The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster comprises three novels: City of Glass, Ghosts,
and The Locked Room,
published in 1985-1986. The novels are considered a masterpiece of postmodern literature, reason enough in itself to read them, I suppose, but I discovered the trilogy when a friend recommended it to me, saying that reading it felt like having your brain gently stroked. That's a pretty great recommendation!
Once I started writing this review, I found myself, not for the first time, wishing I had attended some English Lit classes. For example, what's the difference between modernism and postmodernism? A quick google search failed to yield a simple definition, but apparently modernist works are based between late 1800s and the Second World War, and postmodernism appeared on the scene after that. The University of Turku study guide places the cutoff at 1960, but apparently some definition lean towards 1980. Here's a helpful article at Owlcation.com
When I think of modernist works of literature, writers like Joyce, Kafka, and Proust come to mind. Postmodernists . . . well, I think of Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the more experimental science fiction of the time (John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar,
anyone?). Both movements aimed to create a new kind of novel. Modernists brought us unreliable narrators, stream-of-conciousness, and experimental structures. Postmodern novels seem to focus even more on playing with the novel form, metafiction, and an ironic point-of-view. Many postmodern works feel a bit empty to me, like intellectual exercises rather than an actual story meant to touch the reader on an emotional level. Sometimes they come across as pretentious and needlessly complicated, sometimes enjoyable in the way that I enjoy a solving a puzzle. For me, The New York Trilogy
landed in the latter category.
Oh yeah, spoilers ahead :)
For me, City of Glass
was the hardest of the novels to wrap my mind around. A bit about the plot: pulp writer Daniel Quinn takes a case meant for Paul Auster the detective and begins investigating Peter Stillman the elder because Stillman's daughter-in-law suspects he is coming to kill his son Peter Stillman the younger, whom he kept isolated from the world as a child because of some crackpot theories about the Tower of Babel.
First you have to figure out the characters: there's Daniel Quinn, the detective story writer who answers a wrong number and begins investigating a case meant for Paul Auster, the detective who is also a writer. This Paul Auster isn't the author of the novel, though. And then there's the narrator who is telling the story, who is a friend of Paul Auster, the detective-writer and is telling the story because Auster gave him the red notebook Quinn left behind and had written the story in. Confused yet? Yup.
Paul Auster the detective and Daniel Quinn seem to be mirror characters in several ways:
Detective who is also a writer / pulp writer who takes on the role of detective
Happily married with a son/ Alone, son dead
In control of his life/ Life feels empty, suffering from writer's block
The further you read, the more you start to question whether Auster the detective is even real, or only a side of Quinn's personality. In the beginning of the book Quinn wishes he were more like the fictional detective he writes about, and very conveniently the opportunity for a Noble Quest presents itself. And speaking about quests, Daniel Quinn, who takes his quest to protect Peter Stillman the younger to an absurd level, is very similar to a certain Don Quixote, and they both share the initials D. Q.. Just to make sure the reader gets it, Auster the detective/writer is writing an article on the identity of the author of Cervantes' Don Quixote. According to him, there are several possible authors for Don Quixote, and there are several possible authors for City of Glass. (In case you missed the Quixote connection the first time, you should read that bit again. If you've been taking City of Glass Very Seriously, you might feel a bit offended.) There might have been a lot more nods to Don Quixote, since I read the book as a teen and passionately hated the title character, I don't really recall it all that well. (Not about to read it again. Walden's been on my reading list for a while, though.)
What about the title, City of Glass? Glass is fragile, and there certainly are fragile people in the story. It's also transparent, maybe that has something to do with being watched or the reader watching the characters or Quinn watching Stillman? And there's glass as in looking glass. There's a lot of mirror characters here, Quinn/Auster and the two Stillman the elders at the train station, Quinn/Don Quixote. I dunno.
I did enjoy the whole playing-with-languge thing in the bit where Quinn reads about Stillman's theory and I found the plot interesting enough that I wanted to see where it was going, but on the whole I failed to connect with Quinn or the other characters enough that I could say I liked the book. I appreciate it for its twisty-turny puzzle of a plot and for making me think, but do I want to read it again or anything else by Auster? Not really.
In Ghosts, we have another private eye named Blue investigating a man named Black on the behalf of a man named White and so on. Everybody's named after colours, and there's some (pseudo?)philosophical stuff about what colours are associated with. Turns out that Black and White are the same person, shocker. Once again the private eye becomes lost in another persons life. And there's that bit about how writing's a lonely job and how a writer doesn't have a life of his own or even really exist. That probably has something to do with the title.
I really liked the conversation that Blue had with Black about how real-life anecdotes are meaningful as metaphors because they're true. I have no idea if the events mentioned are indeed true (the one about Whitman's brain, for example), but they're fascinating and maybe even say something about how a writer's mind works. I collect weird little tales like that, and a lot of writers I've read about do too. Maybe it's about how people understand things through stories. Here, again, I'm unsure if Blue is actually a real person. In the end Black says that Blue was necessary and important to get this far and that he knows the story by heart even if he hasn't read it. Is Blue only a part of the whole Black/White organism, like a character in a story, doomed to be manipulated by the author?
The Locked Room was my favourite in the trilogy. Again, we have the narrator, a a journalist with literary aspirations, who unwittingly becomes a detective when his childhood friend Fanshawe disappears and bequeathes to him a closetful of unpublished manuscripts and his wife and son. Again, the narrator becomes lost in another man's life and almost loses himself and everything he values.
There's a neat scene at the beginning when the narrator recalls an episode who Fanshawe as a child gave a birthday present to another boy who didn't have one to bring to the party. A selfless act, right? Then we read on and we learn that Fanshawe is alive and abandoned his wife and son. The manuscripts he left become bestsellers and the narrator marries the wife and becomes the boy's father. Is this a selfless act by Fanshawe, where he gives everything to his friend, or an ultimately selfish act, because he abandons his family? The reason he gives is that he can't publish his works unless people think he's dead. Another apparently selfless act is when Fanshawe nurses his dying father in his last days. But then we see another side of Fanshawe, how he gathers experiences to write about (there's every bohemian writer cliché from moving to Paris to the apparently mandatory brothel visit). Are all his selfless acts more about experiencing things than about people?
The Locked Room raises the question of whether a writer can ever have a normal life, or is he/she always alone because he must reject his family and friends to gain the experiences a writer needs to write? Again, in the end the reader begins to suspect whether the narrator and Fanshawe are really the same person, that person killing the writer part of himself enjoy his time with his family. I'm not certain how to interpret the title. Sure, there's a locked room at the end, but there isn't really a locked room mystery here. Oh, and Peter Stillman makes an appearance. Is he the same one from City of Glass? And Quinn is mentioned, but referred to as a detective.
All the novels share a frame of the detective story, but they're not really detective stories. Most of the time the endings are open and nothing really gets resolved. It's more about playing with the idea of writing literary fiction in a pulp framework. On a thematic level, all of the novels have in common the idea of the loss of identity. The narrators appear unreliable, and the reader can't even be sure the characters exist, much less what happens to them.
Despite all of my (over)analysing, I don't feel that The New York Trilogy is a difficult book to read. Sure, you have to pay attention, but the prose is very functional and easy to read, no convoluted sentences or difficult metaphors. If you want to try Auster, the trilogy is surprisingly short, only about three hundred pages.
After reading the book I was curious about how much of it was autobiographical, so I looked up a few articles on Auster. Here's one on The Guardian
website I found interesting, in case anyone wants to check it out : https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/oct/26/fiction.fashion
Just a heads-up, seems that I can't reply to comments on the blog. I have no idea why. But feel free to leave a comment, anyway.