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García Álvarez de Perea.



Ana García Álvarez de Perea. 28.June.2001 Is Paul Auster´s Ghosts a detective novel? Paul Auster is a North-American novelist with a very heavy literary baggage; he has written poetry, essays and he has translated several works from authors like Jacques Dupin, Mallarmé and Sartre, this conveys depth to his work which becomes very complex because of the use of different elements of different literary genres. Paul Auster has already

written eight novels including Ghosts (1983) which was later included in his Trilogy of New York. With Ghosts, Paul Auster created a novel in which several genres and styles are included and mixed, the purpose of this meddling in the form of a detective novel is the ground work for this paper. In it, I will try to clarify several aspects of the novel in order to understand Paul Auster´s purpose in it. To achieve this, I will deal with certain features. First of all, I will see the normal elements of detective novels and those that Auster includes in this novel and those which he does not. According to John Shipley in his Dictionary of World Literary Terms, a detective story is a narrative in which a specific problem is solved by the wit

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and energy of a detective, he also states that the form is one of the narrowest in popular fiction, but that it also admits an astonishing variety; according to John G. Cawelti, a detective novel is a novel in which “ a conventional way of defining and developing a particular kind of situation or situations, a pattern of action or development of this situation, a certain group of characters and the relations between them, and a setting or type of setting appropriate to the characters and action”. This is somewhat too fuzzy still, so I will focus mainly on the four aspects Poe specified for detective novels. The first one is the situation, according to Poe the novel should begin with an unsolved crime and move towards the elucidation of the mystery, with the criminal and his purposes known, to determine the means or to establish a clear evidence for the criminal´s deed. There are two major

types of crime: murder and crimes associated with political intrigue. According to William Aydelotte, normally the

detective usually has little real personal interest in the crime he is investigating, and, for him, this is a “fundamental architectonic principle of the formula”. The second important feature is that of the pattern of action, the detective story formula centres upon the detective´s investigation and solution of the crime, there

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are six main phases in this pattern: the introduction of the detective, the crime and the clues, the investigation, the announcement of the solution, the explanation of the solution and the denouément. The introduction of the detective is

normally made at the beginning and there is usually a show of the detective´s competence so that the reader is able to see from the beginning that the detective will be able to solve the mystery at the end. The detective is presented in his context, though this is not necessary. In most detective

novels the point of view of the narrator does not let us see the workings of the mind of the detective and the description of the crime usually follows the introduction of the detective, the crime should be surrounded by clues and it appears as insoluble, there is a parade of witnesses, suspects and false solutions that make the process more obscure. The announcement of the solution is in the final section in the pattern of the classical detective story and involves the actual apprehension and confession of the criminal. The third aspect that Poe talks about is characters and relationships, according to Poe, there are four main roles: the victim, the criminal, the detective and those that are

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threatened by the crime but who are incapable of solving it. Without these four roles, it is impossible to create a detective story . The detective should be detached from

society and ordinary patterns of human society. The fourth element is the setting, in these novels, we find the detective isolated against the world outside, the isolated is related to the gothic and the world is associated to order. The back and forth from the setting and the office

of the detective are symbolic for chaos and order. Now we will see the elements of detective novels that are included or not in this novel. To start with, detective

novels are supposed to start with a given situation which is the presence of a crime that has to be solved, in Auster´s novel we do not find the crime, not only at the beginning, the truth is that Blue, the protagonist of the book does not know exactly what the problem to solve is and he imagines possible “crimes” that he should be investigating, in the first page of the novel, the narrator tells us: “Blue assumes it´s a marriage case”(p. 162)just to tell us in the following page that he was wrong, and he goes on elaborating plausible causes for White´s need of a detective, in p.172, the narrator tells us how Blue entertains himself in making up stories; Blue imagines that White and Black are brothers and that a large inheritance is at stake or also that they are

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both scientists and that they are about to discover something, or even that it is a police or spies´ case. All

these stories are possible and, as long as the narrator or White do not give us more information, they could be realities, this is what Auster tries to pose, the fact that reality is not only what it is, but that it could be anything as long as it is possible, just as this novel could be a detective novel. Another important issue is that the detective should be detached from the crime, that is, he should not be personally involved in it, at the beginning, it is in this way, Blue recognises he accepts the case for the money: “Blue needs the work, and so he listens to White and doesn´t ask many questions”. But when the work advances and Blue starts

discovering things about himself through the case, his detachment is not so evident, when he has been in the case for a year, the narrator advances us Blue´s thoughts which project a different view of the case: “It seems perfectly plausible to him that he is also being watched, observed by another in the same way that he has been observing White” (p.200), he even loses his girlfriend for the sake of the case. There is also a case in the novel in which a detective,

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Gold, which is presented as a positive figure-starting with the colour chosen to name him- is precisely enhanced for his closeness and personal interest in a case: “If it were possible, he would like nothing better than to drop what he is doing and try to help Gold. There aren´t enough men like

that, he thinks.” (p.169) This is a possible point where Auster may be contesting the formula of the detective novel. The pattern of action is the weakest point in this novel if we look at it as a detective novel, according to Poe, there are six main phases of the pattern. I will deal now with those that are contested by Auster. The first phase is

contested in the first page of the novel and may hint to the idea that Auster wants the reader to read this novel as a normal novel but not belonging specifically to the detective genre. The pattern in detective novels is that the

detective is presented in his context and that, at the beginning of the novel, the author lets us see the “special competence” of the detective, in order to let the reader see that the novel is worth reading because we will be able to appreciate an extraordinary work. If we turn to the first page, this is specially reversed by Auster, Blue does not ask many questions and at the end of the conversation he does not have a clear idea of the problem he is supposed to solve, but that does not pose a problem to him, all that the narrator

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tells us is: “To be fair to Blue, he finds it all a little strange.”(p.161) From the beginning, the reader has the impression that it is not a normal detective story, even though these novels are presented in the cover as detective novels, there is something special with them. The first

description of the detective is totally absent: “First of all there is Blue”, the longest description is of a secondary character, White and it is the only way in which Blue shows his competence as a great detective but it is not extraordinary: “Blue is no amateur in the art of disguise, and it´s not difficult for him to see through this one”. (p.162) Instead of letting the reader see the detective´s

competence, it seems that Auster wants to ridicule Blue by giving a first impression of him as not competent enough even to get a complete idea of what the case is going to be and also enhancing his work as discovering the disguise which is presented as not a specialist´s work but as a work that could be done by anyone, this is a mockery of the detective protagonist in this novel. The break of the formula and also

of our expectations is in page 162 the narrator tells us the length of the case which is rather long: “It is 1947. February 3,

Little does Blue know, of course, that the case will Auster gives a very exact date of the

go on for years.”

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beginning of the case and a very loose one for its end, this makes the reader become more hesitant in what the case will end up and if it will end up satisfactorily and even if we do not find this element normally in detective novels it can somehow help to increase the suspense. Another important phase is that of the crime and the clues; the crime is unknown, Blue does not know what mystery he has to solve or even who is the one he should be following. Blue hesitates between following the woman or staying with his job near to Black in page 183 and, later on, he hesitates if he should follow the supposed maker of the crime or the person that has given him the case and follows this one to the Post Office because he is lost within the case: “ The real problem boils down to identifying the nature of the problem itself. To start with, who poses

the greater threat to him, White or Black? [...] Tale Black, then. Until now he has been the entire case, the But if White is

apparent cause of all his troubles.

really out to get Blue and not Black, then perhaps Black has nothing to do with it,[...] On the other hand, it

is also possible that Black is somehow working in league with White and that together they have conspired to do Blue in. [...]If so, what are they doing to him?

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Nothing very terrible finally- at least not in any absolute sense”. (p. 201)

This paragraph is in the middle of the novel and has two very striking issues; the first one is the fact that deals with the detective novel, and it is that of the detective not being aware, at this stage of the novel, of the real nature of the case. The second one is that of the last statement,

especially, taking into account that he has lost his former life with the loss in page 195 of his future wife. The investigation is rather inexistent, there are nor witnesses, nor suspects and the announcement of the solution is lacking also due to the fact that there is not really a solution even at the end of the novel. Talking about what refers to the core of characters normally present in this type of novels, we find that in this one there are great black holes. To start with we do not

have a victim nor a criminal, or rather, the criminal is not clearly accused of any crime and, therefore he is not what is expected of a criminal. The clearest figure of those

proposed by Poe that we find in this novel is the detective, Blue; though not presented as the typical private-eye, conveys clearly what we expect of a detective especially at the beginning when he is presented in his office and starting

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a new case, nevertheless his skills in the detective profession are not so clear, he does follow the person he has been paid to and he fills the reports he had contracted to write, but he does not follow him in a very systematic way and he even cheats in his reports in order to change what he is living and keep the case moving. The fourth role, which

also lacks in this novel, is that of the people threatened by the crime that go to the detective because they feel unable to solve it, we only have White who does not give a hint that he is nervous or preoccupied because of the case, what is more, in this novel we do not find a group of people or a society in which the criminal and the victim are included and therefore there are not many people involved in the case just Blue, White and Black and in an incidental way Blue´s girlfriend. The last important aspect we are going to deal with is the setting; in classical detective novels, we find the detective in his own setting, that is, his office which is normally symbolic for order and the detective has to restore the order that has been broken in the outside world. All these things leads the reader to think of this novel as not being of the detective genre, but the truth is that Auster uses the detective genre as a frame to deal with other elements more important to him such as the nature of writing,

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the nature of identity and its construction, representations and constructions of reality, time and space, and others. The elements included to frame the novel as a detective novel are few but enough to create a solid framework in which the novel is embedded. The most evident is the presence of the private-eye, the case, the “legwork” in which Blue is entangled. The most important features are given by these

facts and it is true that they frame all the novel because the few things that happen are related to the case, the leaving of his wife, the conversations with Black and the disguises, the reading of the book by Thoreau, the opening of the “locked room” in the final passage, and so on. Another

important element is the point of view of the narrator which gives us all the workings of Blue´s mind, but not of Black´s mind, in this sense I have the impression that both Blue and Black, the doubles, are part of the book in a different way, Black justifies his existence and his acts with the existence of Blue, when Blue asks Black why he is there Black answers: “To remind me of what I was supposed to be doing. Every time

I looked up, you were there, watching me, following me, always in sight, boring into me with your eyes. You were the whole world to me, Blue, and I turned you into my death” (p.230) For me, it seems as if they were parts of the same

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person, the detective is in a way Blue because it is his job, but it is Black who is in control of the situation, the one that knows all the facts and he even tells Blue in one of his conversations that he is a detective. In this novel, Auster shows us the construction of an identity, the fact that it is Black and not Blue who dies leads me to think of Blue´s entrance in what I will call a “parallel world”, that is, in order to know himself, Blue is encommended this task and there are moments in which he shows he feels as if something not natural was happening to him: “Nearly every day he has been tempted to pick up the phone and call her, thinking that perhaps a moment of real contact would break the spell”. (p.173), this makes him think that he is changing and as the narrator also tells us: “He has never given much thought to the world inside him, and though he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quantity, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself” (p.171). Blue knows he is not in a normal state because he

wants to do things and he can not, he thinks words will be able to break the spell he has said in page 173: “[...]some luminous and extraordinary words that will bring him back to the world of the living.”(p.187) In this quest for his identity which is not provoked by the protagonist but by the incidents that happen to him, as

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is typical in Auster´s novels, Blue needs to identify with someone and does so with some characters throughout the novel. The first one is Black, in page 164, we find Blue writing that Black is writing, therefore the two main characters are doing the same it is the first hint in the novel of a double which will be clearly united at the end. The second identification is that of the protagonist with the boy that was murdered whose case Gold is treating, his thoughts are: “It could have been me” (p.170). The

identification with Black grows stronger throughout the novel, it is significant that in the quote above of page 171, he sees himself as “dark”. Blue also feels well in the dark as we can see in page 182: “There is something nice about being in the dark, he discovers, something thrilling about not knowing what is going to happen next”. The choice of the

name Black and the references to darkness do not seem a coincidence to me, darkness unites the two characters. There is a strong identification between the two main characters from very early in the novel, in page 172, the narrator tells us: “For in spying out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself.” And in page 188 there is a strong

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connection shown between the two of them: “For the closer he feels to Black, the less he finds it necessary to think about him. In other words, the more deeply entangled he becomes,

the freer he is. What bogs him is not involvement but separation”. The identification becomes stronger when it is not only Black the double of Blue but when both are intermingled and they become not doubles but one, this can be seen when Black tells Blue in page 216:”Because he needs me, says Black, still looking away. He needs my eyes looking at him”. It is

not only the narrator that draws parallelisms between the main characters but also Black does. Also, when Blue goes to

Black´s appartment the narrator states: “[...]and suddenly, there is no distance, the thing and the thought of the thing are one and the same.” (p.218) This sentence is quite revealing at this point, it draws a parallelism between the thing and the character, Black, which is the thought, the ghost-for he is the one to die, and Blue, who is the thing, that still belongs to this world, that is why he does not die. The last fragment involving the identity of Blue is

found near the end of the novel and the narrator lets the reader see that Blue does not need Black anymore, this is in page 226: ”For Blue at this point can no longer accept Black´s existence, and therefore denies it.” Both are one,

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but Blue does not know, throughout the novel he learns about himself, he has to kill Black when he sees himself mature for Black is somehow an alter-ego of Blue and there can not be two. Nevertheless, Auster plays again with our expectatives because the reader does not get a glimpse of the new identity, for the reader Blue has not achieved his mission in the novel, to solve the mystery. Auster uses the form of the

detective novel to create the quest for the solution of the crime and then not giving the answer to the reader who at the end does not even know the crime nor what the protagonist has achieved. Another important issue that Auster includes in this, apparently simple, novel is that of the nature of writing, through the writing of the reports Auster gives his account of the nature of literature and writing. As soon as the

beginning of the novel in page 162, he equates literature and history, he puts them at the same level in the sentence “Such is the way of the world: one step at a time, one word and then the next.” Blue has always felt that words are easy to deal with, that they help him to understand the world, but this changes when he enters in this “parallel world”, when he has to write his first report he feels that “he can no longer

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depend on the old procedures” (p.175), then he feels that “words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say.” Auster is a master with irony, in page 202, when the narrator tells us how Blue feels, he despises a book that in which “There is no story, no plot, no action-nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book” by which he is describing this novel in which there is no story- at least not coherent-, no plot and almost no action. Space and time are also important in this novel, the settings are reduced and the time seems to be stopped, it seems as if it was the same trough all the novel, at the beginning we find: “The place is New York, the time is the present, and neither one will ever change.” (p.161), this may be said to give universality to the text because the fact is that time changes for it keeps moving on, nevertheless Black seems to want to stop it and says at the end of the novel: “It´s going to be the two of us together, just like always”. Another important issue is language, there are few descriptions and the syntax is usually not complex. In an

interview with Larry Mccaffery and Sinda Gregory, Auster declared that his novels are not nor pretend to be detective novels but that they are more similar to fairy tales, I find that it is true to a certain extent, in what refers to

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language it is true, also in the introduction of the characters as simple, straight characters and the naming of the characters with colours adds up to this idea: Black is bad; White is good-though we are not sure of this; Blue, Green, Red, and the rest are ordinary characters; and Gold is extraordinary. Language is very simple and the complexity of the text relies in the difficulty to understand what happens. When the narrator talks about this new form of writing that Blue needs it makes me think of the new ways of writing the postmodern authors propose and how this novel is “nothing new under the sun” in the sense that Detective novels have not been invented by Auster but, at the same time, they are completely new, for they present completely modern themes and ways of developing them. Auster with the help of the detective genre, the fairy tales and the cinema among others presents a new novel which is as the rest and completely different, he subverts the tradition to pose important issues in our modern world.

Works Cited -Auster, Paul. Ghosts. The New York Trilogy. London:

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Penguin Books.1990. -Cawelti, Jihn G. Adventure, Mystery and Romance. London: The University of Chicago Press.1976. -Mccaffery, Larry and Sinda Gregory. “Interview with Paul Auster” Mississipi Review. Hattiesburg: The University of Southern Mississipi. 1991 (volume 20, numbers 1&2) -Shipley, Joseph T. Dictionary of World Literary Terms. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1979