I just finished reading, back-to-back, Oakley Hall's Warlock (1958) and Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (1985-86). To say that there is no obvious connection between the two works is perhaps one of the year's more blatant understatements. And I certainly didn't have anything particular in mind when I picked up Auster after finishing Hall.
Still, Hall and Auster--despite their considerable differences in style and narrative technique--join forces in interesting ways when it comes to linking genre and identity. Both Warlock and The New York Trilogy play with genre conventions: Warlock turns the legendary figure of the Western gunslinger inside out, while The New York Trilogy offers multiple deconstructions of the private eye. As Ray Davis rightly notes, "Warlock remains very much a Western," whereas The New York Trilogy repeatedly plunges the mystery format into a state of collapse. Hall asks the reader to think about the stories (some wild, some not) that transform Clay Blaisedell into what another character repeatedly calls a "plaster saint," to be sure, but Auster turns his deliberately absurd situations into far more explicit reflections on the nature of narrative itself.
In both cases, though, genre conventions are inimical to selfhood. The appropriately-named Clay, for example, finds himself pushed-and-pulled among the heroic pose demanded of the Marshal, the core humanity that is also his weakness (crucially, when he allows himself to be badly beaten by the senile General Peach), and his guilt. How can someone painfully aware that he is not a hero survive his own public image? Auster pushes things further in The New York Trilogy, where the self disappears far more literally. All three "detectives" mislay themselves in the process of seeking the truth about others, whether by apparently vanishing into the ether, discovering that detective and suspect are one and the same, or finding that the "real world" of human relationships cannot withstand the weight of the past. The gamesmanship here is considerably more advanced: the narrator of the final novella turns out to be the author of the first two; Quinn, the protagonist of the first novella, is confused with a detective named "Paul Auster," who in turn has been confused with a writer named Paul Auster; Blue, watching and being watched by Black, discovers that they have taken the same notes; the final narrator, a successful but undistinguished writer, finds himself pulled into the identity of the missing Fanshawe. It's not just that the conventions of the detective novel fall apart when faced with the possibility of an unresolvable mystery, but that the detective himself loses all coherence. In Hall and, to a far greater extent, Auster, genre offers comfort in one hand (the promise and pleasure of predictability--a world that functions "properly") and takes it away in another (the fragility of narrative conventions in the face of chaos).