by Paul Auster
No, he is not the love child of Jacques
Lacan and Agatha Christie. He merely
writes that way.  In a series of short novels
from the mid-1980s, later published as
The New York Trilogy,
Paul Auster blurred the
lines between textual
interpretation and crime
scene investigation with
such audacity that fans
were ready to conscript
him as guest host of
America’s Most Wanted
(The Semiotic Edition)
.  In
an age when most pedi-
gree authors were stepping back from
experimental postures, Auster has proven to
be something of a wild card. Few novelists
are less predictable, and every new book of
his holds some unexpected surprise. But
certain themes recur again and again in
Auster's work, notably a sense of existential
isolation mitigated by a love-hate relationship
with words, the empowered text playing the
role an elusive lover might fill in a tale of
romance.  Above all, Auster moves from
straight narrative to twisted meta-narrative
with such ease, that readers can sometimes
feel more than seven degrees of separation
from surface level of the plot. In truth, not
all of his characters are guilty of weighty
crimes.  It’s just part of the Austerian pose,
a personality type that doesn't necessarily
come with a rap sheet.
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
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Essay by Ted Gioia

The postmodern attitude is like a corrosive acid that
threatens to harm even its most careful user. Advocates
delight in its overturning of hierarchies of truth and
validation, but this same stance also undermines any
claims made by the post-modernist
scribe. If all narratives are suspect,
all authors less than authoritative,
then the postmodern critique
itself is merely one more
unsubstantiated and dubious
position masquerading as truth.  
While it deconstructs, it also lays
itself open to deconstruction.  

Paul Auster’s novel
captures an extreme example
of the resulting despair of the
author in an age in which texts have become empty
husks, no longer conveying power and meaning.  
What better way for a writer to deal with this dead-
end by putting down his pen…and turning to bomb-
building instead?  There’s some
serious deconstruction
for you. And no one will deny the author’s efficacy in
this instance or (in Derridean fashion) dismiss the
importance the
author's intentions—starting with those
old school interpreters of acts and texts, the local
police and the FBI.

See also
The New York Trilogy  by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia
Invisible by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster reviewed by Ted Gioia

Auster’s novel begins as a topsy-turvy mystery, in
which the criminal is identified at the very outset—
even before the exact nature of the crime is made
clear. We have seen this type of ploy used in
other experimental fictions—three years earlier
Martin Amis also revealed the criminal’s identity on
the opening page of his
London Fields—and the effect
on readers is anything but anticlimactic. The enigma
here is not "who done it?" but "why?" In the case
Leviathan, Ben Sachs has been killed in a blast,
apparently while constructing an explosive device.  
The reader follows along as Sachs’s friend Peter
Aaron, the narrator of
Leviathan, tries to come to
grips with the path by which this once promising
writer went from books to bombs.

As we learn more about Sachs over the course of the
first hundred or so pages of this novel, the less the
pieces fit together. Sachs is witty, convivial, easy-
going.  No, he is not perfect, but even Sach's faults—
he often comes across as impractical and clueless in
the ways of the world—seem to disqualify him for
a career as a urban terrorist. Can this character
actually coexist with the CV and modus operandi
assigned to him?   Auster ultimately pulls it off, and
the overall effect is akin to a journey through a maze,
with a surprising series of twists and turns leading to
a wildly unexpected endpoint.  By the time we reach
the final pages of
Leviathan, the character sketch
coheres, and many small details from earlier in the
book coalesce—both in terms of plotting and
symbolic resonance—in validating this portrait of
man who found that the OED didn't pack quite the
same punch as an IED.   

This novel was published in the midst of the FBI’s
manhunt for the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who
was eventually responsible for 16 bombings, three
deaths and 23 injuries over a period of 17 years.
Auster tellingly anticipated a number of aspects of
the real life criminal's past, including Kaczynski's
connections to Berkeley, where both character Ben
Sachs and the Unabomber had ties.  And, even
more peculiar, Kaczynski became a published
author three years after
Leviathan came out, when
his 35,000-word manifesto
Industrial Society and Its
was published by The New York Times and
Washington Post, as part of a quid pro quo that gave
the bomber a wide audience, and FBI a chance to see
if any reader could pick up clues in the text that
might identify a suspect.  

This novel, much like the case of the Unabomber,
raises troubling questions about sanity and terror, as
well as forces us to deal with distinctly modern stances
on civil disobedience that Thoreau never anticipated.
An almost instinctive response among the general
public is to label serial criminals as lunatics. Yet
someone like Kaczynski—who entered Harvard at
16, later earned a Ph.D. in mathematics and
eventually taught at Berkeley—showed equally
prominent signs of an almost cold-blooded rationality.   
Auster probes the same contradiction in
Leviathan, and
his protagonist Sachs is a quintessentially modern man
in the worst sort of way.   If anything, this character
study, with its unflinching delving into the place
where idealism turns to violence, has become even
more relevant in the years since Auster's book was
first published.

Ted Gioia's latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Essay published: August 23, 2011

Further Clues:

Interview with Paul Auster by Michael Wood in The
Paris Review

"Shallow Graves: The Novels of Paul Auster" by James
Wood in The New Yorker

"Spellbound" by Michael Dirda in The New York Review
of Books

Stillman's Maze

The Leviathan Trivia Quiz
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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Ted Gioia's homepage
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American Fiction Notes
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Crimespree Magazine
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