THE LOCKED ROOM by Paul Auster


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The first two volumes of Auster's "New York Trilogy"--City of Glass (1985) and Ghosts (1986)--used mystery-fiction formulas as the basis for avant-garde explorations of identity crisis, death wish, and other existential traumas. This concluding book offers more straightforward treatment of similar material--as a middling N.Y. writer finds happiness, then despair, by taking over the life and work of his more gifted alter ego. The unnamed narrator here is a reasonably successful young book-critic circa 1976--when he answers a plea from lovely Sophie Fanshawe: her writer-husband has disappeared, leaving Sophie with a baby, a closetful of unpublished manuscripts, and instructions on how to proceed. So the narrator, who was Fanshawe's childhood friend/soulmate, agrees to follow Fanshawe's wishes: he'll evaluate the manuscripts, arranging either for their publication or their incineration. And the result is that the narrator is soon presiding over "a small industry" of acclaimed Fanshawe works; he also marries wonderful Sophie (she gets a quickie divorce from Fanshawe, who's presumed dead), adopts her baby son, and begins work on the definitive biography of this mysterious, hitherto-unknown genius named Fanshawe. But career/domestic bliss soon sours, of course--because the narrator learns (via an enigmatic message) that Fanshawe's still alive, because research for the bio leads to the awareness that "lives make no sense." Now obsessed with locating Fanshawe, the narrator finds himself out of control--having sex with Fanshawe's mother ("fucking out of hatred"), vowing to kill Fanshawe, committing random violence, losing himself in a booze/sex binge. And finally, after realizing that Fanshawe "functioned as a trope for the death inside me," the narrator has a showdown with his elusive, cryptic alter-ego. In its first half, this is an intriguing literary-world tale, slightly unreal, yet persuasive enough to be likably reminiscent of stories by Bellow, Henry James, and many others. Then, however, murky psycho-philosophical dynamics--Camus manque--take over, much as they did in Ghosts. (The apparently autobiographical narrator says of the trilogy: "These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about.")
Pub Date: Jan. 20th, 1987
Publisher: Sun & Moon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1987


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