The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (book review)

Happy Monday!

ANNOUNCEMENT: Don’t forget to check in tomorrow for Brad Evan’s introductory post to his Tuesday column.

After reading Davacallaro’s Cyberpunk and Cyberculture I was in the mood for something post-modern.  What I found was The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster whichny trilogy  is a set of three mystery stories, the volume I have has all three stories in one book: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room.  

 

City of Glass: The protagonist, an author William Wilson, gets repeated phone calls from a wrong number that insists to speak with the detective Paul Auster.  Eventually Wilson, who already writes under a pen name of Daniel Quinn, finally accepts the identity of Private Eye Paul Auster and takes a very strange and challenging case.  

Ghosts: Blue is a Private Eye who was trained Brown, then hired by White to spy on Black.  Blue takes the case because he needs the work but the seemingly easy job becomes much larger than anticipated.  

The Locked Room: The protagonist, the nameless Narrator, is a writer who can’t write fiction but when he gets a letter from his childhood best friend’s wife about Fanshawe’s death, Fanshawe was the Narrator’s childhood friend, and instructions to judge whether the late writer’s works were worth posthumous publishing he agrees to a task that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

 

Conclusion: It’s a fair warning to say that it’s best to go into this book blind as it has potential to be an extremely memorable detective fiction experience as the mysteries are as likely to surprise the reader as they do the protagonists.  Besides, what’s  the fun of reading detective fiction if you already know the mysteries?

 

**SPOILERS BELOW**

Genres: Mystery, Detective, Writer’s fiction, meta-detective, post-modern, soft-boiled detective

Favourite Quotes/Scenes:

City of Glass:

  • “If Wilson was an illusion, he nevertheless justified the lives of the other two. If Wilson did not exist, he nevertheless was the bridge that allowed Quinn to pass from himself into [Max Work; the main detective of Quinn’s serial detective series]. And little by little, Work had become a presence in Quinn’s life, his interior brother, his comrade in solitude.” p. 6
  • “What interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to theworld but their relation to other stories.” p. 7
  • “The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and  the detective are interchangeable.” p. 8  

Ghosts:

  • “For knowledge comes slowly, and when it comes, it is often at a great personal expense.” p. 136
  • “Words are transparent for him, great windows that stand between him and the world, and until now they have never impeded his view, have never even seemed to be there.” p. 146
  • “[Walt Whitman’s Brain] arrives at the laboratory, and just as they’re about to work on it, one of the assistants drops it on the floor.
    Did it break?
    Of course it broke.  A brain isn’t very tough, you know. It splattered all over the plac, and that was that. The brain of America’s greatest poet got swept up and thrown out with the garbage.” p. 173
  • “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he’s there, he’s not really there.” p. 175(1)

The Locked Room:

  • “Sophie smiled at this – whether from happiness or disappointment I could never tell…” p. 208
  • “Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them…” p. 221
  • “I admit that I got caught up in it all. One thing kept leading to another, and before I knew it a small industry had been set in motion. It was a kind of delirium, I think. I felt like an engineer pushing buttons and pulling levers, scrambling from valve chambers to circuit boxes, adjusting a part here, devising and improvement there, listening to the contraption hum and chug and purr, oblivious to everything but the din of my brainchild. I was the mad scientist who had invented the great hocus-pocus machine, and the more smoke that poured from it, the more noise it produced, the happier I was.” p. 231
  • “My true place in the world, it turned out, was somewhere beyond myself, and if that place was inside me, it was also unlocatable. This was the tiny hole between self and not-self, and for the first time in my life I saw this nowhere as the exact centre of the world.” p. 232

 

Take Away:

Paul Auster uses a format of writing detective fiction that wraps a mystery around a mystery in the same way shows and movies have an “A story” and a “B story”.  This wrapping a mystery in a mystery creates a sense of duality while the main character tries to solve the “A Mystery” there’s the presence of the underlying doubt of the “B mystery”.  The common linking “B Mystery” between the three books is: Who is the narrator?

As the Narrator mentions in The Locked Room, he claims authorship over the three books as a way to understand what he experienced however exactly what the Narrator experiences isn’t entirely clear despite the claim of authenticity throughout the three stories.  What I believe is the more important takeaways is not necessarily the mystery presented on paper with regard to the characters and their identities or their motives but what’s the reader’s identity and/or motivation(s)?

The way the NY trilogy does this is by challenging the reader’s expectations for a dective novel, if the reader isn’t satisfied with the ending of City of Glass they will be less likely to continue.  For me, when confronted with the ending of City of Glass I was plagued with questions of “what is my motivation for continuing to read?” This was the primary question in mind because the end of City of Glass sealed the characters in a sort of glass case where we would never know things like “What if Quinn followed Stillman Sr.’s twin?” or “what is the story behind Virgina and Stillman Jr.’s marriage?”, or ultimately “What happened to Quinn?”    

My personal motivations for continuing, beautifully tight and thoughtfully constructed prose aside, was for the questions about the nature of identity and how a writer’s work affects the relationship between a writer and their identity that the NY Trilogy poses. The first book tackles the ideas of what makes an object an object, as in “What happens when a thing no longer  performs its function? Is it still the thing, or has it become something else?”(p. 77) and by answering that question in a sort of way with “The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and  the detective are interchangeable.”(p. 8).  The Second book tackles the question by asking, Who is living the life? The writer or the writer’s work? And does the work of the writer compose a part of that identity, if so does it go on to live it’s own life or is it always a proxy of the writer who wrote it?  These first two books lay the groundwork for the third book to then ask the ultimate question: What does it mean to be alive and do the dead have rights? Which is exercised through the process of the Narrator choosing to publish Fanshawe’s work.

All three books have an ending that expresses a sort of letting go or catharsis.  Quinn lets go of Quinn the writer and widower, Blue lets go of the detective and soon to be married man, and the Narrator lets go of the hunt for Fanshawe’s ghost.  However the main and maybe defining detail to the end of The Locked Room is the Narrator has the most and least obvious chance for redemption. Quinn goes on to be a detective (or so it is implied), Blue likely goes off to live a simple life in hiding, but what does the Narrator go to? A life built and partly sustained by the ghost of Fanshawe? Will the Narrator continue to write? In the Narrator’s case it seems that his obsession didn’t completely destroy his identity as obsessions destroyed the other two protagonists, but we can also fairly ask the question: Did the Narrator ever have an identity to destroy in the first place and if not what’s it say about the reader who tries to answer the questions posed in these books originally: who is the narrator?

Don’t forget to check in tomorrow for Brad Evan’s introductory post to his Tuesday column.

Footnotes:

  1. My actual life.  No complaints, though.
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