From Metonymy to Metaphor: Paul Auster's Leviathan

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Author: Linda L. Fleck
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,111 words

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[(essay date spring 1998) In the following essay, Fleck offers two interpretations of Leviathan, one characterized by metonymic language and the other by metaphor, suggesting the influence of Jacques Lacan on Auster's text.]

Leviathan is a novel begun by chance. The narrator, Peter Aaron, decides to reconstruct, to the best of his ability and beginning on July 4, 1990, the tale of his friend and fellow writer Benjamin Sachs, who was born on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and was himself blown to smithereens about forty-five years later. A bomb he had been making to blow up a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty went off in his hands on the side of a Wisconsin road. Aaron, who had read about the incident in the paper, learns with certainty of his friend's demise from FBI agents attempting to ascertain the victim's identity. Aaron's New York City home telephone number had been found in the man's wallet, which had somehow survived the explosion intact; the FBI managed to track Aaron down at the summer home of Sachs's ex-wife in Vermont. In response to the agent's questions, Aaron plays dumb. He is fairly certain the FBI will eventually solve the riddle of the man's identity, but he writes.

as far as I'm concerned, the longer it takes them the better. The story I have to tell is rather complicated, and unless I finish it before they come up with their answer, the words I'm about to write will mean nothing. Once the secret is out, all sorts of lies are going to be told ... and within a matter of days a man's reputation will be destroyed. ... [S]ince he's no longer in a position to defend himself, the least I can do is explain who he was and give the true story of how he happened to be on that road in northern Wisconsin. ... If by some chance the mystery remains unsolved. I'll simply hold on to what I have written, and no one will need to know a thing about it.(2-3)

Of course the fact that we are reading the text means that the FBI has succeeded in solving the mystery, and the novel comes to an abrupt halt when Agent Harris cracks the case, thanks to Sachs's having impersonated Aaron in upstate New York. In between the chance event that sets the narrative in motion (the arrival of the FBI) and the chance event that brings it to a close (their return), there is the "rather complicated" story, filled with chance events, that makes up the body of the text. The "true story" of how Sachs happened to be on a road in Wisconsin is part "I-witness" narrative, based on what Sachs observed to Aaron and what Aaron observed of Sachs (although what Aaron sees with his own eyes does not always correspond to the "truth"), and part "other-witness" narrative, based on the accounts, sometimes conflicting, sometimes unreliable, of those close to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100074293