Facing the Sphinx: a journey through the maze of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy


“There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” – Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

It’s plausible that the universe is a riddle that human reason won’t ever be able to completely decipher. Our curiosity and awe in witnessing the hugeness of this “monster of force”, to use Nietzsche’s expression, leads us to formulate questions and to be confronted enigmas that our intelectual powers may be unable to answer. Forever young, the Cosmos Sphinx keeps on throwing mysteries on our awestruck laps, and we toil to uncover solutions or answers, while we’re devoured by the hungry mouth of Time! As Baudelaire wrote in an awesome poem, “The Enemy”:

“Oh misery!—Time devours our lives,
And the enemy black, which consumeth our hearts
On the blood of our bodies, increases and thrives!”

BAUDELAIRE. Les Fleurs Du Mal.

One of these days, wandering through the bookstores of Toronto, I was astonished at the quantity of shelves dedicated to Mystery books and Detective Novels – these genres seems to be editorial booms, many of them surely making into the best-sellers charts. Since I haven’t read much of the new stuff that’s been pouring out, I’ll abstain from judging its quality, and just point out that it got me thinking: what’s the secret of this strong seduction of Mystery? Why do people get so hooked up in crime-solving narratives and tales of suposedly supernatural phenomena? Why did celebrity-writers such as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie sold millions of copies of the written adventures of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Monsieur Hercule Poirot? Maybe we simply enjoy the amusement of following an investigation, the guessing-game we engaje in as we follow the detective’s path, the thrill of trying to discover whodunit… Besides being great pass-time, these books are for our brains a kind of rewarding cruise: we think about the case in the safety of our killer-proof residences and knowing that’s some attribution of guilty awaits at the narrative’s end.

Maybe the satisfaction is usually great when we arrive at the end of a well-crafted mystery book because some clear answers are brought to us: the identity of the murderer is revealed, the inner motives that explain his behaviour are explained, and Mr. Holmes or Poirot get acclaimed by most readers for their witty brains, smart deductions, wise decisions, proper inferences… We clap our hands and cheer at how smart they are. We celebrate human intelligence’s capacity for solving even the most bloody riddles and for sheding rational light into even the most erratical and irrational behaviour. Most best-selling detective-novels I’ve read never end up with the detective getting stuck, incapable of finding the killer, quitting the case – and maybe that’s because what the reader hungers for, in general, are answers and solutions, and not the anguish of unsolved riddles.

Some of Paul Auster’s characters know a lot about unsolved riddles. They seem to bepaul auster devoured by their un-answered questions. In Ghosts, the second part of The New York Trilogy, Auster creates a character, Gold, that is obsessed by a murder that happened 25 years before, in Philadelphia: the death of a child, whose killer was never discovered (which means: a crime umpunished). Gold is a police coroner that can’t stop thinking about the case, even when’s retired from his public service: as an old man, Gold invests all his time and money to the effort of solving the riddle of the murder, even tough the corpse is already rotten and the skeleton of the victim has been buried for decades. “Gold refuses to accept a world in which the murderer of a child can go unpunished, even if the murderer himself is now dead, and he is willing to sacrifice his own life and happiness to right the wrong.” (p. 140) The mystery lives on, and almost surely Gold dies with his effort to decipher the riddle unrewarded.

That’s one of the traits that make Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy such an original and amazing work-of-art: the author is not interested in handing us all the answers, but rather aims at enhancing our sense of mystery. The detectives, in Auster’s Trilogy, are never role-models or heroes, but people on the verge of insanity. Auster also expands the concept of “detective”: he strains the similarities, for example, between a biographer (someone researching about the life of someone he’s writing about) and a private detective. A biographer of Tchaikovsky, for example, looks a lot like a detective hunting for leads, checking out conspiracy theories, listening to different hypotheses, when they face the tricky riddle posed by the mysterious death of the Russian composer.

Both biographer and detective need, as a part of their job, to understand the Other, to comprehend the life of another person as it’s experienced from the inside. The biographer in The Locked Room has done much more than merely writing about Fanshawne from outside his life, with an outsider point-of-view: he’s a childhood friend of Fanshawne, and after his desapearance from the human-world, he takes Fanshawe place: marries his wife, publishes his books, becomes father to his child. Fanshawe, the great writer, exchanges places with the man who’s to become his biographer. But that’s not enough: there’s still a huge abyss between them. The project of writing a biography on Fanshawe seems like a leaky boat that slowly sinks because of Fanshawe’s mystery remains undeciphered.

But let’s rewind and go back to the beggining: The Trilogy begins invoking the image of the Tower of Babel. Soon, while we trip through New York in the wings of Auster’s prose, we’ll find out that The City That Never Sleeps is considered by the character Peter Stillmann as a “New Babel”. I couldn’t stop my mind from evoking Pieter Bruegel’s painting while I read through Auster’s pages about The Tower Of Babel: a huge construction, inspired by mankind’s megalomania, which never quite works out. Its intended aim – to reach God in the skies, to climb up and break right into Heaven… – is a complete failure. The ideal end and the factual reality tragically split: this attempt to reach celestial harmony ends up revealing only our earthly confusion and miscompreension. When building Babels, mankind seems to discover the frustating truth that up there, no matter how high we rise, we find only indifferent clouds. And nothing to redeem us from our clashing differences. We discover that we speak different languages, and create all sorts of ways to try to make sense out of life, and yet the unsolved riddles of the cosmos remain legion.

* * * * *

In City of Glass, we get acquainted with Quinn after he has lost his wife and child. He’s lonesome, isolated, still struggling with mourning, when the Stillman Case begins. Quinn is a writer of detective novels, who hides behind the name of Willliam Wilson, and has published lots of books filled the adventures of a Sherlock-like character, Max Work. When City of Glass begins, in a sort of kafkian mood, Quinn is about to embark in a real journey as a detective, after years writing his novels mainly resorting to the aid of his imagination.

This won’t be no smooth sailing for Quinn: the case will slowly crush him. Auster seems to be drawing the line between the reality of detective work – sometimes tedious, unrewarding, or even maddening – and the fantasy displayed in mystery novels – which, in general, features glamorous detectives that always end up out-smarting the criminals, solving the puzzle and saving the day. Auster’s Quinn is a dark figure, mournful and confused, and his involvement with the Stillmans is bound to further his hitchkockian descent into a state of vertigo.

City of Glass deals with the consequences of extreme social isolation. The old Peter Stillman, a sort of mad-theologist, seems to have freaked-out after the death of his wife: he locks his 2-year-old son, Peter Jr., from any contact with the world, for nine years, providing him with no education at all. This is how Virginia Stillman describes the whys and hows of Peter Stillman’s relations with his son:

“He began to believe in some of the far-fetched religious ideas he had written about. It made him crazy, absolutely insane. There’s no other way to describe it. He locked Peter in a room in the apartment, covered up the windows, and kept him there for nine years. (…) An entire childhood spent in darkness, isolated from the world, with no human contact except an occasional beating. I live with the results of that experiment, and I can tell you the damage was monstruous.” (p. 27)

kaspar hauser

Auster inserts some digressions into his novel about some episodes in history when similar cases ocurred, referring, for example, to Kaspar Hauser (there’s a great Werner Herzog’s film about it!). In City of Glass, the father – Peter Stillman – who isolates his child from the world, keeps him jailed like a beast in a cage for almost a decade, goes to jail for it. In the present tense of the novel’s beggining, Peter Stillman is about to be let loose again. No one nows how sane (or how insane) he is, nor what might be his intentions toward his traumatized son. Quinn gets messed up with this case merely by chance: a telephone call, due to Mr. Paul Austen, mistankingly had rang in Quinn’s apartment, which had decided to play detective for real (if only as a source of inspiration for his next mystery book, yet to be written).

The problem is: Quinn never embarks on this case with an interest merely professional. He has a wound that hasn’t stopped bleeding yet: the death of his wife and child. To protect the victim of Peter Stilman’s lunacy is for him a matter of intense emotional value. Maybe he’s seduced by the promise of some heroism, some real danger, after years filing commercial literature with imagined dangers and make-believe turmoils. There’s no thrill like living on the edge. Even the fear that Peter Stillman might still harbour in his chest a potential psycopath, maybe a dangerous one, kind of excites Quinn to keep on going, to keep diving deeper in the case. The enigma of the Other becomes an obsession that he can’t shake off. The riddle of that incomprehensible Other – Peter Stilmann – keeps demanding clearance. Peter Stillman functions like some hypnotic Sphynx that keps Quinn in a trance-like state: we’ll sleepwalk through New York’ Babel until he ends up as street-bum. He has been maddened by sorrow. He lost his mind in the maze. He didn’t solve the mystery of existence: he has had his brains fried by it.

Similarly, it can be quite infurianting to reach the last words of The Locked Room and discover that Auster did not provide us satisfactory answers to many of the questions it inevitably raises about his characters. It seems to me that’s a remarkable trait of the whole New York Trilogy. In City of Glass, Quinn dives into his investigation of Peter Stillman just to discover himself sinking into confusion: by the end of the novel, he’s crazier than ever, more isolated than at the start of this journey, less a detective than a tramp bound to end up in some loonies ward.

In Ghosts, the detective never quite gets into the skin of the mysterious writer he’s been hired to keep an eye on: Auster’s Dark Sherlock can spy Mr. Brown with his binoculars, but doesn’t see much besides a man reading Thoreau’s Walden and writing hundreds of pages in his notebook. He has no key to really enter the life experience of the other. The secret of the Other’s heart is a place hardly acessible to someone watching from far away: it demands that intimacy and long-term relationship that no detective, and nearly none biographer, is able to experience with the person he’s supposed to decipher.

The detectives, in Auster’s New York Trilogy, seem to get stuck with the mystery they’re supposed to solve: they frequently get lost in the maze of alterity. They lose certainties about their own identities while obsessing about the task of understanding the other. And then they tend to get crushed by the weight of an unsolved riddle. Auster doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of clear and un-ambiguous answers: he rather bids us farewell while leaving with us a whole bunch of questions. It’s as if he sees his task as a writer to be the spreading of mystery consciousness, rather than providing us with the humbug comforts of believing we have all the answers.

At the end of The Locked Room, the last third of the trilogy, the reader feels that Fanshawne isn’t someone he can claim to know: he keeps on been a mysterious figure, an enigma in flesh-and-blood, like a sphinx who hasn’t found its Oedipus yet. This seems to be the fate of many of Auster’s characters tumbling through New York’s Babel in this amazingly powerful work-of-art: they seek answers and they drown trying.

In the end, it seems as if the Sphinx has devoured them.