The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1987) Penguin Classics (2006) 308 pp
It seems that by writing these reviews I’m actually making my ignorance increasingly apparent. See, this is the first book by Paul Auster that I’ve read. Thankfully, I can (sort of) say that I’ve read three of Auster’s books as this is a “trilogy.” Here we have three pieces: “City of Glass” (1985), “Ghosts” (1986), and “The Locked Room” (1986). The three were compiled almost right away (which was the point all along) into a single work: The New York Trilogy. Indeed, even while they were being written they were referred to as The New York Trilogy. While all three are unique, each also ties to themes and even passages of another. I’d go so far as to say that in order to fully enjoy them, they should each be read and in order (and maybe read again). I feel I had the good fortune to read it in one of its newest editions with a pulp feel and cover art from Art Speigelman.
Let me first give a brief introduction to each story. Here’s my feeble attempt at a compelling blurb!
City of Glass: The first story is also the longest, coming in at 130 pages in my edition. Daniel Quinn is a mystery writer who lost his wife and young son a few years ago in an accident. Lonely, he almost feels more at home in his pen-name William Wilson, or even in his character’s persona. One late night, he gets a phone call for a Paul Auster, the detective. Quinn tells the caller he’s not the man, but then he wishes he’d have played along for a while. Fortunately, he gets his chance. Assuming the identity of Paul Auster, Quinn accepts a strange assignment involving metaphysical elements from Genesis, Don Quixote, Humpty-Dumpty, and more. The questions we ask are pulled up from the level of the story itself to the nature of story, the writing of it, etc.
Ghosts: Blue is a detective, trained by Brown. White hires Blue to spy on Black. Blue knows next to nothing about what he’s looking for, so he sets up shop in an apartment across the street from Black’s apartment in Brooklyn. Not much happens — on the outside, anyway. However, Blue is not necessarily bored. On the contrary, he comes to know himself better than before.
The Locked Room: The first-person narrator in this story is contacted by Sophie, the wife of Fanshawe, his best friend during childhood (I caught the references to Hawthorne, but I don’t know what they mean). Fanshawe has disappeared, months ago, in fact. It’s so uncharacteristic of him that the narrator and Sophie assume he’s dead. It’s been years since the narrator had any contact with Fanshawe, and he feels he doesn’t know him at all anymore. Nevertheless, shortly before he disappeared Fanshawe gave his wife all of his writings and told him to contact the narrator if something should happen to him. Turns out that the writings are brilliant, and the narrator and Sophie are falling in love.
The strange thing about the blurbs above is that they sound sort of like hard-boiled detective novels. That’s not the case though. The basics of the plot intentionally play with elements from classic crime, but these books dwell on the metaphysical. And Auster’s writing is at once clear and poetic (not always the case when dealing with books that ask questions beyond their capacity to answer).
Interestingly, just when I thought “City of Glass” and “Ghosts” were already working layers and layers above the actual stories, “The Locked Room” pulls the perspective up even further, leaving more questions.
So, how does New York play into this? First and foremost, that’s where the stories are set, for the most part. But there’s more to it, especially in “City of Glass.”
New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.
Besides presenting the city as a sort of motif within which to explore metaphysical ideas, Auster also uses this opportunity to present some of New York’s fascinating history. For example, stories about where Poe, Witman, Thoreau, and others sat and pondered, are slyly inserted into the trilogy, shedding light on the mood while presenting more questions. Tales about the architecture, in particular about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, are inserted in ways that both give a sense of place and a sense of the psychology of the character.
I was not sure what I was getting into when I opened up to the first story “City of Glass.” To be honest, I’m not sure what I got after finishing all three pieces. Indeed, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this, the answer to all of the questions I came up with were not answered. At the end of each story I found myself asking, “What about this? What about that?” Don’t most mystery novels tie up the loose ends? Is Auster just fooling with me? Believe me, though, I was grinning while I was asking those questions. These stories are unsatisfying in the most satisfying way. Where most mysteries end up falling short of the reader’s expectations when full disclosure is made, these excellent pieces allow the reader to keep on searching.