior disunity as a literal disintegration into thousands of bodily fragments.9 Sachs is unable to differentiate his past from his future and create for himself a stable present. Like his novel, episodes from across his life, such as a childhood anecdote about the Statue of Liberty, his fall from the fire escape and his violent encounter with Dimaggio in the woods, fail to form a coherent and linear ‘unifying principle’ able to justify his actions and his ultimate fate.


At this point in the story, the counternarratives of Sachs and Aaron intersect in Vermont on their different trajectories. Sachs entrusts his story to Aaron, and the mantle of linguistic and literary achievement passes to him as Sachs concedes that he is no longer able to connect with the earlier self who had such a close relationship with the word. Soon Sachs is dead, and the book of his story, Leviathan, stands as a testament to Aaron's recovery.10

Fogg comes to occupy a similar position to Aaron. He too produces the book to testify to his recovery from his ‘aphasic’ episode. The story (p.92) of Fogg's salvation, from the time of the indecipherable squiggles of Uncle Victor's books to the accomplished first-person narrative of Moon Palace effortlessly straddling the twentieth-century, is also the story of artistic lives – including his own. Fogg's text supports another of Uncle Victor's philosophical observations. Referring to the initials, M.S., Victor tells Fogg that ‘[e]very man is the author of his own life… . The book you are writing is not finished yet. Therefore, it's a manuscript’ (Auster, 1992a: 7). More than twenty years later, Fogg attains the linguistic ability to tackle the subject of his own life; to give it shape and form and rescue it from the symbolic indistinctness that his name implies. By doing so he relates the experiences that shape him as a person to the larger social and political processes of the time – the moon landings, Vietnam, campus revolts and Woodstock – without admitting them into the narrative as causal agents. Auster describes this process in the introduction to True Tales of American Life, where he observes that we ‘all have inner lives. We all feel that we are part of the world and yet exiled from it. We all burn with the fires of our own existence. Words are needed to express what is in us’ (Auster, 2001: xvii).

Artists help Fogg to form points of reference upon which to construct his progressively resocialised self. Kitty provides Fogg with a particular focus as he emerges from his personal abyss. Effing's life too supplies an example of an artist attempting to a find way of being in the world. His story of isolation and representation in the Nevada desert exemplifies the artistic struggle for expression. Here Effing learns that art is not only about beautiful objects, but also ‘a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one's place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have were almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter into the thick of things’ (Auster, 1992a: 171). The work of the marginal American landscape artist Ralph Alfred Blakelock also has an instructive role in Fogg's understanding of how representational art can help the observer to understand the world (Auster, 1992a: 133–9). Effing directs Fogg to study Blakelock's painting, Moonlight, in the Brooklyn Museum.11 The painting is ‘a deeply contemplative work, a landscape of inwardness and calm’ (Auster, 1992a: 137). Blakelock's paintings are dominated by moons, which become ‘holes in the canvas, apertures of whiteness looking into another world’ (Auster, 1992a: 141). Moonlight is no exception; here the moon represents an aperture able to connect the interior self to the (p.93) exterior world. William Dow notes that ‘Auster's moon allusions not only impose form on Marco's “fears” and “desires” but are examples of how knowledge in Moon Palace, as in all Auster's novels, is derived from consciously perceived glimmers [and] intuitions’ (Dow, 1996: 197). As so often in Auster's literature, the figure of circles and pinpricks in the fabric of life and reality represents the channel between inner consciousness and an outer social world, ‘a tiny hole between self and not-self’ (Auster, 1988: 232).12 This picture, like The New Colossus, also represents the America that lost its innocence to the advance of the white man (Auster, 1992a: 139).

Fogg's encounter with Blakelock's picture helps him to find a fuller accommodation with language so that he is able to take Effing's words and record them as a documentary representation of that man's life. Effing ‘authors’ the ‘text’ of his own life through Fogg, and so Fogg needs to accurately represent what he is told. The journeys around the streets of New York prove to be a training for this central task. The accidents and losses that occur there cannot be tolerated in a biography: where words come to be the representation of the man, his whole life is at stake. This is borne out by the brief appearance of the character Orlando. He is a ‘linguistic alchemist’ in the tradition of the Narrator and Stillman Sr. who gifts Effing the skeleton of an umbrella that is now like ‘some huge and improbable steel flower’ (Auster, 1992a: 209). When Effing deliberately uses this ‘magic’ umbrella in a storm he catches pneumonia and dies. Effing's deliberate misapprehension of a linguistic sign therefore leads directly to his death.

On the death of Effing, Fogg discovers his paternity, but with the death of Sol, his life starts to disintegrate again. Fogg's own chance at fatherhood is denied when Kitty has an abortion, and the happiness they found together proves to be temporary and fragile. Despite the insights gained from his experience, Fogg is too inflexible to reconcile his internal feelings and emotions to Kitty's needs. With the loss of Kitty, Fogg's life, like Sachs's, ‘flew apart’ and his ‘Chinatown paradise’ (Auster, 1992a: 278, 273) comes to an end.

When his inheritance is stolen, along with his car, Fogg's narrative begins to draw to a close, but not a conclusion. He walks west from Nevada, and three months later reaches the Pacific Ocean at Laguna Beach. Fogg has traversed the continental United States in what appears to be a traditional quest narrative.13 However, despite reaching journey's end, he has not found his place in the world. In a novel saturated with word plays (Fogg connoting indistinctness, Effing suggesting vulgarity (p.94) and Sol reflecting the character's filial relationship to Effing and associating him with a large orb) the use of the word laguna at the end of the novel raises questions of resolution similar to those raised in The New York Trilogy. Lagune is a French word, the Latin root of which is lacuna, meaning hiatus or gap. Consequently,the resolution of this novel suggests the ending is an empty space, into which nothing should be read. This interpretation is supported by the definition of lacuna as a missing page from a manuscript. Thus, the manuscript of this portion of Fogg's life remains incomplete. Instead of an ending, Auster offers us a potential beginning, where the rest of Fogg's life starts (Auster, 1992a: 306). His attempts to place himself in his vast and incomprehensible world of New York and America find their symbolic expression in the path of the moon into the Western sky:

Then the moon came up from behind the hills. It was a full moon, as round and yellow as a burning stone. I kept my eyes on it as it rose into the night sky, not turning away until it had found its place in the darkness.

(Auster, 1992a: 307)

Auster's two most recent novels, Oracle Night and The Brooklyn Follies, return to the themes of friendship and family in a metropolitan setting. Both books are set predominantly in Brooklyn. As will be discussed in Chapter 6, Brooklyn is the borough in which Auster lives. It is a place which affords him a personal sense of well-being and belonging, and it is also a source for his work.

Like Leviathan, Oracle Night is the story of two authors. The primary focus is the young but sickly Sidney Orr, and alongside him is the older and established writer, John Trause (an anagram of Auster). The novel takes place over nine days in September 1982, and is recounted from ‘more than twenty years after the fact’ (Auster, 2004: 222). The stories of the two men are complexly interwoven with the fictional narratives they write. While Sidney's story is slight in comparison with the detailed narratives of Auster's earlier texts, the way in which the various fictions ebb and flow in this work is a testament to his literary craftsmanship.

To a large extent the novel explores the creative process, trying to locate the moment at which an idea becomes a story, becomes a novel. It is also a meditation, as is much of Auster's work, on the magical powers of storytelling and writing. Auster traces the development of a ‘premise’ for a novel gifted to Sidney by Trause. Sidney adapts ‘the (p.95) Flitcraft episode in … The Maltese Falcon, the curious parable … about the man who walks away from his life and disappears’ (Auster, 2004: 13). Clearly this echoes Hawthorne's ‘Wakefield’, but the story is reworked here for the twentieth century by both Hammett and Auster. In the unnamed novel Sidney is writing, part of a building falls eleven floors, just missing his central character, Nick Bowen. Bowen realises that ‘a new life has been given to him – that his old life is finished’ (Auster, 2004: 26). Sidney's central character is a literary editor, and he has just come into possession of the manuscript of a missing novel by a renowned 1920s woman writer. It is from this text that Oracle Night takes its title. The layering of narratives in this way is symptomatic of the recursive structures Brian McHale identifies as ‘mise-en-abyme’ – effectively, narrative worlds falling into and, crucially, resembling each other (McHale, 1987: 124). As McHale notes, ‘[s]trategies involving recursive structures – nesting or embedding, as in a set of Chinese boxes… . [ – ] have the effect of interrupting and complicating the ontological “horizon” of the fiction, multiplying its worlds, and laying bear the process of world-construction’ (McHale, 1987: 112). Because Auster is exploring the nature of literary creativity in Oracle Night, by embedding a novel within a novel within a novel, he is also necessarily exposing the ways in which authors create fictional worlds. Auster continually draws attention to the practice of writing by punctuating the narrative with footnotes, which shift backwards and forwards from the book's present, and between Sidney's ‘real’ world, created by Auster, and the fictional worlds which Sidney, as a writer, is creating.

The magical power stories can possess is demonstrated through both place and practice. The place is the stationery store, Paper Palace, which Sidney discovers. The store is a place of stillness where Sidney's story really begins, and where ‘the sound of [a] pencil was the only sound in the world’ (Auster, 2004: 5). The story begins at the store because this is where Sidney buys a new notebook to begin writing again after a long illness. The practice is the habit of writing in notebooks which Auster has discussed in ‘The Red Notebook’. Sidney's notebook has strange properties, powers of which Trause has already warned. ‘The first time I used the notebook’, Sidney tells Trause, ‘I wasn’t there anymore … I disappeared’ (Auster, 2004: 165). When Sidney's wife Grace tries to find him, it is as though he has crossed what McHale calls ‘the ontological threshold to a different narrative level’, or fallen into his own story world (McHale, 1987: 125). Towards the end of the novel, (p.96) Sidney records an observation which, one suspects, is Auster's understanding of his own aesthetic practice. Sidney has become, he insists, ‘a transparent, porous membrane through which all the invisible forces of the world could pass – a nexus … of the thoughts and feelings of others’ (Auster, 2004: 223). This assertion reflects Auster's own stated beliefs about writing and authorship, expounded in any number of interviews in various media, that he is a simple storyteller at the whim of creativity.14 However, a text which employs footnotes, and other novels which employ literary devices in such knowing ways, suggest that Auster is far more aware of his practice than his public pronouncements indicate.

Sidney's narrative explores the destructive power of families, but also the redemptive power of friendship. Trause's son Jacob, whose behaviour is modelled in part on problems Auster's own son Daniel had with drugs and the law, is an agent of destruction.15 He robs Sidney's apartment and then attacks Grace, ending her pregnancy. However, Sidney's friendship with Trause is one of genuine kindness and mutual benefit, and though Trause dies before the end, the warmth between the two author-characters is a palpable presence throughout the book.

The Brooklyn Follies explores two places, one real and one imaginary. First there is the neighbourhood in Brooklyn where the book's narrator, Nathan Glass, has settled to await his own death; ‘I was looking for a quiet place to die’ is the arresting first line (Auster, 2005: 1). Here, because of the nature of cities and the myriad potential interconnections, he re-establishes contact with his favourite nephew, Tom. Together they form a firm bond, and gather a group of unconventional Brooklynite friends around them. Secondly there is the imaginary and abstract Hotel Existence, a ‘place where a man goes to when life in the real world is no longer possible’ (Auster, 2005: 100). Earlier in the novel, this exact phrase has been used to describe some of the works of Poe and Thoreau (Auster, 2005: 14). The implication is, of course, that literature and society can create spaces of ‘community’ and ‘utopia’ (Auster, 2005: 106). We will return to these ideas of utopia, community and Brooklyn in later chapters.


(1) Although Aaron is a writer and shares Auster's initials, his character has more basis in the figure of a New York painter whom Auster knew. In ‘The Red Notebook’ he records B.'s story of fatherhood, divorce, lovers (of which Aaron has a number), eviction, dinner parties and finally true love (Auster, (p.97) 1997: 354–7).

(2) This is a type of fiction which Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘historiographic metafiction’ (Hutcheon, 1988: 106). The novels of E. L. Doctorow are notable examples, particularly Ragtime (1976), in which Freud and Jung visit Coney Island together.

(3) This event is a reinterpretation of a fall Auster's father had from the roof of a tenement. His fall was broken by a clothesline, and he escaped virtually unhurt (Auster, 1997: 374).

(4) Maria is based on the French artist Sophie Calle. An inscription in this book reads: ‘The author extends special thanks to Sophie Calle for permission to mingle fact with fiction’ (Auster, 1993: n.p.). For more about Maria's ‘pieces’ and their origins in the artistic career of Sophie Calle, see Calle, 1999, in which Parts I and II explore the ‘rituals’ that Auster borrows from Calle, and reinterpret two of these using the additional rules supplied by Auster in Leviathan. Calle also collaborated with Auster on a piece called ‘Gotham Handbook’, included in Double Game (see Chapter 6).

(5) On the conventional use of genealogy in the Moon Palace see also Weisenburger, 1995: 130–4.

(6) ‘The Red Notebook’ is an extended meditation on a number of seemingly contingent events which have happened directly or indirectly to Auster (Auster, 1997: 341–80).

(7) Iris is not just a representation of Siri in Auster's work; she also represents one of his intertextual borrowings. In an interview, Siri Hustvedt has described how Iris is a character in her own book Blindfold (1994), and how Auster asked if her character could marry his in Leviathan (Front Row, 2003).

(8) As Joseph S. Walker notes, the reabsorption of the Phantom's acts of resistance into commercial culture merely demonstrates ‘the grinding wheels of popular consumption’ (Walker, 2004: 342–3).

(9) On Jameson, language and the fragmentary nature of Sachs's experiences, see also Fleck, 1998: 262–3.

(10) Aaron takes the name Leviathan from the unfinished manuscript of Sachs's last novel. The term, once again, refers to Auster's concern with living numerously. Mark Osteen considers the parallels between Hobbes's and Auster's Leviathan, and he compares the state to an artificial man, ‘a multitude unified in one person’ (Osteen, 1994: 87).

(11) This section of the novel was first published as a critical essay, ‘Moonlight in the Brooklyn Museum’, in Art News (Auster, 1987).

(12) See also Weisenburger, 1995: 140–1.

(13) On Auster's use of the traditional conventions of the quest form, see also Shilo, 2002a.

(p.98) (14) See, for example, an interview which accompanied the publication of Oracle Night. Here Auster insists of his literary method: ‘I don’t understand it either. See, so much of what I do is simply unconscious; I don’t know where the ideas come from. I don’t know how to explain the work I do’ (O’Hagan, 2004: n.p.).

(15) Auster's wife, Siri Hustvedt, draws on the same autobiographical material in her acclaimed third novel, What I Loved (2003). Here, Daniel is renamed Mark, respectively the son and stepson of Bill and Violet. Their friends in a New York artistic milieu (similar to Sachs's in Leviathan) are Leo and Erica. These friends support each other through a series of crises, while Bill's art and their various writings chart the emotions of their lives.


(1) Although Aaron is a writer and shares Auster's initials, his character has more basis in the figure of a New York painter whom Auster knew. In ‘The Red Notebook’ he records B.'s story of fatherhood, divorce, lovers (of which Aaron has a number), eviction, dinner parties and finally true love (Auster, (p.97) 1997: 354–7).

(2) This is a type of fiction which Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘historiographic metafiction’ (Hutcheon, 1988: 106). The novels of E. L. Doctorow are notable examples, particularly Ragtime (1976), in which Freud and Jung visit Coney Island together.

(3) This event is a reinterpretation of a fall Auster's father had from the roof of a tenement. His fall was broken by a clothesline, and he escaped virtually unhurt (Auster, 1997: 374).

(4) Maria is based on the French artist Sophie Calle. An inscription in this book reads: ‘The author extends special thanks to Sophie Calle for permission to mingle fact with fiction’ (Auster, 1993: n.p.). For more about Maria's ‘pieces’ and their origins in the artistic career of Sophie Calle, see Calle, 1999, in which Parts I and II explore the ‘rituals’ that Auster borrows from Calle, and reinterpret two of these using the additional rules supplied by Auster in Leviathan. Calle also collaborated with Auster on a piece called ‘Gotham Handbook’, included in Double Game (see Chapter 6).

(5) On the conventional use of genealogy in the Moon Palace see also Weisenburger, 1995: 130–4.

(6) ‘The Red Notebook’ is an extended meditation on a number of seemingly contingent events which have happened directly or indirectly to Auster (Auster, 1997: 341–80).

(7) Iris is not just a representation of Siri in Auster's work; she also represents one of his intertextual borrowings. In an interview, Siri Hustvedt has described how Iris is a character in her own book Blindfold (1994), and how Auster asked if her character could marry his in Leviathan (Front Row, 2003).

(8) As Joseph S. Walker notes, the reabsorption of the Phantom's acts of resistance into commercial culture merely demonstrates ‘the grinding wheels of popular consumption’ (Walker, 2004: 342–3).

(9) On Jameson, language and the fragmentary nature of Sachs's experiences, see also Fleck, 1998: 262–3.

(10) Aaron takes the name Leviathan from the unfinished manuscript of Sachs's last novel. The term, once again, refers to Auster's concern with living numerously. Mark Osteen considers the parallels between Hobbes's and Auster's Leviathan, and he compares the state to an artificial man, ‘a multitude unified in one person’ (Osteen, 1994: 87).

(11) This section of the novel was first published as a critical essay, ‘Moonlight in the Brooklyn Museum’, in Art News (Auster, 1987).

(12) See also Weisenburger, 1995: 140–1.

(13) On Auster's use of the traditional conventions of the quest form, see also Shilo, 2002a.

(p.98) (14) See, for example, an interview which accompanied the publication of Oracle Night. Here Auster insists of his literary method: ‘I don’t understand it either. See, so much of what I do is simply unconscious; I don’t know where the ideas come from. I don’t know how to explain the work I do’ (O’Hagan, 2004: n.p.).

(15) Auster's wife, Siri Hustvedt, draws on the same autobiographical material in her acclaimed third novel, What I Loved (2003). Here, Daniel is renamed Mark, respectively the son and stepson of Bill and Violet. Their friends in a New York artistic milieu (similar to Sachs's in Leviathan) are Leo and Erica. These friends support each other through a series of crises, while Bill's art and their various writings chart the emotions of their lives.