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Existentialism in the City: Paul Auster
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Existentialism in the City: Paul Auster

Picture of Lindsay Parnell
Updated: 4 January 2017
New Jersey native Paul Auster is a truly contemporary fiction writer. Lindsay Parnell analyses the author’s exploration of existentialism, identity and crime through his New York Trilogy, in which the city becomes a real protagonist.
New York

There is no name more synonymous with contemporary literature than that of Paul Auster. This literary Brooklyn dweller is not only a critically acclaimed novelist, but also a translator, essayist, screenwriter, poet, playwright and frequent collaborator with artists. He is also a typewriter enthusiast who still prefers steel keys to those of a laptop. Mix one part transcendentalist admirer with three parts postmodern philosopher and a liberal sprinkling of literary crime fiction and you have the initial recipe for one of contemporary fiction’s most brilliant and inspiring authors. Auster exemplifies the notion of a place having a psychological character and will of its own: New York is never simply the setting in which his characters meet and interact, but a character in itself – creating a visceral presence within the text. t is on the streets of New York’s concrete jungle that the famous philosophical preoccupations of Auster are explored, promising an unforgettable and invigorating literary journey.

The New Jersey native and Columbia graduate spent time in Paris as a young twenty-something, working as a translator of French literature. Upon his American homecoming in the early 1980s, he relocated to New York City where he still lives and works. His body of work is defined by its grand themes of existentialism, the search for identity and an exploration of the shifting boundaries of language. A master storyteller with meticulous control, Auster has reinvented the crime novel in a truly literary sense. His work is a fusion of philosophical interrogation with crime genre fiction.

New York Trilogy

Auster’s The New York Trilogy features three detective stories, somehow connected, that interrogate postmodern ideas about identity, fate and existence. The concept of coincidence, and the degree to which a character can control his or her fate, is thoroughly explored throughout Auster’s novels. These philosophical ideas are flawlessly embedded into the text, gently undulating through the pages of prose, never in a didactic sense but always as an integral part of the narrative itself. ‘City of Glass‘, the first part of the trilogy, begins in New York City with a private investigator’s journey of maddening descent into insanity. From the various manifestations of the character ‘Peter Stillman’, to the varied roles of the character of ‘Paul Auster’ (Paul Auster the writer, and then Paul Auster the detective), identity is explored through multiple layers of reality. In addition to a character-driven dialogue with reality, Auster also plays with intertextuality through references to Don Quixote. This combination of literary interrogation and exploration of existentialism results in a highly complex and accomplished text. ‘City of Glass’ was followed by ‘Ghosts’, in which Auster continues to challenge any fixed notion of reality and character, and ‘The Locked Room’, a respectful nod to old school detective fiction.

The concepts explored in the urban landscape of New York City in this trilogy are staples of Auster’s entire body of work, which includes: The Brooklyn Follies, Sunset Park, Invisible, Oracle Night and Leviathan, among many others. Today, Paul Auster continues to stimulate, entertain and question the minds of critics and fans alike.