[(essay date summer 2002) In the following essay, Walker chronicles the transformation of identity through criminal acts in Auster's work, highlighting the author's tendency to subvert familiar literary genres.]
I had come to the limit of myself, and there was nothing left.--Paul Benjamin, Squeeze Play
Quinn let out a deep sigh. He had come to the end of himself. He could feel it now, as though a great truth had finally dawned in him. There was nothing left.--Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy
Beneath the often playful and chaotic surface, there is a sense of deep meaning in the fiction of Paul Auster that concerns itself primarily with the position of the individual in contemporary society--and more specifically, with how (or whether) that individual can free him- or herself from dominant hegemonic systems to achieve a measure of self-determination. The key to this question lies in the interplay in Auster's texts between two opposed forms of disciplinary power. The first operates on behalf of the dominant ideological structure of society, the patriarchy, often represented in Auster through the rather literal embodiment of father/son relationships. The second is a particular notion of self-discipline that many of Auster's characters willingly subject themselves to, and that at moments seems to offer genuine hope for some form of freedom.1 The interaction of these two forces constitutes the obsessive subtext to which Auster continually returns, and the points of crisis in his texts when they most significantly emerge are often marked by the occurrence of crime. Thus, my central concern here will be the moments and images of criminality that recur with startling frequency in Auster's fiction.
The institutional, patriarchal discipline that serves as the dominant force in Auster's fiction is largely identical to that described by Michel Foucault, most particularly in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. This is the "discipline" constituted by all those institutions and systems in industrial society that impose on the individual "an uninterrupted, constant coercion, supervising the processes of the activity rather than its result and exercised according to a codification that partitions as closely as possible time, space, movement" (137). Foucault suggests that as a result of the continual exposure to disciplinary institutions--not merely the prison, but also the school, the military, the hospital, even the "normative" space of domesticity--the identities of individuals are in fact constructed by the whole operation of this "carceral society," with its "procedures that constitute the individual as effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge" (192). In such a society, which defines and categorizes everything, it is impossible to escape being defined and categorized; even forms of resistance and disorder (including, of course, criminal acts) merely provide additional ways for the individual to be labeled. Ultimately, we become ourselves instruments of discipline, policing ourselves in the expectation that we will be policed.
This vision of the self as nothing more than a product of external discipline, acting on behalf of the social...