[(essay date spring 1998) In the following essay, Dow outlines notions of autobiography, postmodernism, and narrative ambiguity in The Invention of Solitude.]
Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude uses and questions the validity of postmodern typologies and thus properly can be read in light of recent postmodernist theory. At the same time, Invention [The Invention of Solitude] challenges the idea that autobiography issues from a pre-existing self or a unique and autonomous self. Auster's "autobiography," consequently, constructs a self that requires negotiation, complicity, and collusion (terms that refer not to single individuals but to relationships) as it shapes the materials of the past "to serve the needs of the present consciousness" (Gergen 100, Eakin 55). As G. Thomas Couser remarks:
With the undermining of the referential theory of language and the consequent emphasis on the self-reflexive nature of all texts, the writing of autobiography has been declared to be, on the one hand, problematic--if not impossible--and, on the other, a paradigm for all writing.(26)
For Auster's fiction, Invention provides a consistent angle of vision, signals the problematic and paradigm of his later work, and represents, in its dialogic potential, new possibilities for twentieth-century autobiographical structures. Imagining literary forms decisively in accord with the rhythms of individual perception, Auster has extended the postmodernist topos to include the power of contingency in his narrative emphasis on ambiguity and coincidence. In a world made of glimmers and sudden intuitions. Invention moves through the postmodern domains of decreation, disappearance, and other forms of "unmaking" to demonstrate how the novel genre can interpret and criticize itself.
But Auster goes against the postmodernist topos as well. His attempt to give language to the glimpses points to its own epistemology and theory of literary expression. Found abundantly in the early reviews and criticism of Invention the word postmodern, though "undoubtedly a part of the modern" (Lyotard, "Answering" 44), is increasingly used to describe an oppositional stance to modernist thought. If Jean-François Lyotard is right in concluding that "enlightenment" values (truth, progress, virtue, homogeneity) are no longer applicable in a postmodern epoch (19),1 Invention, in its reflection on the human condition and emphasis on the ethical component of the intellect, is at once a postmodernist extension and contravention.
The current debate on postmodernism as an operative cultural paradigm involves, in such theories as Charles Jencks's "sublation" and Ihab Hassan's "hybridization,"2 postmodernism's dialectical opposition to the modern. As Karlis Racevskis has argued,
Although the debate centers around the terms defined by Jean-François Lyotard in his epoch-making book La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, published in 1979, it involves, generally speaking the whole structuralist and poststructuralist phenomenon and its effects on the world of intellect. Briefly, it is alleged that the so-called structuralists (often called poststructuralists [in the United States]), the thinkers whose intellectual ascendancy goes back to the mid-sixties, have more or less discredited the ideological and metaphysical foundations of the modern age: they have rendered inoperative the values inherited from the Enlightenment and made...