Paul Auster, private detective

Wednesday, 01 May 2024 09:22


The Invention of Solitude is Auster’s memoir of his father, a meditation of the man so disconnected from his own life he might as well have not existed at all. If he left any mark of the world it was an empty space where he should have been, affectively, standing at any given moment:

“Devoid of passion, either for a thing, a person, or an idea, incapable or unwilling to reveal himself under any circumstances, he had managed to keep himself at a distance from life, to avoid immersion in the quick of things. He ate, he went to work, he had friends, he played tennis, and yet for all that he was not there. In the deepest and most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man. Invisible to others, and most likely invisible to himself as well.”

City of Glass and The Invention of Solitude are searches for a father who is absent, or dangerous, or both. Each book examines the same psychic space—that created by the schizoid retreat of the self or other—and both books seem to collapse into each other. Auster describes the search for his own self within his father’s history and through the gaps between dissociated states. He finds each gap has a complement and an opposite:

“I understand that each fact is nullified by the next fact, that each thought engenders an equal and opposite thought. Impossible to say without reservation: he was good, or he was bad; he was this, or he was that. All of them are true. At times, I have the feeling that I am writing about three or four different men, each one distinct, each one a contradiction of all the others. Fragments. Or the anecdote as a form of knowledge.”

The anecdote as a form of knowledge creates new patterns that ascribe meaning to chance encounters and allow patterns not evident to reveal themselves and create these meanings.

In her study of UFO narratives during the 1990s, Susan Lepselter emphasized the underlying sense of the uncanny running through her subjects’ lives while also discerning the poetry created within their own narratives. Through their observations of the world, her subjects created new patterns that “follow that quick leg of the semiotic journey where the public sign is internalized, and then reproduced as another sign, or another story...”

There is a difference between finding meaning and creating meaning. The apophenia Lepselter describes—the experience of perceiving connections between random or unrelated objects—is also a key element in Auster’s writing in which signifiers change as coincidences are given meanings and the unknown spaces are filled in. Anxiety is explained by a new narrative that creates another narrative, pulling an individual into a newly acknowledged reality before settling again. As Lepselter describes, “this affect as it moves from a fleeting sensation to the center of things,” helps to create the conspiracy theories and fantasies that explain our lives.

In the opening passage of City of Glass, between the prototypical detective-novel introduction and the denial of any objective meaning in the story, the narrator says of Quinn: “Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance.” Chance allows us to find our own meaning, accepting the possibility that we disappear, or that we do nothing but collect bits and pieces that may or may not comprise a narrative; a narrative that also disappears as soon as we think we are certain of the meaning, or certain we are understood.

Paul Auster, private detective