The Limits of Control – Narrative Perspective in Abbott, Auster, & Lethem

The Limits of Control: Narrative Perspective in Abbott, Auster, and Lethem

The narrative perspectives in Megan Abbott, Paul Auster, and Jonathan Lethem serve as a reflection of their protagonists whose identities are fluid, which allows them to navigate worlds to which they are foreign.  The limits of their respective points of view allow us a specific look into how they respond to those worlds and how their identity defines them.  The narrator of Abbott’s Queenpin never reveals her real name in order to protect herself from Gloria Denton and to stay in control of the narrative, which leaves the reader with a personal perspective, albeit one without concrete detail.  Auster’s City of Glass follows writer Daniel Quinn as he moves between his own identity, that of Auster, and the narrator of his detective novels Max Work, all causing his eventual lost sense of identity.  Finally, Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn is narrated by Lionel Essrog, whose engagement in a detective story structure is altered by his Tourette syndrome, as the illness becomes synonymous with his personality and self-identity.

Megan Abbott’s Queenpin follows the unnamed narrator as she works for Gloria Denton, attempting to outwit her and everyone else in their corner of the mob world.  The narrator is unnamed to the reader, however, she is named to the characters around her.  She purposefully loses herself in the fluidity of identity provided by working for the mob.  For instance, early into the narrator’s time with Gloria she says: “By week two, I was going to a bank with an ID that said Coral Meeker and emptying a safe-deposit box” (Abbott 18).  Close to the end of the novel, she states: “No one knew my real name to find me” (Abbott 174).  In addition, the narrator makes clear her identity is one that can change depending on situation, so that one identity is not necessarily enough.  During a tense confrontation with Gloria, the narrator explicitly refers to her own face as a mask stating she “matched her mask for mask” (Abbott 79).  Moreover, the narrator is confronted by Amos Mackey at the end of the novel.  To avoid his suspicion she further employs the feminine aspect of her identity because, in her words, “I gave him my best walk, half class, half pay-broad. If you can twist those two tightly, fellas don’t know what hit ‘em. They can’t peg you” (Abbott 177).  Nevertheless, the narrator’s distinct lack of a concrete identity and personality is not necessarily always an advantage.  Having spent a great deal of time emulating Gloria, the narrator risks losing herself in the emulation. Specifically, after the narrator willingly takes a punch from Vic she literally has to put on a mask to go out in public seeing herself become more and more like Gloria.  When she cakes her face “with the makeup leaving only slits for eyes, it was like that face was gone and in its place was something else. Someone else. I knew who else” (Abbott 88).  Further than that, the narrator looks at Gloria and remarks: “Were those my eyes? Would they be?” (Abbott 89).  Even though she does retain a sense of her original identity in the end, as well as evades the suspicion of anyone and particularly that of Mackey, the narrator is still lost.  In the final line of the novel, the narrator transfers her identity on over to Mackey, as once she gave it to Gloria, telling him: “I’m your girl” (Abbott 180).  Whereas the narrator of Queenpin knows her identity despite giving over control to others, the narrator in City of Glass completely loses himself in the identity of others.

City of Glass by Paul Auster is told through use of a subjective third-person perspective and concerns the fluid nature of its main character Daniel Quinn’s identity.  In fact, after becoming Paul Auster following a wrong number to his apartment, he slowly loses himself in this other identity.  To infiltrate the world in which he attempts playing detective, Quinn must “tell himself that he [is] no longer Daniel Quinn” but is “Paul Auster now” and starts to acclimate himself to the “strictures of that transformation” (Auster 98).  On the one hand, he embraces the shift in identity.  On the other hand, he finds his sense of self decentered, which in turn lessens his control over the narrative.  Later, Quinn even goes so far as to take on qualities of his own fictional character, Max Work.  This signifies an even larger fracturing of identity than the dual personalities between which Quinn balances.  He ends up “momentarily confusing himself with Max Work” (Auster 101) when in a situation requiring him to seem more like a hardboiled detective out of fiction than he does naturally.  The lines between his different assumed personalities and his actual identity are all but eradicated.  Eventually, Quinn is so ingrained in the act of pretending to be Auster that “even the truth, would be an invention, a mask to hide behind and keep him safe” (Auster 117).  By the time the novel ends and he finishes writing in his red notebook, Quinn has disappeared, figuratively and literally; he is both nowhere to be found and also completely disoriented.  Quinn believes his journey “had been a bridge to another place in his life, and now that he had crossed it, its meaning had been lost” (Auster 200).  Like the character Max Work in his fiction, Quinn no longer exists after the novel has finished.  Before finishing the red notebook, the narrator says that Quinn “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 . . . It was gone, he was gone, everything was gone” (Auster 191).  Contrarily, the narrator of Motherless Brooklyn does not lose his identity, but instead comes to make sense of the one with which he already exists.

In Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn the story is narrated by Lionel Essrog, whose Tourette’s complicates the regular structure of a hardboiled detective story.  Lionel’s perspective throughout the novel is framed by his desire and efforts to control his outbursts, effectively controlling his identity.  Without control, he is relegated to being whoever people see, which is usually defined by his illness.  Right from the beginning Lionel makes us aware of his many identities: “I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster” (Lethem 1).  Immediately, our narrator lets us in on the fact he has Tourette syndrome, further clarifying Lionel’s self-awareness.  As opposed to being a fractured individual with different personalities, Lionel battles against the Tourette’s deciding his identity.  Although he experiences a loss of control, it is the act of his trying to gain control which the narrative presents.  From the start, Lionel states “[c]ontext is everything” (Lethem 1), which frames the proceeding quest towards his resolution of Frank Minna’s murder, as well as the comprehension of his own mental illness.  Motherless Brooklyn is less the story of a hardboiled plot and more the character study of what makes Lionel uniquely fit for acting as a detective.  Initially he doesn’t fit the necessary definitions of a detective according to the genre.  At first, when Lionel goes back to Kimmery’s apartment his struggle becomes further exacerbated by the fact his Tourette’s prevents him from being the typically confident, masculine type of detective the genre expects.  Lionel describes his speech as “thickened and stupid, like those of a defeated boxer in his dressing room, or a Method actor’s, while playing a defeated boxer” (Lethem 207).  However, quickly he says that his “Tourette’s brain preferred precision, sharper edges. I felt it waking” (Lethem 207).  While many times the illness makes Lionel lose control the fact he focuses so much on his own tics and gestures likewise forces him to notice similar behaviour in others, so that in a strange way his illness gives him an odd upper hand for detective work.  The realization of his Tourette’s being strangely beneficial to Lionel becomes evident to him once he sees the city as having symptoms similar to his own.  At first, he recognizes “New York is a Tourettic city… this great communal scratching and counting and tearing is a definite symptom” (Lethem 113).  Later, Lionel connects more aspects of city life to his illness by pointing out a “vaguely Tourettic aspect to the New York City subway” (Abbott 237).  This universal recognition about the city leads to a more particular one about himself.  Lionel starts to apply his own awareness to the fact that he may possibly be “a detective on a case” (Lethem 132).  Already aware of his tics, Lionel starts using this knowledge to further his supposed case.  Recognizing the similarities between guilty behaviour and his own tics Lionel claims: “And the guilty soul, like the Tourettic, wears a kind of clown face – the Smokey Robinson kind, with tear tracks underneath” (Lethem 284).  In the end, the case is still not of primary importance.  Rather it is Lionel’s identity that takes precedence.  Through the structure of a hardboiled detective novel he discovers the use of his syndrome as a tactic allows him stable identity; the illness need not define him, he can define it and use it as a tool of understanding.  After the case is over, Lionel sees that Tourette’s is a “way of touching the world, handling it, covering it with confirming language” (Lethem 307).  Instead of losing himself completely in other identities, or having to hide his own, Lionel’s unique narration gives insight into how an individual relates to the world even under his circumstances.

Abbott, Auster, and Lethem each explore identity as a fluid concept by having their protagonists move from one identity to the next.  The narrator of Abbott’s Queenpin avoids detection from Gloria Denton and stays in control of the narrative, however, she does so at the expense of personal identity and becomes the person she is required by situation.  In City of Glass, Auster’s protagonist Daniel Quinn bounces from being Paul Auster to paralleling his own fictional detective character Max Work until finally losing himself in the narrative of a supposedly real detective story.  Lastly, Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn follows narrator Lionel Essrog on a hardboiled mystery while he deals with Tourette’s, which ultimately takes him from a loss of control over his personality to an understanding of his self-identity.  The protagonists of each novel illustrate how identity is constructed, as well as its purpose within the structure of the hardboiled fiction genre in stories which challenge the effects and function of narrative perspective.

Works Cited

Abbott, Megan.  Queenpin.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.  Print.

Auster, Paul.  City of Glass.  New York: Penguin Books, 1987.  Print.

Lethem, Jonathan.  
Motherless Brooklyn.  New York: Random House, 1999.  Print.

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