Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On "The Locked Room" by Paul Auster ****

The last book of the New York Trilogy, The Locked Room is also perhaps the most traditional. Told from the point of a first-person narrator and essentially recounting a man's interactions with a strange childhood friend, the novel at first seems to have little in common with its two predecessors.

The narrator receives a call one day from a woman who has married his childhood friend Fanshawe. Fanshawe has disappeared, but he's left instructions to his wife that his friend should take over his literary estate. Fanshawe was a writer, though he never published. The narrator is to review the work, consider its worth, and then either destroy it or find a publisher. Like most who come in contact with Fanshawe, the narrator is a huge fan, and he is happily taken by the three novels, three plays, and book of poetry that Fanshawe has left behind--and so too is a publishing friend. (The narrator is a writer too, but one of the journalistic stamp, unable ever to break into the literary world.)

Meanwhile, the narrator falls in love with Sophie, Fanshawe's wife, and since Fanshawe had disappeared, he begins courting her. Until . . . He receives a letter from Fanshawe. The letter denotes that Fanshawe is alive, that he has made a decision to leave the world behind, and that he has given himself seven more years to life. He enourages the narrator to go forward with taking care of Sophie and his son.

The narrator is troubled by the letter but goes forward anyway. His troubles begin to overwhelm him, however, and he decides to revenge Fanshawe, to find him and kill him--or at least expose him. Meanwhile, others are claiming the narrator is Fanshawe, and to quell those rumors, the narrator agrees to write a biography of his friend, which is really just a means for him to find said friend.

Here's where the book begins to dovetail into the other two books of the trilogy. Names from the other book show up. There is a private detective named Quinn (from the first book); there is a man named Peter Stillman (also from the first book); there is a red notebook. (It turns out the narrator is the author of the first two novels of the trilogy.) There is an obsession with symbol, language, and meaning, and there is one particularly intriguing scene toward the book's end when the narrator finally confronts Fanshawe. It isn't Fanshawe, though (or is it?). It's a man who the narrator decides is Fanshawe, as if the decision, the application of meaning, is what matters--more than any meaning in and of itself. To decide a man is Fanshawe and act accordingly is what matters. So too with language and literature. We have a heap of words that we put the meanings to and that we go about in faith as if those meanings mattered.

Then, finally, of course, there's the locked room--the place we're not allowed to enter. But I won't get into that, because I can't. The novel won't let me. You'll just have to read and discover its contents for yourself.

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